Target practice: Cubs end spring training as the hunted


Target practice: Cubs end spring training as the hunted

MESA, Ariz. – “Everybody’s going to be on our helmet.”

Within all their layers of management, the Cubs don’t have an official Department of T-shirts. But Dexter Fowler nailed it on the head with that quote, putting context to Jason Heyward vs. Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants after an offseason of hype.

If “Embrace The Target” became Joe Maddon’s go-to slogan for deflating pressure in camp – with a bull’s-eye designed onto the front of those T-shirts – then “Buckle Your Chinstrap” might be the takeaway as the Cubs leave Arizona.

The buzz around this team is so loud that the Cubs set a new spring-training attendance record (226,163) during Wednesday’s 10-0 win over the Colorado Rockies at Sloan Park, averaging more than 15,000 fans a game during Cactus League play.

“We just have to keep…it…to…ourselves,” said Anthony Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman slowing down the last four words for emphasis. “We’re genuinely cheering for each other. It’s not like we’re out there doing stupid stuff to show up the other team.”

It is not a “narrative” when Cubs players know they are going to get everyone’s best shot this year and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein is sensitive to the idea of organizational arrogance, saying this is a third-place team competing to get back into the playoffs.

[MORE: Why Joe Maddon doesn't need an iPad in the Cubs dugout]

Camp Maddon featured mimes, karaoke jams, two cubs from Bearizona Wildlife Park and that sledgehammer-swinging motivational speaker who smashed the cement brick resting on the manager’s chest.

Plus, a surreal presidential race where Donald Trump cryptically threatens the Ricketts family. Coming off a winter where Heyward signs with the Cubs and someone posts on Twitter an image of his red No. 22 St. Louis Cardinals jersey on fire.

The manager is right when he says that the overheated nature of social media warps perception. And Maddon – who definitely isn’t a micromanager – pretty much just lets gonzo strength-and-conditioning coach Tim Buss do his thing before the team stretch.

“I’m a little bit more old-school, too,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “But you know I respect (Maddon’s) philosophy. I’m a guy that likes to get to the field and get to work sometimes and probably try to focus on the game more than maybe some other things. But I respect that (approach). I do my best to fit in.

“Sometimes it’s fun, because you kind of actually take a lot of pressure off your shoulders and see what he’s doing. I (also) like to get to work sometimes and take it a little bit more seriously.

“But it’s OK. Not everybody’s the same. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish over here – (take) everybody’s different personalities (and) pull the same way.”

Jon Lester also didn’t always know how to react while pitching for the tightly wound Boston Red Sox against Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East.

“I don’t think you could ever have a bad vibe with Joe,” said Lester, who threw five scoreless innings and hit a two-run homer against Colorado as the Cubs finished with a 10-17 Cactus League record. “It’s always a positive day.

“That’s one thing I’ve always respected about Joe: No matter where we’re at in the season or where we’re at in the standings – or how we’re playing or how bad we’re playing – it’s always positive. He always brings a positive vibe to the clubhouse. That makes our job a lot easier. We don’t have to make that up.”

[MORE: Jake Arrieta ready to put his game face on]

The New York Times, New York Post, Washington Post and USA Today all published stories with Mesa datelines, while Sports Illustrated put the Cubs on a regional baseball-preview cover.

“All the other extracurricular stuff,” Lester said, “is good for some of these guys. It’s something that a lot of us have gone through at different points in our career (with) the hype involved and the hoopla. I think you have to go through stuff like this in order to make yourself better.

“Nothing’s affected them so far, so I don’t see this effecting them. We had bears (out here). You never know what might show up at Cubs camp or Wrigley Field. It keeps us on our toes."

Only these Cubs could have planned-in-advance goodwill gestures (a coach's son bringing out the lineup card for his birthday or welcoming an RBI youth team to practice) and make you wonder if they were trolling the White Sox after the Adam LaRoche retirement fiasco. (They weren't.)

Maybe Jake Peavy is still fuming over how long it took Kyle Schwarber to stop listening to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and step into the batter’s box before the Cubs swept the Giants last August. Whatever.

Can’t wait to see how The Best Fans in Baseball react to bat flips at Busch Stadium. Can’t wait to hear the boos in Pittsburgh after Jake Arrieta mocked Pirates fans on Twitter, telling them the blackout atmosphere wouldn't matter in the wild-card game.

The Cubs are going to rip up this game's unwritten rules and get chased by baseball’s fun police.

“Enjoy it,” Rizzo said. “Show the emotions. Show it for each other. When I’m in the box, I feel like Heyward and Dex and ‘Ske’ (assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske) and 'KB' (Kris Bryant) – they’re all up there with me. So when I get that big knock, I’m excited for them, because they’re excited for me.

“I talk to a lot of guys around this league. And they say it looks like you guys are having so much fun.”

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. 

They began play Sunday night with a chance to sweep their division rivals in St. Louis and sitting in first place in the National League Central, percentage points up on the Milwaukee Brewers. A +100 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157) and Boston Red Sox (+102) 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 24-12 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.

Cubs optimistic Javy Baez avoided serious injury on hit-by-pitch

Cubs optimistic Javy Baez 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. Baez will still undergo X-rays to be sure there is nothing more sinister at play, but for now, it looks as if he has avoided serious injury.

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 was 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 seaosn (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.

If the Cubs are going to be without Baez for any length of time, it could be a huge blow to a team that was just hitting its stride.