‘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." 

Cubs’ Ian Happ claimed center field after AAA detour: 'He's the real deal'

Cubs’ Ian Happ claimed center field after AAA detour: 'He's the real deal'

Ian Happ paused before answering, the moment of silence punctuating his matter-of-fact response.

“No,” he said. “I don’t feel that way.”

Looking back, he doesn’t feel like he rose to the Major Leagues too quickly.

Happ has had to field that question since spending 2/3 of last season in Triple-A. But already this year, Happ has hit three home runs, tied for the most on the team, while also maintain a top-three batting average (.297). Not only is he performing on the field, Happ has also embraced a leadership role and taken over for Kris Bryant as the team’s MLBPA representative.

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“He’s the real deal,” Ross said Sunday, after Happ went 3-for-3 with two doubles in the Cubs’ intrasquad scrimmage.

The club’s decision to send Happ to Triple-A Iowa at the beginning of last season came as a surprise. Much of Happ’s conviction that he was ready for the major leagues when he debuted came from his standout rookie season.

Happ hit 24 home runs as a rookie – still his career high – and finished eighth in rookie of the year voting in 2017. His batting average regressed the next year (from .253 to .233), and his strikeout number rose (from 129 to 167). But he joined the .350 club in on-base percentage.

“We believed then and we believe now that he’s going to be a really good player,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said this week. “We thought it was the right move and something that was necessary even though it was really unpleasant to send him back there. To his credit, he made the absolute most of it, took personal responsibility.”

When Happ returned to the big leagues, his progress showed. He won NL player of the week in the final week of the season. But he’s made even more of a splash this year, from Spring Training through the first two weeks of the regular season.

Entering the year, center field was one of the main position battles to monitor for first-time manager Ross.

“Right now, the job is Ian Happ’s,” Ross said Sunday.

Ross’ lineup choices had suggested as much already. Happ has appeared in all 13 of the Cubs games, at least pinch hitting in the three he didn’t start.

“It’s hard to take Ian Happ out of the lineup,” Ross said of the switch-hitter. “The guy’s swinging the bat really well, and his right-handed at-bats have gotten tremendously better. He’s been a staple.”

Happ started his season off with a two-run home run in his first plate appearance. He was batting ninth, and through all of Ross’ reshuffling of the bottom third of the batting order, Happ has been the Cubs’ most frequent nine-hole hitter.

With the Cubs’ No. 7 and 8 hitters consistently getting on base, in the nine-hole has showcased Happ’s ability to drive in runs (he’s tied for second on the team with six RBI) or set the table for the Cubs’ unconventional top of the order.

“I feel great about where I'm at right now,” Happ said, “my ability to help the team and get on base for those guys that are hitting behind me.”

Just as he set the tone in the batter’s box early, with an Opening Day home run, Happ flashed some leather in the opening series against the Brewers. Three days into the season, Happ tracked a long fly ball back to the wall. He leaped and caught it just before his back slammed into the ivy, which barely cushioned the brick behind it.

Happ slid down the wall into a crouch, his body no doubt feeling the results of the impact. But it wasn’t long before he stood back up.

“I think he absolutely took advantage of his time down (in Iowa),” Epstein said, “and is in a different and better phase in his career now because of what he went through.”



How Cubs temporarily grabbed White Sox spotlight during Sunday Night Baseball

How Cubs temporarily grabbed White Sox spotlight during Sunday Night Baseball

Even with the White Sox on center stage, the Cubs found their way into the spotlight.

“We’re gonna aggravate everybody in Schaumburg with this,” ESPN broadcaster Matt Vasgersian said Sunday. “White Sox fans, sorry about this.”

The White Sox made their first appearance on Sunday Night Baseball since May 12, 2013 on Sunday. But early in their matchup against the Indians, the ESPN broadcast momentarily pivoted towards the North Siders.

ESPN showed the results of a social media poll asking baseball fans what they make of the Cubs’ 10-3 start to the season. Of the more than 52,000 respondents, 41 percent said they’ll start to fade soon, 34 percent said they’re a World Series contender and 25 percent said they’re a division title contender.

“Apparently, we had a lot of respondents calling from the South Side of Chicago,” Vasgersian joked.

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The Cubs were scheduled to appear on Sunday Night Baseball before their series against the Cardinals was postponed. So while the poll’s appearance was no coincidence, some White Sox fans probably weren’t happy seeing it pop up mid-game.

“White Sox (fans) are saying,” Vasgersian said, “‘It’s the first time we’ve been on Sunday Night Baseball since 2013 and we gotta talk about the Cubs?’” 

White Sox fans have aired their grievances in recent years over the team being forgotten by national media, especially as the Cubs have received plenty of coverage. This may not fall under the same category as previous occurrences, but it certainly brings back memories of those moments.