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'You go, we go': Cubs offense has catalyst in Dexter Fowler

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'You go, we go': Cubs offense has catalyst in Dexter Fowler

Look past the long balls soaring out to left, and glance past the excitement of the Cubs’ four starting rookies cutting their teeth in a pennant chase.

There’s another catalyst to the Cubs, now 71-51, and he sits at the top of the lineup.

Dexter Fowler, who kicked off Sunday’s 9-3 win with a no-doubt, opposite-field homer to left, probably isn’t getting the credit he deserves, though he has been every bit as vital to the offensive chemistry as say, Anthony Rizzo. His career-high 14th homer on Sunday came a day after he hit a leadoff triple to jumpstart Saturday’s win over Atlanta. And it’s not just this weekend’s four-game set vs. the Braves, either. Pick any series since mid-July, and his impact has been felt.

“You go, we go,” is what Cubs manager Joe Maddon tells Fowler before every at-bat. “He’s really gotten the strike zone back in order, accepting his walks, hitting the ball hard on both sides.”

[MORE CUBS: Bryant, Cubs use long ball to complete sweep of Braves]

Since the All-Star break, Fowler is hitting .320 with an on-base percentage of .452. His OBP ranks third in the National League over that time frame, while his 83 runs scored rank fifth in all of baseball. In 34 games — the Cubs are 24-10 when he has played in the second half — there was exactly one game where he failed to reach base. And in the 10 games that he didn’t record a hit, he walked 13 times instead.

Not coincidentally, the Cubs’ offense has exploded post-All-Star break. In 35 second-half games, they're averaging 4.97 runs per game compared to the 3.85 they averaged throughout the first 87 games of the season when Fowler not-so-secretly struggled at gauging the strike zone.

“There was times, some calls out of the zone, and I’d get down on myself,” he said from the Cubs’ locker room after Sunday’s sweep. “Not letting those effect me too much.”

Fowler credited Maddon with teaching him how to let go of poor at-bats.

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs playing greedy down the stretch is a good thing]

The other component of Fowler’s surge is that he has a dangerously potent lineup sitting behind him. The quartet of Kyle Schwarber (10), Chris Coghlan (seven), Rizzo (nine) and Kris Bryant (seven) have combined for 33 homers in the second half. The Cubs' 36 homers in the month of August lead all of baseball.

“Anytime you have a leadoff hitter that’s doing what he’s doing right now, it kind of relaxes everybody else,” Maddon said. “You anticipate good to happen because of what he’s doing. That’s probably the best way I can describe it. I don’t know that it’s taking pressure off anybody else. They see him getting on base, and it’s just a confidence builder. 'OK, he did it, we can do it.' That kind of a thing. His at-bats are good. 'He’s laying off breaking balls down, fastball in the zone, he’s hitting it hard. I can do that too.' I think it’s more of that than anything else.”

In other words, by taking pitches and working an opponent’s starter, he has become the quintessential leadoff hitter the Cubs hoped for when they traded for him this past offseason. Just for reassurances, though, don't think that his new-found pop has gone to his head.

“I just try to get on base and let the big boys do what they need to do."

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.