Cubs

Current players who can replicate Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire 1998 home run totals

Current players who can replicate Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire 1998 home run totals

If watching "Long Gone Summer" left you wanting more, let's point you in the right direction. 

I asked some of our baseball minds at NBC Sports Chicago which present-day MLB player they think can closest replicate Mark McGwire's (70) and Sammy Sosa's (66) home run totals from 1998.

Our White Sox scribe Vinnie Duber kicks it off:

"It’s certainly possible, though there might only be a few guys who could do it on an annual basis," Duber said, "as opposed to the variety of guys who were turning in 40- and 50-homer seasons in the '90s and early 2000s.

"But three players still 30 and under rank in the top 30 on baseball’s single-season home run list: Giancarlo Stanton (now 30) hit 59 in 2017, Pete Alonso (now 25) hit 53 as a rookie last year and Aaron Judge (now 28) hit 52 in 2017. While Stanton and Judge have both had injury issues in the middle of that Yankees lineup, both are big, strong dudes capable of hitting a ton of homers. Alonso might be the most intriguing, as he’s got all of one big league season under his belt and mashed more than 50 homers in it."

RELATED: Sammy Sosa: Why are Cubs punishing me for what 'pretty much everybody' did

I agree the likely suspects are Stanton, Judge and Alonso. The numbers bear out. In MLB history, only Stanton's 2017 total is in the top 10 overall. Ryan Howard (2006) and McGwire (1997) are next on the leaderboard with 58, and Jimmie Foxx (1932) and Hank Greenberg (1938) also hit 58. The next highest total from the 2010s is 54, hit by Jose Bautista in 2010.

Jeff Nelson, producer of "Baseball Night in Chicago" and NBC Sport Chicago pregame and postgame shows, offered this when discussing the idea of not just passing 1998, but Barry Bonds' 2001 season, when he hit 73 homers:

"I don't think we're ever going to see two players chasing the home run mark like Sosa and McGwire did in 1998. They only had to get to 62," Nelson said. "The next race is to 74, almost 20 percent more home runs than the chase in '98. To counter the argument of launch angle and a different baseball, I would point to social media. The Sammy-Big Mac race captured the attention of the nation in a pre-social media world. The following the race would get 22 years later could blow up Twitter (though that would probably be a good thing).

"If there were to be a two-man race, I would go with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, similar to another all-Yankees home run chase in '61, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. Though they would both have to stay healthy, something that hasn't happened the last couple of years."

Duber had this to say regarding a possible passing of Bonds' 2001 total: 

"It still seems a little outrageous to think we’d see 70 homers again. Even Alonso’s MLB-leading total last year was a whopping 17 away from matching McGwire’s in 1998," he said. "Eugenio Saurez ranked second in baseball in homers and was 21 shy of McGwire. But even still, someone came within 11 just three years ago."

And NBC Sports Chicago's noted baseball numbers cruncher Chris Kamka offered this:

"While it's unlikely that it will happen again — especially two players in the same season — it's certainly possible," Kamka said. "And especially now while the ball is flying over the fence at record numbers.

"Four players come to mind. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout and possibly Pete Alonso are, in my opinion, the candidates who are most likely to pull it off — if anyone does. It will take a generational talent in home run power to get it done. Judge, Stanton and Trout are without a doubt just that. If Alonso can continue to improve, he might be on that level as well. Trout draws so many walks, I don't know if he'll get enough chances, although Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs despite drawing 177 walks, so it's not out of the question."

And while we wait for the 2020 season, we do know this certainty: to hope for numbers like these, we'll have to wait until 2021, at least. 

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Why Cubs say 'nothing's going to faze us now' after historic 12-3 start

Why Cubs say 'nothing's going to faze us now' after historic 12-3 start

Throughout his career, Jon Lester has called the typical baseball season a roller coaster.

“I think we’re on the Six Flags roller coaster right now,” the Cubs’ veteran pitcher said. “We’re not on the kiddie side of anything.”

Three-month shutdown. Deadly pandemic. Surgical masks. Empty stadiums. Every-other-day testing for COVID-19.

“That being said, I think everybody’s just glad to be doing it,” he said.

As strange as that sounds, maybe that explains it. Maybe the Cubs are just glad to be here.

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Anthony Rizzo, the most tenured player in the clubhouse, said that much in February — said how much he intended to enjoy every day of this season because the nine players left from the 2016 championship were on borrowed time as a group, likely to be ripped apart at the trade deadline with a poor start.

Whatever it is that has brought them to this point, get a load of the Cubs five months after the coronavirus pandemic shut down spring training.

After the Cardinals’ COVID-19 outbreak wiped out the Cubs’ series in St. Louis and sidelined them for four days, the Cubs responded by outscoring Cleveland 15-3 to sweep a two-game series — albeit, after that team put two of its best pitchers on the restricted list for violating safety protocols.

The Cubs return home with a 12-3 record that ties its best through 15 games since it went 13-2 in 1907 on the way to a World Series championship. (Of course, the other time it went 12-3 was 1970, when the rest of the season was not so good).

The biggest difference this year, of course, is that 15 games already represents one-fourth of the season, assuming Major League Baseball can pull off this nine-week, 30-team long shot.

So it would be like starting 32-8 in a 162-game season.

Or maybe not a lot different than starting 25-6 — which is what the Cubs did in 2016 on the way to 103 victories and a World Series championship that finished in the same place they just knocked around the best team they’ve played so far this season. (The Cubs were 11-4 through 15 games in 2016.)

“It’s kind of cool,” Lester said of the short season. “It’s kind of cool to have this pressure on you from Day 1. I think sometimes we can all get into the, 'It’s the first month; hey, we’ve got a long way to go.’

“Obviously, we can’t say that. I feel like guys are grinding a little bit more early on. I think it shows in our at-bats. I think it shows in our approach on the mound.”

As they open a 10-game homestand Thursday against the Brewers, the Cubs’ starting rotation is 11-3 with a 2.65 ERA. After a shaky first week, the bullpen has generally performed well. The fielding is among the best in baseball.

And the lineup just scored seven runs each of the last two nights against a pitching staff that hadn’t allowed more than four in a game — after an unexpected layoff.

“There have been so many things going on this whole year I think that nothing’s going to faze us now,” said Kyle Hendricks (3-1), who pitched six strong innings to win Wednesday.

Talk about a push-button operation for a first-year manager.

“Yeah, you haven’t sat in this seat,” manager David Ross said with a laugh when it was suggested he had nothing to complain about 15 games into the season.

“We’ve got good players. That’s what it is,” he said. “There’s nothing to complain about because the talent’s there. The character’s there. The commitment, the focus, the energy, the work — all those things that seem easy to bring every day; it’s not. It’s not easy. Especially in this environment we’re dealing with now.

“It’s all about the players, man.”

Maybe adding a designated hitter is a difference maker for a National League team that had the luxury of good developing and platoon hitters on its bench.

“I can’t really remember a time playing for this team where it was really like that, where 1 through 9 there was damage all through the order,” former MVP Kris Bryant said. “I think it shows in our record and the baseball that we’re playing right now, too.”

“It’s everything right now. Everything’s clicking.”

Maybe some of it’s the right new manager at the right time, like the front office has suggested? Maybe some of it’s the growth of Rizzo as a leader and tone-setter in the clubhouse, like Ross suggested?

Maybe it’s the kind of urgency and focus the front office talked about last year — but that a 60-game sprint through a COVID-19 minefield demands.

“If I had to compare the mindset this season, it’s been more of a playoff scenario,” Lester said, “where every day you show up you pay a little bit more attention to detail, a little bit more attention to that scouting report and what you’re trying to do.

“You don’t have that window to make a mistake. The big thing for us is energy, and I think when we [bring] that, when we show up with energy every day, you see a good product on the field, whether we win or lose.”

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Cubs quick takes: Cubs head home with 12-3 start after sweep in Cleveland

Cubs quick takes: Cubs head home with 12-3 start after sweep in Cleveland

Whether Zach Plesac's and Mike Clevinger's Mistake by the Lake deflated hot-starting Cleveland, the Cubs looked anything but deflated during a decisive two-game sweep of the team that looked like the best team on their schedule so far.

After Clevinger was scratched from Tuesday's start because he and Plesac violated COVID-19 protocols and left their hotel over the weekend, the Cubs scored seven runs in each game against a team that hadn't allowed more than four in a game until then.

"The guys are as locked in as I've ever seen," said Wednesday's winning pitcher, Kyle Hendricks, of a lineup that produced home runs by Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, and another two RBIs by Jason Heyward during the 7-2 win.

Heyward drove in five runs during the sweep, in which the Cubs outscored Cleveland 15-3.

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Quick takes from the victory that sends the Cubs home with the best record in the majors: 

Happy return

Starters Jon Lester and Hendricks pitched with a combined seven extra days of rest, but both were impressive in earning victories in the sweep.

"The starters keep doing their thing," manager David Ross said, adding of Hendricks' mix and location: "It's a clinic."

One night after Lester allowed one run in six innings, Hendricks (3-1) made his first start in Cleveland since Game 7 of the 2016 World Series and matched Lester’s performance.

Hendricks, the Cubs’ Opening Day starter, who struck out five without a walk, lowered his ERA to 3.08 through four starts.

The only run he allowed came after Cleveland successfully challenged what appeared to be a diving catch by Bryant in left field for the second out of the fifth. Instead, it was ruled a catch, loading the bases, and José Ramírez followed with a sacrifice fly.

"I thought I caught it," Bryant said. "Apparently, I didn't. Whatever."

Who needs the DH?

Not the Cubs, apparently.

Ross likes using his second, good-hitting catcher, Victor Caratini, as the designated hitter, when Willson Contreras starts behind the plate.

So what if something happens to the starting catcher if No. 2 is the DH? We found out in the fifth, when Contreras got ticked off at a check-swing, third-strike call, argued, slammed his bat and got ejected.

Rather than go to the third catcher, Josh Phegley, Ross instead surrendered the DH and put Caratini behind the plate, with the Cubs leading 4-0 at the time.

Ross used his bench to pinch hit for Contreras’ spot in the order the rest of the game.

Schwarb-less

Left fielder Kyle Schwarber was scratched from the lineup because of lingering soreness in his right knee after being hit by a pitch in Tuesday night’s sixth inning.

Schwarber, whose status is considered day-to-day, was replaced in left by Bryant (moving from third base) and in the lineup David Bote (playing third). Schwarber pinch hit in the ninth inning, striking out.

Snare scare

Bryant appeared to jam his left wrist making a diving attempt at César Hernández’ shallow fly to left in the fifth. He grimaced in pain on the play, and it appeared to bother him the rest of the inning.

By the top of the sixth he seemed fine, driving a deep home run to left field. He was replaced in the ninth, but for defense, Ross said.

"I'm OK," Bryant said after the game. "It doesn't feel great."

Where they stand

The Cubs reached the quarter mark of their 60-game schedule at 12-3, the best record in the majors.

On deck

The Cubs return home to open a four-game series Thursday night against the Brewers.

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