Cubs

The Cubs bullpen has turned things around in a big way

The Cubs bullpen has turned things around in a big way

Don't look now, but the bullpen has actually morphed into a strength of this Cubs team.

Even though things got hairy in the 15th inning as Sunday afternoon turned into Sunday night, the Cubs relief corps still hung on by the skin of their teeth.

That wild 15th inning casts a bit of a darker shadow over the bullpen as a whole, but remember, this is a group that held the Diamondbacks scoreless for almost an entire game's worth of innings — from Brad Brach replacing Jose Quintana with two outs in the sixth inning to two outs in the 15th when Kyle Ryan gave up a 2-run single to Caleb Joseph.

The bullpen has become a popular punching bag for the 2019 Cubs, but they entered play Sunday leading baseball with a 2.01 ERA since April 7, the final day of the Cubs' season-opening nine-game road trip. That number actually improved slightly even with the 2 15th-inning runs and the Cubs have a sizable lead over the next-closest team — the Diamondbacks, coincidentally, who boast a 2.36 ERA.

It helps that the Cubs bullpen also had a huge assist from the starting rotation in that the relievers faced the fewest batters in the league over the last three weeks before Sunday's marathon affair. Tyler Chatwood has been a surprise contributor to both areas, helping to beat Arizona with 6 shutout innings at Wrigley last Sunday and then beating Arizona again with 1.1 shutout innings pitched plus a double and the game-winning run scored this Sunday.

On that nine-game season-opening road trip, only the Washington Nationals had a worse bullpen ERA than the Cubs (8.37) and only the Kansas City Royals walked a higher percentage of hitters than the Cubs (16.4 percent). 

Cubs relievers still have a problem with the free pass, but they're certainly moving in the right direction and a lot of success has followed.

It's no coincidence, then, that the Cubs have not lost a series since that opening road trip and are 12-5 in that stretch.

"As tough as our start was, it could be good for us in the long run," Theo Epstein said last week. "We got tested early. You find out a lot about individuals and a team when there's adversity. Even though it's early, even though we've all been through it before, when you get off to a really rough first week of the season in a big market, there are a lot of doubters. It can push guys; it can test guys.

"I think they've certainly responded the right way by recommitting to the routines and the foundation and each other and pulling out of it. It's a real positive sign. Let's be honest — it was really our pitching the first week or 10 days of the season that was putting us in that destabilized mode and then the pitching's been outstanding since then."

Epstein gave credit to the Cubs' entire run prevention department, from pitching coach Tommy Hottovy on down to associate pitching, catching and strategy coach Mike Borzello, bullpen coach Lester Strode and run prevention coordinator Brad Mills plus catcher Willson Contreras, who has caught nearly every inning since Victor Caratini went down with a hand injury more than two weeks ago.

"No victory laps or anything like that, but it doesn't just stabilize overnight," Epstein said. "Those guys put a lot of hard work in to get us on the right track."

It's even more impressive the Cubs have righted the ship in the bullpen without some of their projected top performers. Carl Edwards Jr. was sent down to the minor leagues to readjust his physical and mental mechanics before the Cubs even played a game at Wrigley Field and Mike Montgomery is still working his way back from a lat injury that put him on the injured list on that season-opening road trip.

The Cubs also began the season thinking right now (the end of April) would be about the time they'd be getting closer Brandon Morrow back. He was expected to miss roughly the first month of the season while rehabbing from minor offseason elbow surgery, but he suffered a setback and is currently shut down and won't pick up a baseball for another couple of weeks.

Epstein said the Cubs are still "in a diagnostic state" with Morrow, trying to ascertain why he's struggled to bounce back from throwing sessions despite nine months away from the field and the November debridement procedure on his elbow.

With all that time off and a surgical procedure added to Morrow's already-lengthy injury history, it's fair to question if he will ever throw a single pitch this season. But Epstein said the Cubs expect him to throw at some point in "a number of weeks" once they figure out what course of treatment to go through.

However, this Morrow setback didn't suddenly send a shudder through the Cubs' business operations department and convince them to throw the budget out the window and create room for the likes of free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel.

The Cubs will still look to add reinforcements to the bullpen whenever necessary, but don't expect that to be Kimbrel. They haven't been afraid to be aggressive within their own system, like plucking Dillon Maples from the Triple-A bullpen in exchange for Randy Rosario on Friday (or adding Ryan and Webster after Edwards and Montgomery went down after the season's first week).

"Nothing's changed on the bullpen front," Epstein said. "We recognize this is a year where we're gonna have to make a lot of important calls in-season and pick the right guys and put them in the right position to succeed and I think things have really started to stabilize in the bullpen. 

"There are a lot of really encouraging signs. [Brandon] Kintzler as an example — the transformation that he's made with a lot of hard work this winter and spring training to become really reliable with what he brings to the table at this point. That's someone who's been here, who's made positive changes. And then Kyle Ryan is somebody who we talked about as important depth in Triple-A. He's come up and provided an important boost and he's done it in a way that gives us reason to believe it's sustainable.

"So that's important. We'll continue to try to help guys be their best selves, make important calls when we feel change is needed and of course look outside the organization as well as inside to try to find the right combination."

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Forget about full Cubs schedule, fans at games and plan for a short, bittersweet season

Forget about full Cubs schedule, fans at games and plan for a short, bittersweet season

The bad news for the Cubs after Thursday’s scheduled Opening Day is that they’re 0-1. The worse news is that so is everybody in baseball.

And with Friday’s agreement between MLB and the players union addressing the coronavirus shutdown, the only known winner, at least in this city, might be Kris Bryant, who will not lose yet another year before he can become a free agent.

Remember when that was the biggest concern surrounding the Cubs’ season — whether the Cubs were going to trade their star third baseman and whether they could co-exist with him if they didn’t — after beating him in a grievance hearing over service-time manipulation?

That was just last month. And a lifetime ago.

The highlights of the MLB-MLBPA agreement include freezing transactions until a date for resuming play is determined, the assurance that major-leaguer players will accrue full service time for the 2020 season even if it is not played, the likelihood of additional roster spots once play resumes, and $170 million in salary advances to players across multiple contract tiers, most to those with guaranteed deals.

Multiple teams, including the Cubs, optioned players who were on 40-man rosters but not expected to make the club to the minors ahead of the deal Thursday night, which, among other things, prevented service-time accrual. 

Pitcher Dillon Maples was optioned to Triple-A Iowa, leaving 30 members of the Cubs’ 40-man roster still on the active major-league roster. They include three bullpen candidates who are out of options: Alec Mills, Duane Underwood and Casey Sadler.

But the most important element of the plan for fans involves the report that MLB and the players agree to wait until they get the all-clear from health and government officials that mass gatherings are safe again before starting the season. Unless that looks like it won’t happen in time for something feasible, in which case they might discuss playing without fans, possibly using spring training sites.

Some in the game are still suggesting methods for trying to play close to a full 162-game schedule, maybe 140. The hope of a June start and lots of doubleheaders seems popular — maybe with seven-inning games making up the doubleheaders.

But for all the numbers of games, innings and dollars being thrown around and negotiated, only one number continues to matter. On Friday it was close to 1,500.

That’s the number of U.S. deaths attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a number that includes this week a 17-year-old boy in Los Angeles County who reportedly had no underlying risk factors, a 12-year-old girl before that and many others who, by CDC definitions, were not in high-risk groups.

And it’s a number that’s rising fast.

Certainly, baseball officials and players appreciate the gravity of the moment, and that’s why anything and everything seem to be in play as eventual options.

And it’s why for now, regular-season ballparks/weight rooms and spring training facilities finally were shutting down across baseball Friday to all but a select few players who might have specific (such as medical) needs for them.

Cubs Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo are among the individual players across baseball raising awareness and money for those affected, from stadium workers to first responders and small businesses. Cubs manager David Ross published a short video through the team’s Twitter account thanking healthcare workers and encouraging continued safe practices during the crisis.

Jon Lester, Jason Kipnis and others have tweeted about the bigger picture in this time of missing the game.

But the mere suggestion of trying to squeeze most of a full schedule into 2020, against the hope of playing those games in fan-filled stadiums, is perhaps understandably wistful thinking.

If there’s going to be a baseball season this summer/fall, it’s going to be a short one, and it probably should be.

The fewest games played in a season since the two-league format began in 1901 were the 103 games some teams played during the 1981 strike season.

The plan now should involve redrawing schedules for 80- and 100-game contingencies. Plan for no — or extremely limited numbers of — fans. Play the games in spring ballparks; eliminate interleague play; position one league in Florida and one in Arizona — or all in Arizona if it’s safer there than Florida.

An 84-game schedule would allow for a balanced league schedule with six games per opponent. Or unbalanced (albeit, less drastic) schedules could still be used. Restructure the playoffs? OK. Add teams? Sure. Maybe by then those games can even be played in neutral-site, warm-weather or domed stadiums with fans.

A lot of us around sports talk about sports being important to our culture and things like civic pride, or at least as escapes from real-life issues. President Franklin Roosevelt recognized that much in 1942 when he urged MLB to play its season for the good of the country during a war.

But this we haven’t seen before. It’s why so many uncertainties hang in the air even after scheduled openers, months after the virus first was identified, weeks after federal action was taken in this country.

“Worst opening day ever,” Lester tweeted, “but focused on what’s most important right now and that’s keeping the team safe at home so we can get back to baseball soon.”

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Anthony Rizzo discusses foundation's support of health care workers amid COVID-19

Anthony Rizzo discusses foundation's support of health care workers amid COVID-19

Anthony Rizzo and his family’s foundation are working diligently to support the health care workers combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friday, Rizzo appeared on ABC News to discuss the foundation’s campaign to provide meals to hospital workers and staff. To date, they’ve served over a thousand hot meals to frontline workers in Chicago and Florida, in collaboration with the foundation’s restaurant partners.

“A lot of these staff workers don’t know if they’re allowed to go to the grocery store,” Rizzo said on ABC, “because they really are quarantining outside the hospital to stay safe, keep everyone safe.

“We really want to give back to the restaurants and also help the frontline workers, so it's really been a win-win because there's a lot of people in tough times right now and we're just trying to help out any way we can."

Rizzo’s foundation said in a press release Friday the meals have brought many hospital workers tears, overwhelmed in appreciation.

“These health care workers are going every day, many without the proper protection, to care for our loved ones,” the release reads. “They are putting themselves at risk, their families at risk and even foregoing seeing their loved ones for months to protect our families, friends and neighbors.”

(Photos courtesy of the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation)

The foundation asks for anyone interested in supporting the campaign to reach out. Donations can be made by texting HOPE44 to 52000 or by going to rizzo44.com/donate.

The coronavirus has altered everyone's lives and changed daily routines. When asked what his message is to fans, Rizzo said to stay strong together and find a routine that makes you happy.

"We're gonna get through this together; this is tough for everyone," he said. "We all want to be playing baseball, we all want sports on television. A lot of people want to be going to work on a daily basis to get back into that routine. 

"It's hard to be home 24/7 but everyone is doing this together, so you're not alone."