Cubs still unsure when they'll get star Javy Baez back from injury

Cubs still unsure when they'll get star Javy Baez back from injury

MILWAUKEE - Javy Baez's left thumb is still not well enough for the star shortstop to suit up as the Cubs continue to try to catch the St. Louis Cardinals in the division.

The 2018 NL MVP runner-up came out of Sunday's game after injuring his thumb on a slide and collision at second base on a stolen base. He has not played since, though he was initially in the lineup for Thursday's game in Milwaukee before ultimately having to be scratched when he couldn't go through a complete batting practice routine.

Baez initially got an X-ray Sunday when the injury happened, which came back negative. He will now go for an MRI Saturday morning in Chicago, after which he and the Cubs hope to have a clearer picture of his status.

"When he came in, he tried to swing a little bit and still didn't feel right," Joe Maddon said Friday. "So as opposed to just continually waiting, we need to find out for sure what we're dealing with and that way it should make him feel better mentally."

It's unlikely Baez will return to the lineup Saturday and the way things are going, it would not be surprising if he did not play at all this weekend in Milwaukee. The Cubs head to San Diego Monday to begin a four-game series on the West Coast and are currently 2.5 games behind the Cardinals in the division.

Whenever the Cubs get Baez back, it will be a massive boost to the lineup, simply as a presence even if he's not going well at that particular moment.

"I know he's been frustrated by not being quite himself at the plate in the second half," Theo Epstein said Thursday. "I always feel like he's one swing away from catching fire and can change the face of our lineup when he gets hot. He contributes in so many different ways and when he's locked in and making good decisions, he tends to drive the ball all over the ballpark and knock in a ton of runs. He's someone pitchers have to work around in an order."

The Cubs have been talking a lot lately about the "length" of their lineup now that Ben Zobrist is back in the leadoff spot (at least on a part-time basis) and Willson Contreras is back from his hamstring injury. Add in the addition of Nicholas Castellanos and the recent emergence of Kyle Schwarber and it certainly has the potential to be a formidable lineup even without Baez.

Imagine how it would look once he returns.

The 26-year-old shortstop had been struggling offensively even before the injury, posting a .264 batting average and .782 OPS since the All-Star Break. Those numbers dip to a .232 average and .647 OPS since Aug. 5, with only 1 homer and 9 RBI in 23 games.

Still, he is second on the team in RBI (85) and homers (29). He also leads the team in WAR (4.7) and is a central part of their run prevention even in games where he's not hitting. But when he is hitting, he has the potential to carry an entire lineup.

So there's a lot riding on this MRI Saturday.

"It's very important, my goodness," Maddon said. "He's been a little bit off with his game offensively and knowing that he's gonna get back on it at the right time, so that's been in the back of my mind throughout this whole moment for him.

"But it is what it is. Addison [Russell] is a wonderful shortstop in his own right. Probably doesn't have the same offensive pedigree that Javy does, but [Russell] can play shortstop with anybody. I'm just gonna wait, see what they say and figure out what the game plan actually is."

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On night Ben Zobrist and Willson Contreras return, Kyle Schwarber shows how deep Cubs lineup can be

On night Ben Zobrist and Willson Contreras return, Kyle Schwarber shows how deep Cubs lineup can be

Hours before Tuesday’s 6-1 win over the Mariners, the Cubs scratched Kris Bryant from the starting lineup due to right knee soreness, an ailment that has bothered him since late-July.

The news was unfortunate for the Cubs, as it coincided with the returns of Ben Zobrist and Willson Contreras to the starting lineup for the first time since landing on the restricted and injured lists, respectively.

So, even with Zobrist and Contreras returning, the Cubs were unable to unleash a full-strength lineup for the first time in months (Javier Báez also sat due to a sore thumb). Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s response?

“We still have nine good names in the lineup regardless,” Maddon said pregame. “It’d have been nice to see what it looked like with everybody, but it just did not want to occur today.”

One player among those nine stood out amongst the rest, however: Kyle Schwarber.

With Bryant out, Schwarber slid up from fifth in the initial lineup to second. The Cubs left fielder finished the night a stellar 3-for-3, finishing a triple shy of the cycle while also drawing a walk. Despite his impressive night, Schwarber was quick to point out the impact Zobrist and Contreras had on the lineup.

“It was great having Zo, and obviously Contreras back, too,” Schwarber said. “Benny at the top of the lineup, seeing a lot of pitches up there and Contreras having a lot of good at-bats, with the home run there.

“Being able to have those two guys back, it’s definitely a good thing.”

On paper, it’s obvious what the returns of Zobrist and Contreras mean to the Cubs. Once Báez and Bryant return to the lineup – which could come as soon as Thursday’s series opener against the Brewers – the Cubs can roll out a starting group capable of doing damage at every position, sans the pitcher’s spot.

Now in his fifth MLB season, Schwarber is no forgotten man on the Cubs roster. However, he can get lost in the shuffle on a team that has many big names, from Bryant to Báez to Anthony Rizzo to Jon Lester and others.

What also can get lost in the shuffle is what Schwarber has been doing offensively over the last few weeks.

In his last 15 games, Schwarber holds a .313/.400/.750 slashline, hitting five home runs over that stretch. He’s in some kind of rhythm right now, which he agreed is part of his recent offensive success

“Yeah, it’s a part of it,” he said. “Just being able to have good rhythm out there but also being able to get the barrel to the ball. Whenever I can do that, it’s going to come off pretty hot and I’ll take it, if it’s on the ground or in the air.”

It came via the latter in one at-bat Tuesday.

Schwarber hit second on Tuesday, though it’s unlikely he remains there as the season winds down. The returns of the aforementioned players will bump him down in the lineup, and for the Cubs, that could pay huge dividends. Not many teams have a 30+ home run guy hitting in the 6-8 holes, let alone one who has great strike zone judgement.

Where he hits isn’t something Schwarber hangs his hat on – he said postgame “wherever I hit, I hit.” The same can be said about reaching the 40-home run plateau, which he’s within shouting distance of.

“I’m not going to look that far. I think I’m just [going to] take it day-by-day,” he said. “We’re in a big spot here. Just try to take it day-by-day, try to get a win every day.

“If you keep continually doing things to help the team win, good things will happen.”

Schwarber is doing a lot of good things offensively right now. Should that continue, the Cubs offense will reap the rewards.

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Willson Contreras' return from IL met by Kris Bryant's latest bout with knee soreness

Willson Contreras' return from IL met by Kris Bryant's latest bout with knee soreness

The Cubs lineup took an encouraging step towards full-strength on Tuesday, though it also hit a minor bump in the road along the way.

Ahead of their game against the Mariners, the Cubs activated catcher Willson Contreras (right hamstring strain) off of the 10-day injured list. However, this news was met by Kris Bryant (right knee soreness) getting scratched from the lineup pregame.

“A little hitch in the giddy up. We just got to watch it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said pregame regarding Bryant. “I don’t think it’s anything awful.”

Bryant has been dealing with soreness in his right knee for an extended period now. He exited a game against the Giants on July 24 due to the ailment, though he didn’t hit the injured list.

With the Cubs having a rare Wednesday off this week, Bryant has two days to rest ahead of this weekend’s four-game series against the Brewers. And while Maddon didn’t sound too concerned Tuesday, he didn’t give a definitive timeline for his third baseman.

“Today off, tomorrow off and then we’ll see where we’re at by Thursday,” he said. “I have no real conjecture one way or the other at this point. I just talked to him; he didn’t sound like he’s in dire straits by any means. It’s just bothering him.”

On the other hand, Contreras, who strained his hamstring Aug. 3 against the Brewers, said he feels “120 percent.” He suffered a similar injury in 2017, missing a month.

“The first one was a little bit longer than this one,” Contreras said. “I worked out really hard with the training staff and we put up a tough plan, which we did, and we went to it, and now we’re here.”

Contreras admitted it wasn't easy sitting out for a month, though.

"It was tough especially when you know that you are able to do something for the team," he said. "Obviously, I wasn’t able to do something for my team because I was hurt.

"It was tough for me and the coaching staff, the players. But I’ve got to thank them because they had my back and [Victor Caratini and Jonathan Lucroy ] did a pretty good job when I wasn’t here."

Contreras, who hit just .143/.333/.286 in three games (seven at-bats) on his Triple-A rehab assignment, was able to do something for his team on Tuesday: the 27-year-old hit a home run in his first plate appearance.

While he’s back healthy, Contreras mentioned how his baserunning isn’t quite there yet.

“It’s been one month since I got hurt,” he said. “Obviously I’m running 80, 90 percent. Behind the plate I feel 100 percent, hitting I feel 100 percent.

“I want to be smart running the bases.”

The Cubs are in a good place with their catching depth. Between Victor Caratini, Jonathan Lucroy and the recently recalled Taylor Davis, the team has more than enough help behind the plate to allow Contreras to play elsewhere, or even sit from time-to-time, while he gets back into the groove of things.

Contreras said he’s ready to catch every day, though, and with the Cubs’ upcoming schedule, there’s a good chance for that to happen.

“When we get to the weekend, you got three nights and then the day game,” Maddon said. “The night games help, give him more recovery. [He] probably won’t play a night [game] before a day [game].

“Either choose the night game or the day game to play him over the weekend. Plays [Tuesday], day off [Wednesday]. I don’t see anything wrong with two-in-a-row and then deciding what happens after that.”

Other injury updates

Cubs starter Yu Darvish, who was scratched from his start on Sunday, threw before Tuesday’s game. Maddon said until he hears otherwise, the plan is for Darvish to pitch Saturday.

“We’re still planning on being able to pitch him on Saturday. That’s the game plan, so until I hear differently, that’s the way it’s going to play.”

Javier Baez missed a second-straight game Tuesday due to a jammed thumb, though he could play in Thursday’s series opener against the Brewers.

“He came in feeling a little bit better,” Maddon said. “He’s doing a little bit better, but again, I don’t know exactly. I’d like to believe he’ll be ready for Thursday, but I can’t tell you that for sure yet.”

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