Cubs

Cubs won't make too much out of Kris Bryant's early-season slump

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USA TODAY

Cubs won't make too much out of Kris Bryant's early-season slump

MILWAUKEE — Never fear Cubs nation, Kris Bryant's shoulder is perfectly healthy.

After the way the last 11 months have gone, it's totally natural to wonder if his recent slump has anything to do with the ailing left shoulder that sapped his power last year and forced him out of nearly 60 games.

Especially when Bryant was removed in the 8th inning Saturday night after the Cubs went up big. 

But the Cubs maintain this nothing to do with his shoulder or any other injury. This is just a regular slump for Bryant.

"He's working through some things right now. The big thing is that he's healthy," Joe Maddon said Sunday morning. "He's an elite player and for me, guys like that, you gotta encourage them, you gotta be there to support them. Him and [Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce] are talking, but you just gotta stay with it until he comes out the other side."

Bryant collected a pair of hits in Friday night's loss to the Brewers, including a line drive in the gap for a double. But he went 0-for-5 and struck out in his last 4 at-bats during Saturday's blowout victory and watched as his season average dipped to .229 and OPS to .708.

The 2016 NL MVP started out the year hot with 5 hits (including a homer) and 4 walks in the first four games while put any lingering concerns about his shoulder to rest. Since then, however, he's just 4-for-24 with 9 strikeouts and 0 walks. 

On Sunday, Bryant did not strike out, but the results weren't much better — weak flyout on the first pitch, bloop hit, weak flyout on the first pitch and then a popout off Josh Hader with two runners on in the 7th inning.

At the very least, Bryant typically works the count, but he's struggled to do that on a consistent basis lately. You know things aren't going right for him when he's missing mistakes left over the heart of the plate and popping them up instead of crushing them.

Entering play Sunday, the only two position players on the Cubs with a worse OPS were Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. and Zobrist collected 3 hits in 4 at-bats during the series finale in Milwaukee.

But as with everything else right now —- the small sample size matters. The Cubs haven't even played a game at home yet, so it's hard to read too much into any slump. 

"I don't see [him pressing]," Anthony Rizzo said. "How many games have there been — nine? I'm sure throughout the year, a couple guys will have a worse nine games than they've had in these first nine. And you just weather the storm until you get hot."

The only thing that truly matters with Bryant right now is his health and there is no flare-up with that shoulder.

"He's gonna start hitting like he had," Maddon said. "I really believe this is an elite player coming off the end of last season — not so good, injured. This season, the first game in Texas, I said, 'My god, here we go.' That looked absolutely perfect. So just continuing to support him and let him play out of it."

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Cubs split Crosstown and Adbert Alzolay is called up

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Cubs split Crosstown and Adbert Alzolay is called up

Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki check in from Wrigley Field after the Cubs split the first leg of the Crosstown Classic with the White Sox.

Kelly and Tony discuss the breaking news of top pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay's promotion to the big leagues and what his role could be with the Cubs (2:15), and assess where the Cubs stand as they continue their long homestand, including the recent offensive downturn and Yu Darvish taking a step forward (7:30).

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Joe Maddon perplexed by the way baseballs are jumping this year: 'It's extraterrestrial'

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon perplexed by the way baseballs are jumping this year: 'It's extraterrestrial'

On a mid-June night that felt more like the first week of April, the Cubs and White Sox combined for 2,029 feet of homers. 

As Leury Garcia hit Jon Lester's first pitch of the game 429 feet Wednesday evening, the reported temperature was in the mid 50s with winds blowing in from left field at 7 mph. That's not as chilly or windy as some of the games the Cubs have played this season, but it's still certainly not ideal hitting conditions at Wrigley Field.

Yet five home runs peppered the left and center field bleachers in the Cubs' 7-3 victory and prompted veteran manager Joe Maddon to bemuse about the way the ball is jumping around baseball today.

"Difficult conditions, but again — wind blowing in at a gale, it seemed, balls flying out easily," Maddon said after the game. "The home run that [James] McCann hit, my god, that just took off. You could actually see it from the field. You watch the flags [blowing in], it gets there, then all of a sudden it took off like a UFO. It stood still, then it took off. The first home run of the game, the first pitch, I mean my god, that ball went far. 

"I don't know what I'm witnessing. The way the ball is coming off the bat right now, it's extraterrestrial. It's like an ET kind of a thing going on out there. It's crazy. This is my fifth year here and I know what I've seen. Whenever the wind is blowing in like that, you don't see that. You don't see that."

Lester worked around those two homers from Garcia and McCann to pick up his 6th win, thanks in large part to the power supplied from his own teammates. Catcher Willson Contreras mashed his 14th and 15th homers of the season (after hitting only 10 all of last year) and David Bote smashed his 9th. 

Overall this season, the Cubs have been on an insane home run barrage, on pace to blow past the franchise mark for longballs in a year. Contreras reaching the 15-homer plateau puts five Cubs in that club this season. No other MLB team has more than three players who have reached that mark.

"I just know the ball's leaving," Maddon said. "I don't know if it's another year of maturity, but it's not just us. It's industry-wide. So it's hard to just say that we're the outlier with all this going on. I still want to see the better approach with runners in scoring position." 

Six weeks ago, Lester brought up the juiced baseball discussion after a start against the Marlins, saying he and other pitchers would like to know if MLB is juicing the baseballs. The league hasn't openly stated anything is different with the baseballs, though home runs are up at an astronomical rate across the board — in both the majors and Triple-A. And we haven't even gotten into the summer weather yet, when the ball really starts flying on warm evenings.

When asked for his thoughts on the baseballs Wednesday night, Lester shrugged it off.

"No comment," he said. "We can sit here and talk until we're blue in the face about the ball. It is what it is. Every pitcher in the big leagues has to pitch with it. You can comment on it all you want, but it just sounds like an excuse. I don't make excuses. Gotta make better pitches."