Cubs

Kris Bryant believes he'll have more power than ever when he returns from shoulder injury

Kris Bryant believes he'll have more power than ever when he returns from shoulder injury

Kris Bryant — the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year and 2016 MVP with 105 home runs already to his name before even turning 27 — believes he will have more power in his swing when he returns from his left shoulder injury.

Which may be soon, by the way. 

Bryant took batting practice on the field Saturday, showing off his new two-handed finish to his swing that he believes will create more power. He will take live BP against teammate Drew Smyly — who is rehabbing from Tommy John — Sunday and then may head out on a rehab assignment in the minor leagues as early as Monday.

"I felt good today, so ready to go," said Bryant, who hit a ball off the Wrigley Field video board in left and even took a couple swings left-handed to mess around — "I was trying to be like Rizz."

There is no set timetable for when Bryant will return and the Cubs aren't giving him a mandate of a certain amount of at-bats he needs to get after missing more than a month. It will all be based on how he feels. 

If all goes well, the Cubs could have their superstar back in the lineup late next week, in the final days of August or first couple days of September.

That would be a huge boost to this team both mentally and tactically.

"Just like [Daniel Murphy] walking in the door — you get a really good player back in your lineup; it makes a difference," Joe Maddon said. "It lengthens the lineup. All of a sudden, you look at these names and wow. You're placing guys farther down below that had been maybe a bit higher based on the thickness of the lineup.

"Obviously it's always a good thing. Now, having been out for a bit, when [Bryant] does come back, I don't want to expect everything out of him, either. I want him to just go ahead and play and we'll take what happens after that. It'll be interesting.

"I think he looks great right now, actually. Go play, get your ABs and whenever that right moment [to return] occurs, it'll occur."

Maddon said he's more worried about Bryant's body being sore after having nearly five weeks off without any game action. 

When Bryant does get into game action in the minor leagues and then again back with the big-league club, it will be interesting to see if he keeps his new two-handed follow-through on the swing. After all, he's taken countless swings finishing with one hand, so it'd only be natural if his body went back to the way it was conditioned for so many years.

It was devised as a way to limit the wear and tear on his left shoulder, which took the brunt of the pressure of his long arms and powerful swing on its own as he finished high with the right hand coming off the bat. Even if he goes back to the natural way he's always finished his swing with the one hand during games, he's still going to keep the two-handed approach in practice. 

Bryant initially injured his shoulder on a slide in late May and believes he exacerbated the issue by taking too many swings in the cages in trying to get out of his slump. The hope is the two-handed finish should reduce the chance of that happening again, regardless of how many swings he takes in practice.

He compared it to a golf swing (golfers almost never let go of the club with one hand like baseball players do) and pointed to how Anthony Rizzo uses a two-handed finish and still generates power.

"It feels good," Bryant said. "I feel a lot more powerful. I feel like I'm hitting the ball farther."

Bryant compared this change to when he widened his stance during his sopohomore year in college, a move he called a "gamechanger" for the swing that helped him become the No. 2 overall pick.

More power would be huge considering his lack of power was a major talking point before he revealed the shoulder injury — he currently has the lowest slugging percentage (.474) of his career.

But is he really hitting the ball farther than even pre-injury?

"Yeah, even in the cage, off the tee, the ball just seems to be jumping off the bat," Bryant said. "It could be the same, honestly, I don't know. But just in my mind, I feel like the ball's really jumping off the bat and anytime you have that upper edge in terms of how you're thinking and your confidence, that's all that really matters. So that's how I'm feeling."

Jon Lester on Cubs-Cards series amid COVID-19 news: 'I don't see that happening'

Jon Lester on Cubs-Cards series amid COVID-19 news: 'I don't see that happening'

At least the Cubs got to try out that new extra-inning rule. They even got five innings of scoreless baseball from their much-maligned bullpen before the weekend was done.

But where does the hottest-starting team in the National League go next?

Nobody could be sure Sunday as worsening COVID-19 news swirled around the Cardinals during the Cubs’ extra-inning victory over the Pirates.

Various reports suggested as many as four more Cardinals players and staff tested positive for the coronavirus Saturday night, in addition to the four confirmed cases from earlier in the week. That led to another round of testing Sunday to confirm the results of the potentially positive cases — all playing out five days before the Cubs are scheduled to open a three-game series in St. Louis.

“I would imagine that we’re probably not playing those games this weekend. But I can’t fully speak to that,” veteran pitcher Jon Lester said.” That’s just my opinion. Maybe there’s a way where we flip the schedule around where we’re playing somebody else. I think guys right now just want to keep playing.

“It sucks that we’re dealing with this, but it’s the nature of the beast right now. The league I’m sure will alter the plans going forward. If we’re in St. Louis on Friday, we’re in St. Louis on Friday. We’ll figure it out, and we’ll try to beat the Cardinals and move on to the next day. But right now, as of today, I don’t see that happening.”

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The Cardinals already have had four days of games postponed — the second team to deal with an outbreak after the Marlins had 18 players test positive in the days following their opener in Philadelphia. The Marlins haven’t played in a week. Their outbreak prompted MLB to juggle the schedules of other teams impacted by the Marlins shutdown to allow them to keep playing during the week. 

If the Cardinals news doesn’t improve fast, it could mean a much tougher decision for commissioner Rob Manfred, who in recent days had pledged to persist with the season, even if it meant teams would finish with different numbers of games played.

Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said on Saturday his conversations with MLB and officials from other teams in recent days offered no sense of clarity on the viability of play during the first-week crisis — even as MLB mandated safety compliance officers for each team and stressed greater adherence to protocols.

“I don’t think there’s any consensus,” Hoyer said. “Our experience so far has been positive, and based on what I have viewed this is absolutely survivable. But our experience hasn’t been the rule.”

RELATED: Why no Cubs have expressed intent to opt out amid MLB COVID-19 outbreaks

The Cubs are the only team in the league that hasn’t had a player test positive since intake testing began more than a month ago — though star third baseman Kris Bryant has self-quarantined since reporting a stomachache to team officials Saturday. He has continued to test negative, was said to feel better Sunday, and might be cleared to play Monday or Tuesday depending on the results and timing of two more tests.

Whether the 7-2 Cubs and everyone else have a season to keep playing by the time he were to return — much less a Cubs-Cardinals series to play Friday — remains in flux.

Depending on how widespread the Cardinals’ outbreak becomes, the Cubs might already have faced a higher risk series in their sweep of the Pirates — who faced the Cardinals five days before taking the field at Wrigley.

“Those are the kinds of things you start thinking about during this,” Hoyer said. “You’d be crazy not to start thinking about the number of days and making sure that [the Cardinals’] outbreak is under control. I think you have a right to have those concerns and ask those questions.

“That’s probably the area that I’m focused on right now, is that as they test, the positives have to stop before we can really have a sense of what we’re dealing with.”

Until then, the team that has looked impressive against the Brewers, Reds and Pirates — and even better in containing the virus within its bubble — could be on the brink of having all its best laid plans and early performance wiped out by teams outside their bubble and factors beyond their control.

“You don’t want to see something go down just because of, I guess, a couple teams,” said Kyle Schwarber, who drove in his sixth run Sunday, threw out a runner at the plate in the 10th and has an .851 OPS so far. “Hopefully, this is something quick [with the Cards]. Hopefully, there’s able to be a fix and they’re able to keep the season going.

“It would be a disappointment just because you see the group in here, what we’ve been doing,” he added. “We’ve been responsible in everything that we’re trying to do because we know we’re part of something greater here.”

That’s about doing their part to make sure a two-month season and playoffs can be completed during a global pandemic as much as it is about doing what they can to still be one of the teams playing at that point.

The Cubs say all they can do now is show up Monday for their game against the Royals until or unless they hear otherwise.

“You can’t worry about Team ‘X’ testing positive three or four or 10, 11 times,” Lester said. “We have to worry about what’s in front of us.

“And if the commissioner comes and says we’re done, then we’re done. And if he says play on, then we play on.”

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How the Cubs bullpen became the surprise hero in series finale vs. Pirates

How the Cubs bullpen became the surprise hero in series finale vs. Pirates

Cubs reliver Jeremy Jeffress clapped in triumph. Shortstop Javier Baez had just fielded a sharp ground ball and thrown a dart to third baseman David Bote to tag out the lead runner.

The new extra innings rule had put Jeffress under pressure as soon as he stepped on the mound, but that out was like a relief valve.

“That’s exactly how you do it,” Bote said. “The pitchers made good pitches, kept them off balance.”

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In the Cubs’ 2-1 win over the Pirates on Sunday, the Chicago bullpen held Pittsburg scoreless through five innings, including two extras. This was the same bullpen that entered play Sunday with an MLB-worst 9.75 ERA. But in the series finale, Jeffress, Ryan Tepera and Dan Winkler all performed under pressure, buying the Cubs time until Baez’s walk-off single in the 11th inning.

With less than a week until the active roster is cut to 28 players, the Cubs bullpen is taking shape.

“That’s a lot of innings that we asked out of our bullpen tonight,” Cubs manager David Ross said, “and they did a really good job.”

The bullpen’s shutout began with Casey Sadler, who pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings. But with two outs in the eighth inning, Sadler walked Jose Osuna, and runners stood on first and second with cleanup hitter Colin Moran up next.

Ross turned to Dan Winkler, who only lasted a third of an inning in his first appearance this season. A week ago, he walked two and gave up an RBI single in the Cubs’ narrow win at Cincinnati. He redeemed himself Sunday.

Winkler threw three cutters in a row to Moran, and he whiffed on all of them. Winkler came back out the next inning and preserved the 1-1 tie, setting the Cubs up for their first extra-inning game of the season.

“Real big outing tonight,” Ross said. “Thought he looked sharp. Some nice cutters in there deep. Pitching though some moments was poised. Things get a little bit tenser as the game moves on in a 1-1 game, first real clincher that I think I’ve had coming down the stretch. … When you’ve got somebody out there that you feel like’s in control of the ball game, it’s just a nice feeling as a manager.”

For this season, in an attempt to avoid 15-inning games in a jam-packed schedule, Major League Baseball has adopted the international tiebreaker rule.

The hitting team starts every half inning after the ninth (or the seventh during double headers) with a runner on second. For the Cubs, that meant a bullpen that has struggled in pressure situations this year had to start each extra inning under pressure.

“For guys to step up right there and make pitches, I can only imagine what that feels like,” said starting pitcher Jon Lester, who allowed just one run in six innings. “You haven’t even thrown a pitch yet and you’ve got a guy on second base.”

With the game on the line, Ross put the ball in Tepera and Jeffress’ hands.

Craig Kimbrel, who has traditionally been the Cubs’ closer, is working through mechanical issues. On Saturday, Ross declined to say whether Kimbrel would remain the Cubs closer after a pair of disappointing outings. Kimbrel was notably absent from late innings on Sunday.

Tepera and Jeffress delivered.

“A lot of people don’t know Tep got up (in the bullpen) multiple times today,” Ross said. “So, for him to come in and have that nice outing … our guys were definitely engaged, locked in.”

Josh Bell pinch hit to lead off the 10th inning and hit a hard ground ball off Tepera into left field. Pirates baserunner Jacob Stallings, who started the inning on second, rounded third base and sprinted home. But Schwarber’s throw beat him there. Cubs catcher Willson Contreras held onto the ball through the collision at the plate.

Extra-innings threat eliminated. Tepera retired the next two batters in order.

Then it was Jeffress’ turn. Three up, three down.

 

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