The Cubs rotation has finally emerged in 2018: 'We're all there'

The Cubs rotation has finally emerged in 2018: 'We're all there'

The Cubs 2018 starting rotation ahas played like an M. Night Shyamalan movie.

Cubs fans and pundits alike have been on the edge of their seats all season, waiting, suspension building, looking for the big twist we all know is coming.

That moment may actually be occurring right now, allowing everybody to sit back, sigh and say, "THERE it is."

With a stellar start from Kyle Hendricks Sunday — one of his best of the season, he admitted — the Cubs rotation has posted a 1.67 ERA and has not allowed a single homer over the last 10 games.

"I think we're all there," Hendricks said. "We're all getting there. We've been on a really good run the last week or two. Just been throwing the ball real well as a staff and the bullpen's still keeping up their end.

"It's nice to feel that roll one start after another — guys going out and performing and making pitches."

That sound you heard just now was every Cubs fan standing up and shouting, "Preach!" 

Cubs starters have been flashing signs in the past, going on a nice run for a few games or so. But this is the most extended run of success this season for the unit and it's no coincidence the Cubs are suddenly riding a five-game winning streak and looking like they've got their mojo back.

Remember, this was what many experts around the game thought was in the conversation as the best rotation in the National League in spring training.

Hendricks tossed 7 shutout innings in Sunday's 9-0 victory over the Reds. He permitted just a pair of singles and a walk, lowering his ERA to 3.86, his best mark since June 21. 

Hendricks has been happy with where he's at mechanically and stuff-wise for a few starts in a row now, but still had trouble getting the results to match. 

Not anymore.

"My mechanics feel good now," he said. "The ball's doing what I want it to now."

Sunday was his fourth straight start of at least 6 solid innings pitched and he could've gone even longer if the game wasn't a blowout and the heat index at Wrigley Field wasn't 101 degrees with insane humidity.

"The difference for me is the deception in the changeup is back," Joe Maddon said. "The arm speed on the changeup is there. It's not just a take pitch anymore. They're not reading it like they had earlier in the season, so that's a big part of his success."

Reds second baseman Scooter Gennett can attest to that. He was so far in front of a Hendricks changeup in the seventh inning, he fell to a knee during his swing and could do nothing but laugh in reaction:

Hendricks agrees that his changeup is a much bigger weapon right now, pointing to improved fastball command that now allows the off-speed to play better. 

With what Cole Hamels has done this month and adjustments Jon Lester has made to climb out of a tough stretch, it's huge for the Cubs to see Hendricks go out there and dominate.

Now Mike Montgomery's return is around the corner, as well. He should be in line to come off the disabled list Thursday and throw in Atlanta. 

Alec Mills is getting at least one more turn through the rotation Wednesday following a dominant performance against the Reds over the weekend. 

That permits the Cubs to roll with a six-man rotation for the time being, allowing every starter an extra day of rest for the stretch run of the pennant race.

The Cubs are in the midst of a long stretch of games — their next off-day isn't until Sept. 13 — and if they're gonna go on a nice run and try to create some distance in the NL Central, the rotation will be the determining factor.

"We love staying on that five-day routine, especially now that we're rolling and feeling good," Hendricks said. "That's what starters love. Six days is fine, even, but five is ideal. Stay on our side routine.

"We feel strong this time of the year, coming into September. Which is good for everybody. Hopefully we can just keep going deep into ballgames and giving us a chance to win."

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.’s scary foul ball incident, one year later

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.’s scary foul ball incident, one year later

A year ago Friday, a foul ball off the bat of Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. struck a young girl in the stands at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

The young girl was rushed to the hospital and her family later revealed she suffered several head injuries as a result. The moment brought forth league-wide changes to protect fans from injury. 

One year later, here is a timeline of key dates in the fallout from the incident.

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.'s scary foul ball incident

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How Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. regrouped after emotionally trying 2019 season

How Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. regrouped after emotionally trying 2019 season

Among the more interesting Cubs storylines sidelined with the rest of baseball during the coronavirus shutdown was the career restart center fielder Albert Almora Jr. seemed to promise after an emotionally trying 2019 season.

A tumultuous, wrenching 2019 season unlike any he had ever experienced in his baseball life.

“That’s a fact,” Almora said after a strong start in spring games, and just before professional sports across the country were shut down indefinitely in March.

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the harrowing night in Houston when Almora’s foul ball struck a young girl in the head, an incident that caused serious, lingering injuries, resulted in league-wide action to better protect fans and that in the moment dropped Almora to a knee, shaken and in tears.

TIMELINE: Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.'s scary foul ball incident

It was the most emotionally fraught moment in a Cubs season that was otherwise filled with competitive extremes that finished on a low note, off-the-field drama that finished with the release of a former All-Star shortstop and failed expectations that finished with the manager getting fired.

What followed for Almora was his worst performance as a baseball player, including a .215 average and .570 OPS the rest of the season, and a two-week demotion to the minors in August.

Almora has repeatedly denied his performance was impacted by that moment in Houston.

“No,” he said again this spring. “That’s an excuse.”

But the father of two young kids won’t deny that “it definitely impacted me.”

What’s certain is that by the time he returned to the team this spring, he had a new, quieter swing and a renewed mindset that had him in what he called a better place mentally.

A strong inner circle of friends and loved ones were part of the reset, he said, and in particular “just me listening and opening up to new advice.”

Almora, of course, did nothing wrong, and there was nothing he could have done to prevent the horrible moment — like so many other players and fans and similar moments at games that came before that one.

And while that knowledge won’t eliminate the emotions that might linger, one valuable outcome of the incident was near immediate action by the White Sox and Nationals to extend their protective netting to the foul poles at their ballparks — and MLB announcing in December all teams would expand protective netting by the start of the 2020 season.

Almora’s response, meanwhile, has been about just that — focusing on his response to the way his performance fell short last year, on the things he could change to regroup and restart a career that seemed on the rise until 2019.

“I’m glad [the struggles] happened,” he said. “You have to grow from things like that. You have two options: You can fold and let it beat you, or you learn from it and grow.

“I’m fortunate I had good people around me that gave me an easier chance to just turn the page, man. You hear that phrase a lot in this game: Turn the page, turn the page. But it’s hard. It’s hard when you’re constantly failing and constantly not performing the way you know you can and letting your guys down …

“It was tough,” he added. “And it’s not figured out. No one here figures it out. But you do the things you can control. … I’m in a good mental spot right now, and that’s all I can really ask for.”

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