Cubs

Carlos Gonzalez's impact on Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr. and the Cubs lineup

Carlos Gonzalez's impact on Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr. and the Cubs lineup

Carlos Gonzalez has been the story of the week so far at Wrigley Field.

A bigger story than the gems by Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. A bigger story than The Return of El Mago. A bigger story than the offense finally getting its groove back. A bigger story than the back-to-back victories (which the Cubs hadn't accomplished since May 21-22).

Because Gonzalez has had a direct hand in the success of all those storylines.

He's only been in a Cubs uniform for two days, but it's hard to make a more impactful first impression than he has over those 48 hours.

It's not just the diving catch he made in right-center to rob the Angels of a handful of runs Monday afternoon. Or the pair of runs he batted in Tuesday night.

"He's already had a huge impact. Huge lift for us," Hendricks said. "It's been awesome to watch him out there. Hell of a player. I told him I'm just glad I don't have to face him anymore because it's a scary at-bat, for sure. I like having him on our side. 

"You can tell he's just a pro. He knows what he's doing out there. I can't wait to see what he does the rest of the year."

Gonzalez has started both games so far, as Joe Maddon has penciled the veteran outfielder into the fifth spot in the Cubs lineup — right behind Javy Baez.

Is it coincidence that — after a tough two weeks at the plate — Baez has suddenly turned things around again with Gonzalez hitting behind him?

With Willson Contreras and other members of the Cubs lineup scuffling, Maddon has struggled to find adequate protection for Baez in recent games. 

With Gonzalez now behind him, Baez is 5-for-8 with 2 homers, 5 RBI and 4 runs scored in the two games.

"To what extent is he helping Javy — hitting behind him right now, too?" Maddon pondered. "He is a professional. ... It's gonna be fun watching him blossom as a Cub."

Suddenly, a Cubs lineup that was in a funk and couldn't buy a hit with a runner in scoring position once again looks deep and fearsome.

"Everybody knows what he's done in the past and what he can do," Baez said. "They have to pitch to someone, from the leadoff guy — Schwarber, KB, Rizz, me, him, Willy when he's playing. They gotta come to us. 

"If we take AB by AB and they don't give in, you pass it to the next guy. They have to pitch to someone."

Gonzalez proved that protection in the second inning Tuesday, connecting on a hard liner to center field to drive home Baez for the Cubs' first run of the game. 

In the bottom of the eighth — after Baez had hustled out an infield hit with a headfirst dive into first base — Gonzalez drove home a key insurance run with a sacrifice fly to left field. 

With Ben Zobrist still on the restricted list indefinitely and Daniel Descalso coming off a May in which he hit .094 for the month, Gonzalez has also provided the Cubs with another veteran left-handed bat. 

That ensures they can go back to picking their spots with Albert Almora Jr. against right-handed pitchers. The last two games, the Cubs have trotted out three left-handed hitters in the outfield — Jason Heyward in center, Gonzalez in right and Schwarber in left — with Almora on the bench.

It may not make a large portion of the fanbase happy, but this allows the Cubs to keep Almora from being overexposed, though he is performing better against right-handed pitchers this season — .277/.328/.479 (.807 OPS). He typically hits well against lefties, but has actually struggled in that regard (.200/.231/.340 — .571 OPS) in 52 plate appearances against southpaws this season, albeit a small sample size.

"Albert's done a lot better against righties; he's really refined his approach there," Maddon said. "I think he's become a lot more patient. He's chased less — he's hit some homers right on right, also. He's done a nice job of reinventing himself on the right side, no question. 

"But regardless of what that says, I still know that he hits lefties really well. I still believe that. So now that Carlos is here, we'll balance it out. There's still gonna be some righties that I like Albert against, too.

"That's where we're at. There's no warm-fuzzy. There's no nothing — we're just trying to win some games and I'm trying to balance it out as well as we possibly can. I will defend that Albert has had a much better approach against right-handed pitching."

Then there's the outfield defense aspect, as it gives the Cubs another dimension when he can move over and play left field in place of Schwarber as Maddon gets his best run prevention lineup out there late in close games. 

Gonzalez may be 33, but he has three Gold Gloves to his name and with him in left, Almora in center and Heyward in right field, the Cubs now have more options than they did just a few days ago.

Almora came into Tuesday night's game as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the seventh inning and then stayed in to play center field to set up that "victory formation" in the outfield.

Gonzalez is also a renowned leader and glue guy in the clubhouse and he can have an impact on this Cubs team off the field, too, though it takes much longer than two days to feel the impact with those intangibles.

"He's been around for a bit," Maddon said. "He's done really, really well: All-Star, Silver Slugger, all that kind of good stuff. But he's a good guy. I talked to [Rockies manager] Buddy Black about him and how good he is in the clubhouse and he reaffirmed that. 

"I love the idea that he's a grown-up — we got a grown-up walking into the room. All he wants to do is win. ... I do believe he's gonna get really hot and he's gonna benefit us for a period of time here."

Black concurred, having managed Gonzalez for the last couple seasons of the veteran's 10-year career in Colorado.

"He's a pro," Black said. "He was instrumental last year in a lot of ways — both performance and as a teammate and as far as a leadership role. You talk to Nolan [Arenado] and Trevor [Story] and Charlie [Blackmon] — they'll tell you what they think of Carlos Gonzalez."

Cubs Talk Podcast: The Yu Darvish 1st Wrigley win and post-ASG hot start podcast

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: The Yu Darvish 1st Wrigley win and post-ASG hot start podcast

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki discuss Yu Darvish's 1st win at Wrigley, Cole Hamel's status, and Kris Bryant playing better than he did in his MVP season.

01:00     Darvish picking up 1st win at Wrigley

03:30     Cole Hamels injury update

05:00     Starting rotation after the All-Star break

06:00     Cubs defense looking sharp

07:30     How the Cubs will approach the weekend and the expected heat

09:30     Kris Bryant playing above his MVP level

12:00     How the NL Central stacks up

14:00     Upcoming road trip to San Francisco, Milwaukee and Saint Louis

16:00     Addition to Martin Maldonado

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: After the ASG, the Cubs are trending up... the Sox, not so much

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: After the ASG, the Cubs are trending up... the Sox, not so much

Ozzie Guillen and Doug Glanville join Leila Rahimi on this edition of Baseball Night in Chicago.

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below: