Cubs

Theo Epstein riding the wave, preparing for when Cubs might crash: ‘Baseball karma is real’

Theo Epstein riding the wave, preparing for when Cubs might crash: ‘Baseball karma is real’

Sports Illustrated splashed the Cubs across another regional cover, this time calling them “The Last Great American Sports Story.” There’s Javier Baez, arms raised in triumph, about to jump onto home plate and into the awaiting mosh pit after a walk-off win on Mother’s Day at Wrigley Field.       

Sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals – two battle-tested, playoff-caliber teams the Cubs might face in October – heightened the delirious feelings out in the bleachers, on social media and within certain segments of the media.

But Theo Epstein’s job is to ignore the hype and prepare for the crash, especially when the president of baseball operations watches a 25-6 team exceed even the sky-high preseason expectations.

“This is not baseball reality,” Epstein said before Tuesday’s 8-7 victory over the San Diego Padres. “Baseball reality is it’s really hard to win a single major-league game. That’s why we celebrate it so much.” 

The Cubs are handling all phases of the game right now and must be wearing out the new Celebration Room in their tricked-out clubhouse, getting to the middle of May without back-to-back losses and pushing their run differential to plus-103.

The National League’s deepest, most patient lineup knocked out a rookie starter (Cesar Vargas) after four innings and 92 pitches, generating 12 hits and five walks against an overmatched last-place team. Jon Lester (4-1, 1.96 ERA) didn’t have his best stuff and had to grind through six innings, but he pieced together another quality start for a rotation that began the day leading the majors with a 2.26 ERA. 

The night before a doubleheader, star manager Joe Maddon pulled the bullpen levers, using six different relievers, including Pedro Strop (who got Matt Kemp to fly out to right field with the bases loaded to end the seventh inning) and Hector Rondon (now 7-for-7 in save chances with 20 strikeouts against 41 batters faced). It looked like a much closer game than it actually felt after pinch-hitter Alex Dickerson hit a grand slam off Adam Warren with two outs in the eighth inning. 

“We know we’re in a stretch right now where winning seems far easier than it actually is,” Epstein said. “We know there’s going to be a stretch – probably a long stretch this year – where winning even one game seems virtually impossible. That’s just the nature of baseball. We’re not blinded by it. 

“We’ve been saying in the office: ‘We’re in a tree right now.’ We want to stay up there as long as we can, but we’re going to get down at some point.”

The Cubs didn’t stop after shocking the baseball world last year, winning 97 games and two playoff rounds and then doubling down by spending almost $290 million on free agents. The trade deadline won’t be a time to be cautious and worry too much about the future when this team has a chance to make history. 

“We still have vulnerabilities,” Epstein said. “We still have areas where we need to get better. We still have challenges and more adversity to come. We’re going to suffer injuries. We’re going to suffer downturns in performance. We’re going to be stretched thin. We’re going to go through stretches of bad luck. We’re going to go through stretches of bad performance. We’re going to run into really hot teams. 

“We want to stay as locked in as we are right now. But the game is very humbling and we’re aware that time is coming when there are going to be great challenges. And we almost look forward to it, because I think that’s when you find out what you’re made of.”

Where last season felt like a joyride for a front office that projected around 85 wins if everything broke right, a group of rookies that didn’t know any better and a $155 million pitcher who expected 2016 to be the year where the Cubs went all-in, only a World Series title will satisfy them now.            

“Baseball karma is real,” Epstein said. “When you see some of the stuff written about us in the winter, and you see some of the World Series odds and things like that for a team that is a defending third-place team and hasn’t done anything yet, and there are some individuals who haven’t proven they can accomplish certain things back-to-back seasons, and we’re still a losing team during my tenure overall in Chicago (322-357), you get uncomfortable. 

“Hopefully, at the end of the year, we’ll look up and say: ‘Hey, we earned what people are saying about us.’”

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.