Everybody is trying to be the hero: One explanation for Cubs' early-season struggles


Everybody is trying to be the hero: One explanation for Cubs' early-season struggles

MILWAUKEE — We can sit here and rattle off stat after stat about the awful start for the Cubs bullpen in 2019.

You know what, actually strike out the word "bullpen" and the statement still holds up.

The Cubs certainly didn't envision they'd enter a big early-season showdown with the Brewers this weekend with a 1-5 record.

But the pressing question after the team's first week was simply: Why?

Why was this bullpen struggling to get anybody out? Why was the defense committing miscue after miscue? Why is the starting rotation struggling to hold up its end of the bargain? 

Why does the team continue to come out looking flat and tight?

The answer to every question may lie in the last query — maybe because these players ARE tight. They are pressing.

Everybody is trying to be the hero that gets the Cubs back on track. That's been especially true in the bullpen.

"That's typical what happens and you're gonna hear that [hero] line utilized all the time in moments like this, but right now, they are probably trying a little bit too hard and they're seeing the guy in front of them not being successful and maybe they're carrying the weight with them," Joe Maddon said. "It snowballs in a bad way."

That "snowball" phrase seems to be a common refrain around the Cubs these days.

It makes sense, too, as it's the best way to sum up the way things have spiraled downward the last five games.

"There was such an emphasis on getting off to a fast start that it kind of has snowballed here and it has been magnified extremely this first week," veteran reliever Brad Brach said. "That's just the way it is. If this happened in June, it probably wouldn't be that big of a deal. But because it's March and April and the season first started and we're going against the Brewers, it's definitely magnified.

"You can't really worry about it. You just gotta get back to doing what you do and just hope that one good outing leads to another good outing just as one bad outing could lead to another bad outing. Just get the ball rolling in the other way and hopefully we can turn it around."

Brach is in his first year with the Cubs, as the main addition to the bullpen this winter. 

The 32-year-old reliever is in his 8th season in the big leagues and is one of two Cubs relievers who didn't allow a run in the first two series of the season (Brandon Kintzler is the other, but the two pitchers were charged with a combined 4 runs Friday).

Brach hasn't struggled to the same degree as some of his fellow bullpen mates, but he has felt the same pressure and desire to be the hero.

He made two appearances in Atlanta earlier in the week, getting just 5 outs while walking 5 batters. He did not allow a run, but he did feel like he was trying too hard, especially considering it was against his former team (he was traded to the Braves midseason last year and joined them for their playoff run). It's something he chatted with Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy about recently.

"I think in Atlanta, facing the old team I was with last year, and just trying to impress these guys," Brach said. "Going out there in my second outing, I was trying to be the hero, trying to catapult the bullpen into pitching a little better. It's not something you can do as an individual. 

"I started rushing everything and the game sped up on me and I did a terrible job of keeping my emotions in check there. Just trying to get my teammates to trust me when I go out there and let the coaches know what kinda pitcher I am.

"I had a manager who always said 'you can't put the cart before the horse' and that's kinda what I was doing this past series [in Atlanta]."

So how do Brach and the Cubs figure out how to get the horse back in front of the cart?

"It's just taking it one pitch at a time and relaxing," Brach said. "You do it one step at a time. There's no way to put the result before the execution of the pitch. It's one of those things where you have to do it one pitch at a time, regardless of how hard or difficult that can be at times. 

"Because all you can control is before the pitch. Once it leaves your fingertips, there's nothing you can do. You just get the sign, try to get your arm where you want it to be and after that, there's really nothing else I can do."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.

Cubs Talk Podcast Ep. 237: It's so good to be with the Director of Morale

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast Ep. 237: It's so good to be with the Director of Morale

Luke Stuckmeyer and producer Eric Strobel welcome Frederic, aka the Cubs' unofficial Director of Morale. Fred takes us through the origins and growth of his fandom and social media persona (1:30), before discussing how Jake Arrieta's dominance announced the Cubs as contenders (7:30) and the now-ubiquitous hard hats in the bleachers (16:00). Finally, Fred and the guys talk about this year's team, including the lack of strikeout stuff on the pitching staff (22:30) and the unicorn that is Javy Baez (30:00). 

You can listen to the entire thing right here or in the embedded player below:

Cubs map out next steps for closer Craig Kimbrel

Cubs map out next steps for closer Craig Kimbrel

Craig Kimbrel is one step closer to joining the Cubs bullpen.

According to Patrick Mooney of The Athletic, Kimbrel will join Triple-A Iowa and make his first appearance on Tuesday, against the Sacramento River Cats.

While the Cubs officially signed him on June 7, Kimbrel has yet to pitch in actual games. The 31-year-old has been in a condensed spring training program at the Cubs' Arizona complex, throwing live batting practice on both Thursday and Saturday.

The Cubs haven't revealed an official timeline for Kimbrel to join the 25-man roster, as they are basing things off of how he feels. The expectation is he will pitch in about five games with Iowa before joining the Cubs. However, both Theo Epstein and Kimbrel acknowledged how the goal isn't to rush the closer back into MLB action.

"We're not gonna rush it," Epstein said. "It's gonna be tempting to get him here as soon as possible, but we're trying to plan this thing the right way so that he could be in a position to succeed not just immediately but in October. That's gonna be our guiding principle as we go."

"We sat down and put a gameplan together — something to work off of," Kimbrel said. "But at the end of the day, it's based off how I recover, how I get ready. This isn't about getting back on the field as fast as I can. This is about being the best that I can be in October and down the stretch and doing what I came here to do for this team."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.