‘Too early to panic,’ but John Lackey wants to see Cubs match other teams’ intensity

‘Too early to panic,’ but John Lackey wants to see Cubs match other teams’ intensity

On Monday morning, posted a story that asked: "Are .500 Cubs an Average Team?" That afternoon, the multi-screen wall in the hallway that leads from the Wrigley Field clubhouse to the home dugout showed an MLB Network segment comparing World Series hangovers between the Cubs and Cleveland Indians: "Which Team Are You More Concerned About Moving Forward?"  

The Cubs can always answer those types of questions by flashing their championship bling and reminding everyone that they still have almost 92 percent of a 162-game schedule remaining. 

If the Cubs didn't freak out about the possibility of facing Johnny Cueto, Madison Bumgarner and the even-year San Francisco Giants in an elimination game, or fold after a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, or panic down 3-1 in the World Series, then they won't sweat a four-game losing streak in the middle of April.

John Lackey didn't exactly storm into the interview room after a 6-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, turning to a Cubs media relations official as he sat down at the table and saying: "It beats working at Sears, huh?"

"It's too early to panic about anything right now," said Lackey, a three-time World Series champion. "We got, obviously, a lot of talent on this team and we'll just get into it a little bit here. The last 10 years or so, I kind of break the season up into quarters. Until you get to about 40, 50 games – we'll see where we're at then."

The 2016 Cubs played like a team on a mission, winning 25 of the season's first 31 games, building up a double-digit division lead in June and spending 180 days in first place. After the Pittsburgh Pirates swept a weekend series in Wrigleyville, Ryan Braun played the villain, getting booed before his first at-bat and then smashing a Lackey pitch into the left-field bleachers for a 2-0 lead in the first inning.

"People are going to come in here gunning for us, for sure," Lackey said. "We're the world champs, and people want to come in here and play well. We're going to have to match that intensity and play better." 

The Brewers (8-6) found the video board sweet spot and launched three homers off Lackey on a night with 37-degree wind chill. Lackey barked at home plate umpire Carlos Torres in the third inning after an Eric Thames blast flew over the basket and bounced into the left-field bleachers, making it five games in a row with a home run for the slugger who reinvented himself in South Korea.  

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After six innings, Lackey (1-2, 4.00 ERA) handed a 4-3 game over to a bullpen still taking shape. Mike Montgomery – who got the final out in a World Series Game 7 – couldn't keep it close in the eighth inning. What's supposed to be a shutdown defense got sloppy when Braun sprinted to steal third base and catcher Willson Contreras threw the ball into left field, allowing an insurance run to score.

"When you go 6-6 in the middle of the year, nobody notices," manager Joe Maddon said before the game. "You're going to see more consistent hitting as we move it along. Remember I talked about (how) it takes about a month to figure out your bullpen. We're still in the process of getting everybody comfortable out there. 

"So I think as the hitting peaks a little bit more, which it will, and we really establish getting the bullpen guys comfortable, that's when we're really going to take off."

Whether it's reacting to Milwaukee's defense, looking for a spark or playing the long game against scouting reports, Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo, two of the most dangerous hitters in the game, bunted on their own against the shift. 

"There's no panic on our side at all," Schwarber said. "We know that we're a good baseball team and we'll bounce back."

The 2016 Cubs also looked completely winded after a 24-games-in-24-days stretch that ended in the middle of July. The 2017 Cubs already have the muscle memory and can look at their ring fingers if they ever need a reminder. But the rest of Major League Baseball has also noticed the victory tour. "Embrace The Target," right?

"I'm sure that we'll turn some things around," Schwarber said. "Obviously, when you're a competitor, you want to win. That's why we're out there – we want to win. Losing's not our strong suit, I guess you would say, as baseball players. 

"Obviously, it stinks, but we have to turn the page. This happened to us last year right before the All-Star break. We hit the skids. So hopefully we're hitting it maybe early." 

How the Cubs, John Baker, are navigating the mental challenges of 2020

How the Cubs, John Baker, are navigating the mental challenges of 2020

The Cubs have spent months fortifying Wrigley Field against the outside world.

It’s supposed to be somewhere they feel safe, from the coronavirus pandemic, racial injustice, record unemployment rates. Even just for a few hours.

But even Wrigley’s ivy-covered walls aren’t impenetrable.

“I just feel like every day there’s something new,” Cubs manager David Ross said on Monday. “And I hope … our world gets back to being better in so many ways: health, society, emotionally, trying to get back to loving one another as best we can, as human beings.”

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The Cubs anticipated that mental health would be especially important this season and gave mental skills coach John Baker Tier 1 access. That way MLB’s health and safety protocols wouldn’t limit his in-person conversations with players and coaches.

“I think he’s handing it great,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “I think he deserves credit, and so do the players for being there for each other and be willing to talk about the challenges we all face and anxieties we all face.”

As people across the country have experienced, those anxieties are ever-mounting and ever-present.

At work, the Cubs are risking their health – and the health of those who live with them – to make a living and play a game they love. And hopefully provide fans with “levity and distraction,” as Hoyer put it.

Pregame interviews never conclude without a mention of the coronavirus. There’s always some sort of news between the Marlins’ and Cardinals’ outbreaks, commissioner Rob Manfred’s comments, and other teams violating protocols.

Then, at home their escapes are limited.

“This is a hard sport and it's a sport of failure,” Hoyer said, “and you want to be able to have some levity in your life that isn't this job of failure. And I think that not having that I think has created player health issues and we haven't had before.”

So, the Cubs built a little levity into their practice on Monday. The Cubs hadn't played a game in four days because their weekend series at St. Louis was postponed after the Cardinals had three more positive test. On Monday, Ross and his coaching staff put on a  “fun” competition, involving obstacles and target practice.

“I thought the way Rossy and the coaches and the players handled this break right now has been perfect,” Hoyer said. “I think they realize that in 2020 there's going to be strange things happen. You're going to have  breaks, and you're going to have doubleheaders, and there's nothing you can do about those things. You just have to roll with the punches, and you can't be upset by them.”

Next, they head to Cleveland to play a team that just had players violate protocol while in Chicago to play the White Sox.

Zach Plesac apologized for leaving the team hotel to go out, and he traveled back to Cleveland via car service to remain separated from the team in case of infection. But Mike Clevenger, who ESPN reported went out with Plesac, flew home with the team. He will be quarantined instead of starting against the Cubs on Tuesday.

Another anxiety to face.  

“How do I keep these guys in the moment?” Baker said. “They do it themselves. We have players that love playing baseball. I see it in the smiles on the faces now that they’re back on the field.”

That’s how they fortified Wrigley Field.


Cubs' Javier Báez, wife Irmarie are expecting a second child

Cubs' Javier Báez, wife Irmarie are expecting a second child

Cubs shortstop Javier Báez made a big announcement on Monday: he and his wife, Irmarie, are expecting a second child. 

Báez revealed the news in an adorable social media post with the help of his 2-year-old son, Adrian.

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Congrats to the Báez family!

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