Cubs

Cubs plotting their path for a comeback: 'We're not ready to go home'

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USA TODAY

Cubs plotting their path for a comeback: 'We're not ready to go home'

Their lofty goals include a weekend in sunny SoCal, but Anthony Rizzo thinks the only way to achieve them is for the Cubs to stay focused on the minor details. To realize the nearly impossible, the Cubs believe they can’t get too far ahead of themselves.

Frankly, that’s a good idea.

Even though the Cubs managed to stave off elimination on Wednesday night, they’re still in a very bad way. The Cubs’ chances of repeating as World Series champions are technically alive courtesy of a 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. But it doesn’t change the fact that if the Cubs are to become only the second team in 36 tries to overcome a 3-0 series deficit, they’ll have to do it with a stagnant offense and a shaky bullpen.

“You can’t think about the big picture in these games,” Rizzo said. “You’ve got to go one pitch at a time. It doesn’t matter what you did that pitch before, you’ve gotta go to the next one and move on.

“We want to have a good weekend in LA. We want to go to LA this weekend and get out there and play some more baseball. We’re not ready to go home.”

The Cubs know they’re up against long odds. They’re aware that a number of teams have been in their position before and failed miserably. Only the Boston Red Sox have overcome a 3-0 deficit when they rallied to topple the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.

Still, the Cubs have managed to stay loose and focused despite their predicament.

“We're not putting pressure on ourselves,” outfielder Kyle Schwarber said. “We're just going out there and we're worrying about playing our game. We're not panicked.”

Perhaps it’s because they’ve been here before. It could be their manager and his ability to keep things loose. Or maybe it’s just that this group has experienced it all together over the past two-plus seasons.

For whatever reason, the Cubs are comfortable.

“We’ve dealt with a lot of failure,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “We’ve dealt with our backs against the wall. It’s just about how you mentally prepare and I feel like with the bunch of guys we have, they’ve been on that run with us.

“I would say it’s a little bit more familiar to contain all the eagerness and anxiousness.”

[MORE CUBS-DODGERS: 'I might come running out of the clubhouse in my jockstrap']

There have been a ton of tribulations for this group to absorb.

Heading into Wednesday’s contest, the Cubs had the lowest batting average (.172) of any postseason team that had played eight games. Their .255 on-base percentage was the third-worst of those 145 teams and the 2.63 runs per game was fifth.

Javy Baez lifted the team’s spirits on Wednesday as he broke out of his postseason slumber with two solo home runs. Willson Contreras also delivered a bolt from the heavens with a 491-foot solo homer off the scoreboard.

“It’s just good energy,” Rizzo said.

Still, the Cubs couldn’t pull away, which left them in a position where they needed Herculean efforts from Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis. And it won’t get any easier on Thursday with Clayton Kershaw on the mound.

Then there’s the bullpen, which entered Game 4 with 23 walks issued, the most ever by any postseason team that had played eight games. Aside from Davis, who Joe Maddon ruled out for Game 5, Cubs relievers have been mostly shaky.

That’s not a good formula for a team that has constantly found itself in a number of close ballgames.

But those are the details the Cubs know they must avoid thinking about if they want to spend another weekend at Dodger Stadium. Instead of focusing on their flaws, they’re embracing the moment.

“I want there to be pressure,” Maddon said. “I want there to be a carrot at the end of the stick. I want all of that. I talk about never putting the pressure to exceed the pleasure, just meaning to handle the moment.

“We started this with a trip to Omaha, Nebraska (in spring) … and now we are here, coming on October 19th.

“It’s a lot of time in between. So, there’s a lot of different moments that occur Some are pressurized, and that’s good. Otherwise you’re home cooking steaks right now.”

Brewers' faltering bullpen not doing them favors in NL Central race

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USA TODAY

Brewers' faltering bullpen not doing them favors in NL Central race

At a time when the Cubs are missing their closer and continuing to hold their lead on the division anyway, the Brewers are in a very different place. 

Coming in to a short but weighty series at Wrigley Field, Milwaukee has dropped two games via bullpen meltdown in their last four. Corey Knebel, who saved 39 games for the Brewers in 2017 with a 1.93 ERA, has seen much more limited time in the closer's role this year. But getting him right will probably make the difference for Milwaukee down the stretch.

"It’s important that we get him going," Brewers manager Craig Counsell told reporters before Tuesday's game. "Getting Corey on track is probably the bigger equation in this that kind of normalizes the bullpen."

Last Thursday, Knebel loaded the bases in the 9th when Milwaukee was leading, 4-2, and eventually left for Joakim Soria after allowing a run on a single. This set the stage for Hunter Renfroe's grand slam that cost the Brewers the game. In his next appearance, Knebel pitched in the 5th inning against the Braves and gave up a run in Milwaukee's eventual 8-7 loss.

Without a reliable Knebel, the Brewers have had to play mix and match with their bullpen, a recipe that doesn't usually work. It's been successful so far for the Cubs in the absence of Morrow, but that hasn't been the case for Milwaukee lately. 

The Brewers acquired Joakim Soria from the White Sox on July 26 in hopes of shoring up their bullpen, but after giving up the grand slam to Renfroe last week, Soria hit the DL with a right quadriceps strain. Counsell said that it isn't likely for Soria to return very soon, however.

"We’re not going to be at 10 days, I’ll tell you that," Counsell said, adding that Soria is still only doing stationary bike work at this point.

But help might be on the way. Taylor Williams, who was placed on the 10-day disabled list on August 3, is eligible to return. For now, the Brewers opted to keep outfielder Keon Broxton on the roster, but Williams could prove to be a boon for the Milwaukee reliever corps. Before being shelved, he was averaging more than a strikeout per inning. 

Otherwise, the Brewers have Matt Albers rehabbing in Biloxi, Mississippi, where they plan to let him appear in at least a couple games before activating him.

Milwaukee has a chance to cut the division lead to a single game these next two days, but without a reliable bullpen, that could prove especially difficult.

State of the Cubs: What is the identity of this 2018 team?

State of the Cubs: What is the identity of this 2018 team?

Who are the 2018 Cubs?

It's mid-August, there's only seven weeks of regular season action left before the playoffs and yet the Cubs still don't have an identity they can hang their hats on.

Maybe they are just a team with an underachieving rotation, an inconsistent offense, a bullpen that is fantastic when rested and an elite defense.
 
Yet they maintain there's more in the tank and with a roster this talented and track records this extensive, it's easy to believe them. 

But when will that show up on a regular basis?

Mind you, the Cubs aren't complaining where they're at.

They woke up Monday morning with the best record in the National League by three games and the peace that no matter what happens in a two-game series with the Brewers this week at Wrigley Field, they'll head to Pittsburgh Thursday at least a game up in the division.

Of course, where would the Cubs be right now without David Bote's ninth-inning heroics Sunday night or against the Diamondbacks two weeks ago? Fortunately for the Cubs, that's an alternate universe they don't have to think about.

They'll take this current position, of course. Especially with the two biggest free agent additions of the offseason — Brandon Morrow and Yu Darvish — combining to throw just 70.2 innings to date plus a balky shoulder that has put Kris Bryant on the shelf for nearly two months (assuming he returns late August or early September) and has sapped the power of the 2016 NL MVP even when he has been healthy enough to suit up. And don't forget Carl Edwards Jr. — the team's second-most important reliever — also missed time (nearly five weeks) and has appeared in just 39 games.

"I don't take anything for granted," Joe Maddon said. "The Cardinals are playing a whole lot better, the Pirates have done a nice job, Milwaukee's not going away. I get all that. But at the end of the day — and this has been my mantra forever — worry about the Cubs. Worry about you guys.

"We just gotta play our game and if we do that, that stuff becomes secondary at every stop, whether it's Milwaukee, St. Louis, Pittsburgh. Cubs do what they're supposed to do, that other stuff becomes moot. 

"That's about getting the rotation back where we think they can be. That's about getting our offense percolating on all cylinders again while we continue to play this defense. If we could somehow get KB, Darvish and Morrow back for that stretch run, my god, you can't get better acquisitions at the end of the year.

"That's all a possibility, but I don't count on it. I'm not waiting for that day to happen. In the meantime, you work with what you got and try to make that as best you can."

What Maddon has is a team that is 13-11 with a -21 run differential since the All-Star Break — obviously not the stuff of a championship team across nearly a month's worth of a sample size.

Digging deeper, however, and you see that the Cubs have been on the wrong end of several blowouts including the 18-5 loss to the Cardinals July 20 and the 9-0 defeat at the hands of the Royals last week. Of the Cubs' 13 second-half wins, 9 have come by three runs or less, including 6 one-run victories.

But the concerns are there, particularly with making sure the rotation helps pick up the slack down the stretch and reduce the stress on an already-taxed bullpen.

Cubs pitchers have combined to throw just 44 pitches and get 7 outs after the seventh inning all season — all of which can be credited to Kyle Hendricks. Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Mike Montgomery and now Cole Hamels have yet to throw a pitch in the eighth inning this year (though, obviously, Hamels has been fantastic in a small sample size and Montgomery saved the rotation when Darvish went down months ago).

Once the Cubs signed Darvish in February, there were many pundits across the game that believed this could be the top starting staff in baseball behind only the Houston Astros.

"Remember I thought in spring training, this had a chance to be THE best rotation we've had here," Maddon said. "We've had some pretty good ones. And it just hasn't gotten to that point yet, but I still believe that it can, in spite of the fact that we haven't gotten the normal innings out of them."

The rotation is underperforming, but this has been by far the deepest stable of relief pitchers Maddon has had to work with in Chicago.

"You gotta give these bullpen guys a ton of credit and the depth that is organization has built," Maddon said. "The guys that have come up for cameos have contributed greatly to this moment.

"I've often talked about the bullpen — you gotta have that to win a championship and these guys are demonstrating that right now. And part of that is to not beat 'em up."

The Cubs still rank atop the National League in many offensive categories — including runs scored, OPS and on-base percentage — but anybody who's watched this team all year knows they are prone to rather extreme highs and lows.

Since the All-Star Break, it's mostly been at a low, contributing to that suboptimal run differential.

"Offensively, I don't see some of our guys at their normal levels," Maddon said. "I know we got this wonderful run differential [on the season] and we lead the league in runs scored, but how do you maintain that? That's my biggest concern."

Beyond Javy Baez's MVP campaign and the resurgence of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, the only thing that has been working offensively of late is Anthony Rizzo in the leadoff spot.

Maddon tossed the face of the franchise atop the order a month ago and hasn't moved him out — for good reason. In 27 starts at leadoff, Rizzo is slashing .347/.446/.604, good for a 1.050 OPS. 

The rest of the lineup behind him has gone through its ups and downs lately, but that's also the nature of the game, especially in this day and age with strikeouts up and basehits down.

For perspective, a Phillies team that has been challenging for the NL East all season has experienced similar head-scratching offensive games on a regular basis:

A lot can change in Major League Baseball in the span of a few weeks.

Just a few weeks ago, who considered Bote to be big part of this team in 2018 or beyond? When the Cubs traded for Hamels, they were hoping he could give them solid innings. Did anybody predict this level of success from the 34-year-old southpaw so soon?

With seven weeks left until postseason baseball, rest assured — there are still plenty of ups and downs coming for the Cubs.

Outsiders — fans and media — often seesaw with those ebbs and flows for many reasons, but the best one is this: It's simply no fun if you don't allow yourself to get completely caught up with moments like Bote's ultimate grand slam or Hamels' Rejuvenation Tour that has only lasted three starts.

But even if those outsiders are willing to ride that roller coaster even a little bit, the Cubs certainly won't inside the clubhouse.

"Never a good time to ride the roller coaster," Rizzo said. "I get motion sickness anyways."