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Cubs: 3 things to know about the 2019 Brewers

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AP

Cubs: 3 things to know about the 2019 Brewers

As the Cubs welcome the Milwaukee Brewers to Wrigley Field Friday for the first time since the National League Wild Card game last October, let's take a look at the division rival.

The Cubs have already played the Brewers this season up in Milwaukee, but quite a bit has changed since then — for example, the Cubs have been on a roll, going 8-0-1 in series since.

These aren't your 2018 Brewers. They're still good — 23-16 and in second place, 1 game behind the Cubs. But this is not the team Cubs fans remember in many regards.

The Brewers are 7 games above .500 and are riding a 6-game winning streak into Chicago, but they have just a +2 run differential — a far cry from the Cubs' +57 run  differential, which leads the National League.

1. Christian Yelich is as good as ever.

These might not be the same Brewers, but some things never change. 

The reigning NL MVP is slashing .356/.462/.797 (1.258 OPS) with 16 homers and 37 RBI. He's on pace for 66 homers, 154 RBI and 129 runs despite the face he's on track for only 490 at-bats (he missed time earlier this season with a back issue). Half his homers (8) have come against the Cardinals, so the Cubs can't complain too much about that.

But the good news for the Cubs is Yelich has been insanely successful at home and not so good on the road. He's posted a 1.665 OPS and hit 15 of his homers at Miller Park and on the road, he's just been a pedestrian hitter — .766 OPS, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 14 K in 54 at-bats.

The Cubs were actually really good at minimizing Yelich's damage last year, as they did not give up a homer to the star outfielder and permitted only a .213/.279/.246 slash line (.525 OPS). 

But he's already hit a homer and driven in 5 runs in 3 games against the Cubs this season, so how do they plan on stopping him this time around?

"It's one thing to plot and plan, it's the next thing to execute," Joe Maddon said Thursday. "You could go out there with the greatest intentions and if you can't really throw the ball where you want to, then that becomes moot. I think to this point, we've had a decent plan. He still looked good the first time we saw him. 

"You gotta come up with the right plan, yes, but then you gotta execute the plan. I sit right next to [Cubs catching coach Mike Borzello] the whole time and [pitching coach Tommy Hottovy] and we're constantly talking about the next pitch, next pitch — 'how does this sound right here?' ... But guys like him, man, they're an enigma. They're so good."

2. However, the rest of the Milwaukee offense is not...

Besides Yelich, the Brewers have only 2 players with an OPS north of .800 — Mike Moustakas (.901) and Eric Thames (.840).

Lorenzo Cain is slashing only .250/.310/.395 the year after playing like an MVP candidate (though he's still a fantastic defender). 

Jesus Aguilar was in the Home Run Derby a year ago and finished the season with 35 homers, 108 RBI and an .891 OPS. But he did not end 2018 strong (.245 AVG, .760 OPS, 11 HR, 38 RBI) and he is off to a woeful start to 2019 (.181 AVG, .591 OPS, 3 HR, 14 RBI). 

Travis Shaw has hit 30 homers each of the last two seasons, but is batting just .172 with a .561 OPS and 4 dingers to begin 2019.

But with the way the Brewers have played the Cubs the last few months of regular season action, how much comfort is it really that a few key Milwaukee guys are off to a poor start?

3. This is not the same pitching staff from a year ago. 

The Brewers rank 21st overall in Major League Baseball with a 4.58 ERA and they're even worse as a starting staff (4.92 ERA, 23rd in league). 

Their plan to integrate their young right-handers (Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta) into the rotation has not gone well and the Brewers have had to sign Gio Gonzalez again to help eat innings. Even Jhoulys Chacin — who victimized the Cubs often in 2018 — has a 5.03 ERA to begin the year.

But Milwaukee has never invested much into its rotation and got one win away from the World Series last fall on their dominant bullpen. However, that's also been an issue in 2019. 

Josh Hader has given up 4 homers, but otherwise has still been ridiculous, with 10 saves, a 2.95 ERA, 0.76 WHIP and 41 strikeouts in 18.1 innings. Over his last 9.1 innings, he's struck out 26 batters.

Beyond him, however, the Brewers have a 4.18 bullpen ERA and are without their closer from a year ago (Corey Knebel — Tommy John surgery) while the other part of their three-headed monster (Jeremy Jeffress) is recovering from a shoulder injury and has lost 3 mph on his fastball.

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What Jon Lester's intrasquad outing says about his Cubs Summer Camp progress

What Jon Lester's intrasquad outing says about his Cubs Summer Camp progress

Jon Lester knows his body better than anyone.

That’s the line Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy consistently used as the 36-year-old southpaw worked to catch up to the rest of the starting rotation. If Hottovy was  going to place that kind of faith in pitcher, Lester was as safe a bet as anyone, even during an unprecedented season.

Then in Sunday's intrasquad scrimmage, Lester’s  performance through 2.1 innings rewarded Hottovy’s trust in the veteran.

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“He did really good,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said of Lester on Monday. “He was commanding all of his pitches. … Yesterday was only a two-inning outing, but from what I saw he’s looking in good shape.”

In Lester’s first intrasquad game of Summer Camp, he struck out four of the first five batters he faced. He was originally only scheduled to throw two innings, but he kept his pitch count so low that he remained in to start the third. He stepped off the mound after 28 pitches. Lester had only allowed one hit, and even that was dribbler.

“He’s Jon Lester and has had such a good career for a reason,” Hottovy said, “because he’s able to repeat his delivery so well. You see Jon Lester from eight years ago, it’s really similar. One thing we’ve talked about and worked on just delivery-wise is being more athletic and getting back into that rhythm and some of that flow.”

On Sunday, Hottovy was pleased to see Lester “repeat that delivery.”

Hottovy would rather think in terms of pitch-count than innings. But barring unforeseen circumstances, he expects Lester to be ready to throw about five innings by the time the regular season begins.

The Cubs have yet to announce their opening day starter or the order of their rotation.

“We might have a pending test in two days and have to shuffle our entire schedule and rotation,” Hottovy said. “A lot of this is going to be how we get through this next week healthy, with the testing protocols in place. And then we can start really lining up what we want to do when it starts.”

Lester predicted that after Sunday’s intrasquad scrimmage, he’d “start building from there, kind of like a normal spring.”

In some ways, the ramp-up  will be normal. Lester will spend the last couple weeks of Summer Camp on a five-day rotation schedule. But the process is condensed.

In Lester’s three Spring Training starts before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Cactus League, he averaged just over two innings per outing.

Now, he only has time for two more live pitching session -- an intrasquad scrimmage and potentially a Summer Camp game -- before the regular season.

Other pitchers were regularly throwing simulated innings during the shutdown, and the other four presumed members of the starting rotation threw multiple innings in intrasquad scrimmages the first weekend of Summer Camp. But Lester was on a different timetable.

“I figured that if I kept my body in shape and I kept my arm going that I would be fine when we got to this stage; it would just be a little slower,” Lester said Saturday. “And I feel like we’ve done that, and I feel like I’m in a good place.”

On Sunday he backed up that feeling.

 

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Cubs survive coronavirus scare as manager David Ross, players test negative

Cubs survive coronavirus scare as manager David Ross, players test negative

After another hiccup in Major League Baseball's testing process Monday, the Cubs were able to exhale late in the day as results from the restesting of five "pending" coronavirus tests — including manager David Ross' — returned negative results.

Ross and five other "Tier 1" members of the organization — the group that includes players and coaches — did not participate in Monday's activities at training camp "out of an abundance of caution," Ross said in the statement released by the Cubs Monday morning.

The sixth retest that remains pending does not involve a player, the team said.

The Cubs remain the only team in the league that has not had a player test positive since intake testing began two weeks ago.

“We do feel comfortable in this bubble that we’ve kind of created here,” said pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, who was hit hard by the virus for a month before training camp started. “When the season starts though and we start traveling and we start putting ourselves in some different circumstances, we just don’t know what to expect with that.

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“We’re still taking this day-to-day for sure.”

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