Cubs

Setting the 'Panic City' scene for Cubs vs. Mets: Is this it for the defending NL champs?

Setting the 'Panic City' scene for Cubs vs. Mets: Is this it for the defending NL champs?

The tabloids are already asking the questions, even before the Fourth of July traffic starts, two weeks out from the All-Star Game. It’s on the New York Post’s website: “Is there anything else that can go wrong for the Mets?” And there’s this Daily News headline: “Will this week be the downfall of the 2016 Mets?”

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson delivered his “Panic City” line to the New York media last summer, right around the time Cubs manager Joe Maddon green-lit “Simon the Magician” for a performance inside Citi Field’s visiting clubhouse.

At the time, this looked like a potential National League Championship Series matchup, a made-for-TV, big-market battle between power pitchers and power hitters…maybe in 2017.

On July 2 last year, the Cubs finished off a three-game sweep in New York, giving them a 7-0 regular-season record against the Mets, who dropped to 40-40 before heading out to the West Coast to face Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke at Dodger Stadium and the defending World Series champs in San Francisco.   

The Cubs responded to getting swept by the Mets in the NLCS with a spending spree in free agency that approached $290 million, fueling World Series-or-bust, Embrace-The-Target expectations, moving to 25 games over .500 with a 9-2 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday at Great American Ball Park.

The Cubs (51-26) and Mets (40-37) will now play seven times between Thursday night in Queens and July 20 at Wrigley Field, which should give us a better idea of whether or not Alderson can pull another rabbit out of his hat at the trade deadline, if Maddon should be pressing the panic button on his bullpen phone and how realistic an October rematch might be. Setting the scene for this four-game series at Citi Field:

• The “Panic City” state of mind returned with this week’s revelations that Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard have been pitching through bone spurs in their elbows, showing how fragile New York’s championship hopes might be. This is why the Cubs have been so focused on building with young hitters, the idea that it’s too unpredictable to plan around elbows and shoulders and when pitchers might feel healthy.

The presence of Cubs coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode has almost created a cavalier attitude toward pitching and an extremely optimistic view of change-of-scenery guys and bounce-back candidates. And the Cubs understood Jon Lester had a bone chip in his left elbow when they signed him to a six-year, $155 million megadeal after the 2014 season.

But the Cubs have prioritized spending so much capital on their lineup – first-round picks, trade chips, free-agency dollars – because Theo Epstein’s regime sees hitters as more robust investments.

• The Mets saw what Ben Zobrist did for the Kansas City Royals in the World Series last October, toured him around the affluent suburbs in Westchester County and Connecticut during the offseason and even offered him a four-year contract that came with more guaranteed money ($60 million) than the deal the Cubs put together ($56 million).

Zobrist has cooled off in June (.672 OPS) after a red-hot May (1.137 OPS), but is in position to be the NL’s starting All-Star second baseman. The Mets quickly shifted gears at the winter meetings, trading a spare pitcher (Jon Niese) to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Neil Walker, who’s already hit 14 homers in his final season before free agency. The balance of power in the NL East, however, might have shifted when Daniel Murphy (.349 average, .964 OPS) – the Mr. October who crushed the Cubs in the playoffs – signed a three-year, $37.5 million deal with the Washington Nationals (who just swept a three-game series against the Mets).

• A full season of Yoenis Cespedes (18 homers, 45 RBI through 70 games this year) hasn’t dramatically changed New York’s offensive profile. The Mets entered Wednesday ranking 13th out of the NL’s 15 teams in runs scored (274, or 129 less than the Cubs). Corner infielders David Wright (neck surgery) and Lucas Duda (stress fracture in his lower back) are on the disabled list while catcher Travis d’Arnaud missed almost two months with a strained rotator cuff.

• The owners of professional sports franchises and the executives running those teams always talk about doing things the right way – and then act out of self-interest. It will be that way if the New York Yankees actually sell and the Cubs put a second-chance spin on closer Aroldis Chapman, who began this season serving a 30-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s new domestic violence policy.

The Mets already felt desperate enough to bring back Jose Reyes on a minor-league deal after he was arrested on domestic violence charges, served a 52-game suspension and got released by the Colorado Rockies. Reyes – a homegrown Met who turned 33 this month and is five years removed from his last All-Star selection – could join the team this weekend in New York.

• As a polished, left-handed college hitter, Michael Conforto certainly fit the profile as the Cubs weighed their options with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft. But the Cubs wanted Kyle Schwarber, with Epstein in particular developing a man crush on the Indiana University catcher/outfielder. The Mets grabbed Conforto with the No. 10 pick and watched the fast-track outfielder from Oregon State University become a catalyst for last year’s World Series surge. 

Well, the Mets just demoted Conforto to Triple-A Las Vegas over the weekend, another reminder to appreciate how many young players the Cubs have graduated to the big-league level, without taking it for granted (see Schwarber’s recovery from season-ending knee surgery).

“This year, I think we have a little more confidence, a little more swagger,” said Kris Bryant, the Rookie of the Year/All-Star third baseman who has lived up to the hype. “But the Mets are going to be a really good team for a long time, especially with that staff.”

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.

For now, it appears Javy Baez has avoided serious injury on hit-by-pitch

For now, it appears Javy Baez has avoided serious injury on hit-by-pitch

ST. LOUIS — Cubs nation can breathe a sigh of relief for now.

The team announced Javy Baez has a left elbow contusion after taking a 90 mph fastball off it in the third inning of Sunday night's game. He was initially scheduled for an X-ray to make sure there is nothing more sinister at play, but that was deemed not necessary throughout the course of the game and it looks as if the Cubs' dynamic young infielder has avoided serious injury.

"I'm fine. Just really sore," Baez said. "It got me really good right on the elbow. I thought the pain was gonna go away right away but kinda numbed my whole arm. We've been icing it. It feels pretty sore, but right now, I'm good."

Baez said he didn't move his arm for almost an hour after getting hit, but wasn't experiencing any numbness or lack of feeling in his left hand or fingers after the game. He didn't rule out playing in Monday night's homestand opener at  Wrigley Field.

Still, this is not what the Cubs wanted to see.

The Cubs entered play Sunday night having gone 24-12 since getting swept out of St. Louis in the first weekend of May. They were feeling good about themselves, starting to get their mojo back and playing more like the team everybody expected.

And then Baez took a fastball off the left elbow.

After a couple minute delay, Baez was led off the field and Addison Russell came in off the bench to replace him at first base.

The 25-year-old is in the midst of a breakout season for the Cubs, sitting 5th in the National League with 46 RBI and on pace for a near 30-30 season (33 homers, 29 stolen bases). 

He had slowed a bit (.175 average, .502 OPS in June) but still gives the Cubs so much energy and versatility on a daily basis with his ability to move around the infield and lineup.