Cubs

Cubs, MLB persist as high-profile COVID-19 cases reported across baseball

Cubs, MLB persist as high-profile COVID-19 cases reported across baseball

A reporter asking Cubs manager David Ross about the COVID-19 news out of Atlanta on Saturday used the word “shocking” to describe it.

But there’s nothing left to shock us about this pandemic — not spiking coronavirus infection rates across large swaths of the country, a national death toll of 132,000 or even one of the biggest stars in the National League being stricken with what looks like a tough case of the virus.

Freddie Freeman’s case — which prompted the Braves first baseman’s wife to take to Instagram to plead for Americans to take the virus seriously and to wear masks — is a sobering reminder the needle baseball is trying to thread during a pandemic and potentially instructive for the Cubs and other teams.

It’s also especially personal to Cubs such as Ross and right-fielder Jason Heyward, both former Freeman teammates.

“It definitely hits closer to home,” said Heyward, who texted with his former roommate.

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But shocking?

If anything, the shocking part of Saturday was that the Cubs played a baseball game — albeit, a short intrasquad game that featured scoreless pitching performances by Kyle Hendricks (three innings) and Yu Darvish (two), and double to the left-center gap off Darvish by Javy Báez.

MORE: Why the Cubs were ready for an intrasquad scrimmage on Day 2 of Summer Camp

For an hour or two of practice before that, and the hour or so of “game,” it looked almost normal.

Then the masks were back, the players washing and scattering and planning to try to make it happen without incident one more time on Sunday. Then Monday. Then Tuesday and so on.

“We all know some of us are going to test positive coming into this,” Heyward said.

In fact, that’s the most shocking part of MLB’s startup of summer training camps this week: Only 1.2 percent of the first 3,185 intake tests of players and other personnel produced positive results — a clear victory for league-wide discipline and apparent respect for safe practices.

On the other hand, those results didn’t include all of the intake testing done during the week. They also didn’t include the positive tests of players and staff that teams already were aware of — including at least 12 from the Phillies more than two weeks ago.

And a cautionary detail of Freeman’s case is that he reportedly tested negative during intake testing — before getting hit “like a ton of bricks” by the virus Thursday, according to his wife’s Instagram post.

“Literally, we just take this thing day to day,” Ross said. “We’re all to some extent worried what the next day may bring. So, this is an added stress to the season. 

“All the guys are on board with following the protocols and understanding that’s what it takes to keep everybody safe as possible.”

The Cubs have done as good a job of respecting protocols and preparing for this moon shot of a 60-game MLB season this summer as anyone in the game. They didn’t have a player test positive during intake testing.

“We know it’s going to be very different this year,” Hendricks said. “But we’re embracing all the changes, following everything we can follow and just lucky we can be playing baseball again.”

But even while the Cubs experienced what Hendricks called their “a little sense of normalcy with everything that’s going on” during a drama-free day of baseball under a sunny sky at Wrigley Field, the Phillies added ace pitcher Aaron Nola to the COVID-19 injured list, the Yankees reported that former batting champion DJ LeMahieu was one two Yankees to test positive, and the Dodgers announced that former Cy Young winner David Price had become the sixth known player to opt-out of the 2020 season (after reconsidering the health risk to himself and family).

And even before the Freeman news broke out of Atlanta — which also included three other positive tests and a coach (former Cub Eric Young) opting out — the Royals announced that the American League’s most decorated catcher, Salvador Perez, also had tested positive.

Does all of it mean baseball can’t pull off the next 15 weeks or so of training, regular-season and full schedule of playoffs?

Maybe not. But it's at least a stark reminder that MLB had a tenuous grasp at best on controlling its ability to make it happen, that every day of this process is a high-alert stress test with no assurances under conditions of perfect behavior league-wide.

And then it starts over the next morning.

“The pandemic is in control,” Cubs president Theo Epstein stressed when talking about baseball’s undertaking a few days ago.

That’s why on a Saturday when new infections in the country topped 50,000 for the third consecutive day, news out of Atlanta — or New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia or any other stricken baseball locale — was anything but shocking.

Maybe baseball can navigate this shaky moment during the startup and avoid enough of the growing spread of this virus to have more days like the Cubs had on a beautiful Saturday afternoon at Wrigley.

Maybe even enough of those days to reach October — maybe even enough to turn this “new normal” into something truly shocking.

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Cubs’ Ian Happ claimed center field after AAA detour: 'He's the real deal'

Cubs’ Ian Happ claimed center field after AAA detour: 'He's the real deal'

Ian Happ paused before answering, the moment of silence punctuating his matter-of-fact response.

“No,” he said. “I don’t feel that way.”

Looking back, he doesn’t feel like he rose to the Major Leagues too quickly.

Happ has had to field that question since spending 2/3 of last season in Triple-A. But already this year, Happ has hit three home runs, tied for the most on the team, while also maintain a top-three batting average (.297). Not only is he performing on the field, Happ has also embraced a leadership role and taken over for Kris Bryant as the team’s MLBPA representative.

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“He’s the real deal,” Ross said Sunday, after Happ went 3-for-3 with two doubles in the Cubs’ intrasquad scrimmage.

The club’s decision to send Happ to Triple-A Iowa at the beginning of last season came as a surprise. Much of Happ’s conviction that he was ready for the major leagues when he debuted came from his standout rookie season.

Happ hit 24 home runs as a rookie – still his career high – and finished eighth in rookie of the year voting in 2017. His batting average regressed the next year (from .253 to .233), and his strikeout number rose (from 129 to 167). But he joined the .350 club in on-base percentage.

“We believed then and we believe now that he’s going to be a really good player,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said this week. “We thought it was the right move and something that was necessary even though it was really unpleasant to send him back there. To his credit, he made the absolute most of it, took personal responsibility.”

When Happ returned to the big leagues, his progress showed. He won NL player of the week in the final week of the season. But he’s made even more of a splash this year, from Spring Training through the first two weeks of the regular season.

Entering the year, center field was one of the main position battles to monitor for first-time manager Ross.

“Right now, the job is Ian Happ’s,” Ross said Sunday.

Ross’ lineup choices had suggested as much already. Happ has appeared in all 13 of the Cubs games, at least pinch hitting in the three he didn’t start.

“It’s hard to take Ian Happ out of the lineup,” Ross said of the switch-hitter. “The guy’s swinging the bat really well, and his right-handed at-bats have gotten tremendously better. He’s been a staple.”

Happ started his season off with a two-run home run in his first plate appearance. He was batting ninth, and through all of Ross’ reshuffling of the bottom third of the batting order, Happ has been the Cubs’ most frequent nine-hole hitter.

With the Cubs’ No. 7 and 8 hitters consistently getting on base, in the nine-hole has showcased Happ’s ability to drive in runs (he’s tied for second on the team with six RBI) or set the table for the Cubs’ unconventional top of the order.

“I feel great about where I'm at right now,” Happ said, “my ability to help the team and get on base for those guys that are hitting behind me.”

Just as he set the tone in the batter’s box early, with an Opening Day home run, Happ flashed some leather in the opening series against the Brewers. Three days into the season, Happ tracked a long fly ball back to the wall. He leaped and caught it just before his back slammed into the ivy, which barely cushioned the brick behind it.

Happ slid down the wall into a crouch, his body no doubt feeling the results of the impact. But it wasn’t long before he stood back up.

“I think he absolutely took advantage of his time down (in Iowa),” Epstein said, “and is in a different and better phase in his career now because of what he went through.”

 

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How Cubs temporarily grabbed White Sox spotlight during Sunday Night Baseball

How Cubs temporarily grabbed White Sox spotlight during Sunday Night Baseball

Even with the White Sox on center stage, the Cubs found their way into the spotlight.

“We’re gonna aggravate everybody in Schaumburg with this,” ESPN broadcaster Matt Vasgersian said Sunday. “White Sox fans, sorry about this.”

The White Sox made their first appearance on Sunday Night Baseball since May 12, 2013 on Sunday. But early in their matchup against the Indians, the ESPN broadcast momentarily pivoted towards the North Siders.

ESPN showed the results of a social media poll asking baseball fans what they make of the Cubs’ 10-3 start to the season. Of the more than 52,000 respondents, 41 percent said they’ll start to fade soon, 34 percent said they’re a World Series contender and 25 percent said they’re a division title contender.

“Apparently, we had a lot of respondents calling from the South Side of Chicago,” Vasgersian joked.

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The Cubs were scheduled to appear on Sunday Night Baseball before their series against the Cardinals was postponed. So while the poll’s appearance was no coincidence, some White Sox fans probably weren’t happy seeing it pop up mid-game.

“White Sox (fans) are saying,” Vasgersian said, “‘It’s the first time we’ve been on Sunday Night Baseball since 2013 and we gotta talk about the Cubs?’” 

White Sox fans have aired their grievances in recent years over the team being forgotten by national media, especially as the Cubs have received plenty of coverage. This may not fall under the same category as previous occurrences, but it certainly brings back memories of those moments.

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