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Grinding it out, working as a team: The story of the Cubs

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USA TODAY

Grinding it out, working as a team: The story of the Cubs

Five times in franchise history. That’s how often the Chicago Cubs have owned the best record in the National League heading into the All-Star game. This is the first time since 2008.

Here’s what makes it even more surprising.

They’ve been doing it without Kris Bryant for long periods of time. He’s missed roughly one quarter of the Cubs’ games. Bryant’s injuries have forced him to sit out 23 games and the 2016 National League MVP has just 10 home runs. How many teams could lose a player of that caliber and still be elite? Not many.

They’ve also found a way to the top with the other half of the Bryzzo Souvenir Co. going through multiple slumps during the first 93 games of the season. According to the advanced metric of “Weighted Runs Created Plus," Anthony Rizzo has been human at the plate. Rizzo’s wRC+ rating of 100 is exactly the league average. Last year at this time his wRC+ was 31 percent better than the league average. His current WAR is just 0.2.

Don’t get me wrong, Rizzo and Bryant have still made an impact and both have shown signs that their stocks for the second half should by on “buy now” list.

So, the Cubs’ 1-2 punch has been off their game and it’s not their biggest struggle in the so-called first half. That dubious honor belongs to the starting rotation. Their two offseason additions have been disasters. Yu Darvish hasn’t pitched and Tyler Chatwood hasn’t thrown strikes.

By this point, you’re wondering how the Cubs aren’t in 4th place? Well, for those three issues there have been just as many answers from different places. Maybe more.

In the outfield, Albert Almora’s .319 batting average ranks third in the NL and he simply seems to catch everything. Jason Heyward. Who saw this coming? He’s delivering at the plate on a regular basis. In 2016, Heyward’s wRC+ was 29 percent worse than the league average. This year, he’s climbed to a 109 rating or nine percent above average. He also catches everything. Combine those two with Kyle Schwarber’s 17 bombs and his massive defensive improvements and you have an impactful outfield. Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist have done their parts too.

Speaking of Happ, the Cubs have eight players with at least a .340 on-base percentage. Happ needs just eight more plate appearances to be the ninth Cubs’ batter on that list.

All major factors, but the biggest reason the Cubs are atop the NL despite all this adversity is “The Javy Baez Show”. El Mago has done it with his glove, his baserunning, his defense, his energy and his bat. Baez is the first player in MLB history with 18 doubles, six triples, 18 home runs and 18 stolen bases before the All-Star break.

So, how have the Cubs reached this place for the just the fifth time in franchise history? They’ve done it by grinding it out. They’ve done it as a team. Two traits that should serve them well the rest of the way. #EverybodyIn.

It's safe to say Kyle Hendricks has figured 'it' out

It's safe to say Kyle Hendricks has figured 'it' out

It was only a matter of time before Kyle Hendricks figured it all out. 

It appears Friday was that day. 

The 29-year-old right-hander was off to a slow start to the season, surrendering 24 hits and 8 earned runs in 13.1 innings across his first three starts, good for a 5.40 ERA and 2.18 WHIP. 

Things looked a little better last time out — only 2 earned runs allowed on 6 hits in 5 innings last Saturday against the Angels — but even after that start, Hendricks admitted he still feels like he's fighting himself and searching for his fastball command.

"You can't rush it," he said after that outing. "You can't rush the process. But it definitely gets frustrating. I need to do a better job and give the team a better chance to win when I'm out there regardless. And set a better tone — be more aggressive with my fastball and set a better tone for the game. You want it to come quick, but at least I'm seeing something, so I just gotta stick with what I'm doing."

Whatever he was seeing with his mechanics came to pass in Friday afternoon's 5-1 Cubs win, as he completely baffled the Diamondbacks in a brilliant performance — 7 shutout innings, permitting only 3 singles while striking out 11. It was his first double-digit strikeout game since he whiffed 12 Cardinals on Aug. 13, 2016 en route to his ERA title that season.

"Yeah, like I said, you kinda always want it to come, but I didn't think it was gonna come this quick," Hendricks admitted after Friday's game. "So to go out and make that many good pitches, yeah it helps the confidence a lot. It solidifies the things we've been working on, so I just told the guys this was just one good day, so tomorrow, gotta get right back at it with another good work day and hopefully get on a roll here."

It was also the Cubs' third straight appearance from a starting pitcher of 7 shutout innings, after Cole Hamels and Jose Quintana turned the trick in the final two games in Miami earlier in the week.

The one pitch Hendricks felt good about last time out — his changeup — was his bread and butter Friday, too. He threw it 30 times out of his 100 pitches and induced 8 swings and misses.

"That was kinda classic Kyle," Joe Maddon said. "Great changeup, again. A lot of called strikes, pitching on the edges. ... That first inning or so, still seeking and then once he found it, he got into a nice groove."

Part of the success of the changeup was due to Hendricks' command with his fastball, which he apparently figured out — for one start, at least. He threw 66 percent of his pitches for strikes throughout the game and 35 of his 56 fastballs went for strikes. 

"From the get-go, I just felt more comfortable in my mechanics, so it just freed everything up," Hendricks said. "From there, I just used my fastball a lot better — kinda like what I was talking about. Fastball command and just establishing it early. Everything else worked off that and it just had good action today. Kept it down, made a lot of good pitches, so it worked out."

Hendricks even saw 17 pitches at the plate despite an 0-for-4 performance, as the Cubs offense put 19 runners on base throughout the course of the afternoon.

However, his day was not without negatives. He took a 110 mph liner off the left leg in the seventh inning, but stayed in the game and finished off the last two hitters he faced.

He also snapped his fascinating personal streak, as he threw his first wild pitch since Sept. 5, 2016 — a span of 6,662 pitches:

"I had no idea; I came in the clubhouse and someone brought that to my attention," Hendricks said, laughing. "Time to start a new streak."

In all, Hendricks picked up his first win of 2019 and lowered his season ERA to 3.54 and WHIP to 1.67 with his performance. He also helped pitch his team back to the .500 level (9-9) for the first time since the opening weekend of the season.

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Joe Maddon weighs in on the bat-flip debate

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon weighs in on the bat-flip debate

You won't be finding Joe Maddon among Tim Anderson's defenders, but he's also not using this week's incident as a teaching moment for his players.

Maddon is still under the belief that it's better not to create a list of rules in the clubhouse to govern the players, but he also isn't into the whole show of celebration, of which bat-flips are at the forefront.

When Anderson flipped his bat on a home run Wednesday against the Royals, Kansas City pitcher Brad Keller responded by drilling Anderson the next time up. That resulted in a benches — and bullpens — clearing incident and then on Friday afternoon, both Anderson and Keller were hit with suspensions (Anderson was suspended for using a racial slur in his response to Keller). 

This is just the latest — and maybe one of the most charged — examples of the whole bat-flip/unwritten rules ordeal. Baseball's long tradition of punishing players for "showing up" a pitcher is alive and strong, and that's true even in the younger generation (Keller is only 23 years old). 

At 65, Maddon has been in the game of baseball since decades before Keller was even born, but he subscribes to a similar line of thinking as the Royals right-hander.

"I know my first year [with Cubs in 2015], I got upset at Junior Lake down in Miami [for flipping his bat]," Maddon said. "At that time, my being upset was about trying to flip the culture here — being more professional-looking and act like you're gonna do it again. That was my whole point about that.

"For me, I would prefer our guys didn't do that. I would prefer that the younger group right now doesn't need to see demonstrations like that in order to feel like they can watch baseball or that baseball is more interesting because somebody bat-flips really well and I kinda dig it and if I watch, I might see a bat-flip. 

"I would prefer kids watch baseball because it's a very interesting game, it's intellectually stimulating and when it's played properly, it's never too long. I prefer kids learn that method as opposed to become enamored with our game based on histrionics. I really would prefer that, but it seems to be that we are catering to that a bit.

"...When somebody choose to [bat-flip] and somebody gets hit in the butt because of it, that's what you're looking at. Regardless if you're old or new school, if you're a pitcher, I think you're gonna be offended by that. Act like you're gonna do it again would be the method that I would prefer with our guys. I want to believe we're not gonna do that, but it may happen here, too. And then we're just gonna have to wait and see how the other team reacts."

Though Maddon is not a fan of bat-flips and excessive celebration for big moments, he has not coached his players into avoiding such moments. 

That's why you still see Javy Baez out there being his typical flashy self and David Bote with an epic bat-flip on his walk-off grand slam (though that was obviously a much bigger moment than a run-of-the-mill fourth-inning homer) and Pedro Strop nearly dislocating his shoulder with some aggressive fist-pumps after nailing down a big out late in games.

But if anything does get out of line, Maddon prefers the policing comes from the players within the Cubs clubhouse or from the other team. Think back to last year when Baez tossed his bat in frustration after a pop-out against the Pirates at Wrigley Field and Strop pulled Baez aside to let him know "we don't do that here."

"I think the tried-and-true method of policing the group — whether it's the team policing itself or the industry and players doing the same thing," Maddon said. "I'd be curious to see if [Anderson] ever does that again, based on the result the other day." 

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