Cubs

Cubs give Kris Bryant a day off but maintain he's in a 'good place'

Cubs give Kris Bryant a day off but maintain he's in a 'good place'

No, Kris Bryant is not hurt. His absence from the lineup Saturday afternoon has nothing to do with his left shoulder.

"This was part of the three-day in advance lineups and today was his day," Joe Maddon said. "That's it."

OK, so...story over?

Not quite. Bryant isn't hurt, but he is slumping and it's understandable fans go straight to freaking out after the way 2018 went, when the former NL MVP battled the shoulder injury all season that kept him out of the lineup and made him look off at the plate even when he was on the field.

He got off to a hot start in Texas (4-for-13, HR, 2B, 3 BB, 4 RBI) but in April, he's struggled — .205 average, .578 OPS, only 3 extra-base hits (all doubles) and 13 strikeouts in 39 at-bats.

"I had a really good conversation with him yesterday," Maddon said. "He's actually in a good place. Again, just trying to stay in front of all the different maneuvering I like to do this year and make sure that everybody understands why. We talked about it yesterday — he was great. I just want to be proactive. 

"Of course, not going great for him right now, so maybe the day's gonna help him a little bit, but I want these guys to know proactively. I want to give them days off irregardless of the day before being good or bad — this is how it's set up."

Maddon talked about the new lineup communication in detail in spring training. Essentially, instead of giving players the next day's lineup the night before, he now plans out lineups for the series in advance and lets everybody know before the first game of that series. 

So Bryant knew he had Saturday off Thursday night, before the series with the Angels even kicked off.

As long as his shoulder's OK and otherwise healthy, we can all write this off as just another slump for Bryant. And hey, at least this valley hasn't come anywhere near Chris Davis territory (who ended his 0-for-54 stretch with a hit Saturday). 

Bryant's tough start is not ideal given the way last year played out, but he and the Cubs insist he's not pressing or trying to do too much at the plate. So eventually we should see him get back to the hitter he was from 2015-17 when he slashed .288/.388/.527 (.915 OPS).

"[He's working] just like he always has," Maddon said. "I watch him — the work is exactly the same. I talked to him yesterday, he says he feels great at the plate. I listen to the guys, I watch. 

"Of course, you're not seeing the contact that you're used to seeing, but I know a couple years ago, he went through a really awful moment and came out on the other side of it, too. It's early. ... I just continue to encourage and believe he's gonna come out of it relatively soon."

The Cubs still have more than 90 percent of the season remaining and with a day off Saturday to reset mentally, another possible day off Sunday with terrible weather scheduled for Wrigley Field and then a trip to Miami against one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball might be the right recipe for Bryant to bounce back. 

Even though he's not hitting the ball with authority the way everybody expects him to, Bryant has still reached base safely in all but two games so far in 2019. He's finding ways to help the team even when he's not putting the ball over the fence or into a gap.

"We have been taught so much in our game to evaluate yourself by wearing your batting average on the sleeve of your shirt," Maddon said. "Too many guys live and die by that number or how that's going. But there's so many other different ways to help us win today that he's capable of because he has all these tools in the toolbox. So that's what I try to impress upon him."

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It's safe to say Kyle Hendricks has figured 'it' out

It's safe to say Kyle Hendricks has figured 'it' out

It was only a matter of time before Kyle Hendricks figured it all out. 

It appears Friday was that day. 

The 29-year-old right-hander was off to a slow start to the season, surrendering 24 hits and 8 earned runs in 13.1 innings across his first three starts, good for a 5.40 ERA and 2.18 WHIP. 

Things looked a little better last time out — only 2 earned runs allowed on 6 hits in 5 innings last Saturday against the Angels — but even after that start, Hendricks admitted he still feels like he's fighting himself and searching for his fastball command.

"You can't rush it," he said after that outing. "You can't rush the process. But it definitely gets frustrating. I need to do a better job and give the team a better chance to win when I'm out there regardless. And set a better tone — be more aggressive with my fastball and set a better tone for the game. You want it to come quick, but at least I'm seeing something, so I just gotta stick with what I'm doing."

Whatever he was seeing with his mechanics came to pass in Friday afternoon's 5-1 Cubs win, as he completely baffled the Diamondbacks in a brilliant performance — 7 shutout innings, permitting only 3 singles while striking out 11. It was his first double-digit strikeout game since he whiffed 12 Cardinals on Aug. 13, 2016 en route to his ERA title that season.

"Yeah, like I said, you kinda always want it to come, but I didn't think it was gonna come this quick," Hendricks admitted after Friday's game. "So to go out and make that many good pitches, yeah it helps the confidence a lot. It solidifies the things we've been working on, so I just told the guys this was just one good day, so tomorrow, gotta get right back at it with another good work day and hopefully get on a roll here."

It was also the Cubs' third straight appearance from a starting pitcher of 7 shutout innings, after Cole Hamels and Jose Quintana turned the trick in the final two games in Miami earlier in the week.

The one pitch Hendricks felt good about last time out — his changeup — was his bread and butter Friday, too. He threw it 30 times out of his 100 pitches and induced 8 swings and misses.

"That was kinda classic Kyle," Joe Maddon said. "Great changeup, again. A lot of called strikes, pitching on the edges. ... That first inning or so, still seeking and then once he found it, he got into a nice groove."

Part of the success of the changeup was due to Hendricks' command with his fastball, which he apparently figured out — for one start, at least. He threw 66 percent of his pitches for strikes throughout the game and 35 of his 56 fastballs went for strikes. 

"From the get-go, I just felt more comfortable in my mechanics, so it just freed everything up," Hendricks said. "From there, I just used my fastball a lot better — kinda like what I was talking about. Fastball command and just establishing it early. Everything else worked off that and it just had good action today. Kept it down, made a lot of good pitches, so it worked out."

Hendricks even saw 17 pitches at the plate despite an 0-for-4 performance, as the Cubs offense put 19 runners on base throughout the course of the afternoon.

However, his day was not without negatives. He took a 110 mph liner off the left leg in the seventh inning, but stayed in the game and finished off the last two hitters he faced.

He also snapped his fascinating personal streak, as he threw his first wild pitch since Sept. 5, 2016 — a span of 6,662 pitches:

"I had no idea; I came in the clubhouse and someone brought that to my attention," Hendricks said, laughing. "Time to start a new streak."

In all, Hendricks picked up his first win of 2019 and lowered his season ERA to 3.54 and WHIP to 1.67 with his performance. He also helped pitch his team back to the .500 level (9-9) for the first time since the opening weekend of the season.

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Joe Maddon weighs in on the bat-flip debate

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon weighs in on the bat-flip debate

You won't be finding Joe Maddon among Tim Anderson's defenders, but he's also not using this week's incident as a teaching moment for his players.

Maddon is still under the belief that it's better not to create a list of rules in the clubhouse to govern the players, but he also isn't into the whole show of celebration, of which bat-flips are at the forefront.

When Anderson flipped his bat on a home run Wednesday against the Royals, Kansas City pitcher Brad Keller responded by drilling Anderson the next time up. That resulted in a benches — and bullpens — clearing incident and then on Friday afternoon, both Anderson and Keller were hit with suspensions (Anderson was suspended for using a racial slur in his response to Keller). 

This is just the latest — and maybe one of the most charged — examples of the whole bat-flip/unwritten rules ordeal. Baseball's long tradition of punishing players for "showing up" a pitcher is alive and strong, and that's true even in the younger generation (Keller is only 23 years old). 

At 65, Maddon has been in the game of baseball since decades before Keller was even born, but he subscribes to a similar line of thinking as the Royals right-hander.

"I know my first year [with Cubs in 2015], I got upset at Junior Lake down in Miami [for flipping his bat]," Maddon said. "At that time, my being upset was about trying to flip the culture here — being more professional-looking and act like you're gonna do it again. That was my whole point about that.

"For me, I would prefer our guys didn't do that. I would prefer that the younger group right now doesn't need to see demonstrations like that in order to feel like they can watch baseball or that baseball is more interesting because somebody bat-flips really well and I kinda dig it and if I watch, I might see a bat-flip. 

"I would prefer kids watch baseball because it's a very interesting game, it's intellectually stimulating and when it's played properly, it's never too long. I prefer kids learn that method as opposed to become enamored with our game based on histrionics. I really would prefer that, but it seems to be that we are catering to that a bit.

"...When somebody choose to [bat-flip] and somebody gets hit in the butt because of it, that's what you're looking at. Regardless if you're old or new school, if you're a pitcher, I think you're gonna be offended by that. Act like you're gonna do it again would be the method that I would prefer with our guys. I want to believe we're not gonna do that, but it may happen here, too. And then we're just gonna have to wait and see how the other team reacts."

Though Maddon is not a fan of bat-flips and excessive celebration for big moments, he has not coached his players into avoiding such moments. 

That's why you still see Javy Baez out there being his typical flashy self and David Bote with an epic bat-flip on his walk-off grand slam (though that was obviously a much bigger moment than a run-of-the-mill fourth-inning homer) and Pedro Strop nearly dislocating his shoulder with some aggressive fist-pumps after nailing down a big out late in games.

But if anything does get out of line, Maddon prefers the policing comes from the players within the Cubs clubhouse or from the other team. Think back to last year when Baez tossed his bat in frustration after a pop-out against the Pirates at Wrigley Field and Strop pulled Baez aside to let him know "we don't do that here."

"I think the tried-and-true method of policing the group — whether it's the team policing itself or the industry and players doing the same thing," Maddon said. "I'd be curious to see if [Anderson] ever does that again, based on the result the other day." 

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