Cubs

Split decision: Your first-place Cubs?

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Split decision: Your first-place Cubs?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Posted: 9:15 p.m. Updated: 10:55 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

At the end of a 13-hour shift, Mike Quade collapsed into a chair in the interview room. What was left to say?

The manager had just watched 20 innings of baseball. He had promised that his team would grind it out and play the game the right way. Really, he couldnt complain after the Cubs split Wednesdays doubleheader against the San Diego Padres.

The Cubs can sleep in Thursday and wake up tied for first place, the first time theyve been there since Aug. 6, 2009.

Im a race-track guy they dont pay anybody at the 16th pole, Quade said after a 5-4 loss to the San Diego Padres. Weve got to work some things out. We still have to get better. But Im just so pleased with the effort.

Were doing enough good things that I am still very optimistic for down the road.

At these prices, you should still expect more.

And if momentum is the next days starting pitcher, the 9-9 Cubs will keep stalling like this: Theyve hit the .500 mark nine different times already. Its the first time in franchise history theyve started the season that way.

First pitch for Game 1 was at 1:21 p.m. It ended at 5:20. Game 2 began at 6:07. Thats 47 minutes of turnaround time.

The buzz from a walk-off win faded almost immediately. Ryan Ludwick drove James Russells 73 mph curveball into the left-field bleachers for a two-run homer in the second inning.

Russell could be a nice situational reliever for this team, as he was last year, but the 25-year-old left-hander is miscast in the rotation.

It doesnt matter, he said. Whatever they want to use me as, Im here for it."

The Cubs never sold this as anything more than two spot starts. Quade has been upfront: In my heart of hearts, hes a bullpen guy. Russell needs to improve his changeup and could use more experience to matchup better against right-handed hitters.

The damage from Russells two starts, both losses: nine runs on 14 hits across 5 23 innings. It looks like the Cubs still need to identify a fifth starter until Randy Wells andor Andrew Cashner get healthy. Will Russell get another shot next week?

Thats a great question, Quade said. Right now Im so baseball-ed out. I honest to God havent even had a chance to think about it.

Whoever gets this opportunity will need more run support, because the Cubs wont win every one-run game. Reed Johnson ended Game 1 with a walk-off homer and went 3-for-4 in Game 2.

But afterward he was being asked about getting thrown out at third on his RBI double in the fifth. If there were no outs or two outs, or if it was later in the game, he wouldnt have gone. It interrupted the flow and then the Cubs starting hitting. They came away with only two runs that inning.

If I had a crystal ball and I knew that three guys behind me were going to get base hits, Johnson said, I would have just held up. But I got around second and knew I was in trouble.

Teammates love Johnson, the image of the entire front of his uniform covered in dirt after that slide. He remembers how it was in 2008, when that 97-win team turned every home game into a Wrigleyville block party.

The Cubs announced Wednesdays combined attendance as 70,639. That figure doesnt come close to the number of actual bodies in the seats, or the seagulls fighting over pizza crust one bird dropped onto the field in the middle of Game 1. (Umpire Phil Cuzzi picked it up and tossed it into the Cubs dugout.)

Fans in Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee can also say theyre rooting for first-place teams. The last time the Cubs won the division, they went 55-26 at Wrigley Field. Eventually theyll have to start closing out series to gain separation. But theres no doubt theyve earned Thursdays off-day.

Its like the old-school National League West, Johnson said. It used to be a .500 team was leading the division, but thats not going to be the case. There are too many good teams in the division.

Were going to have to capitalize on opportunities and hopefully when we get a team down 2-0 we can get some sweeps. Thatll be huge for us, especially at home. (In 2008) we werent really all that good of a road team either. But we just won so many games at home that we were able to make that cushion for ourselves.

Box Score

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season."

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

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AP

Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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