A locked-in Kyle Schwarber has locked down the leadoff spot for the Cubs

A locked-in Kyle Schwarber has locked down the leadoff spot for the Cubs

It's safe to say the Cubs have found their long-term leadoff hitter. 

The revolving door atop the order has stopped over the last month, with Kyle Schwarber stepping into the role and running with it.  

As his team completed the sweep of the rival Cardinals at Wrigley Field Sunday night with a 5-1 victory, he jumpstarted the Cubs' offense once again with a walk in the first inning and motored around to third base on Kris Bryant's single into the left-centerfield gap. Schwarber then later scored on Anthony Rizzo's ground out to stake the Cubs to an early 1-0 lead.

Four innings later, he hit another rocket to right-center for an RBI double to plate David Bote.

"Love his stance right now, man. I love what he's doing in the box. I think it looks great," Joe Maddon said. "That's it — that's why he's punishing the baseball. He's made some beautiful adjustments and it's as good as I've seen him. Ever. I've seen him good when he first came up [in 2015] and even in the World Series — he was outstanding. But this, if we could put this little bit in a time capsule, heads up."

The Cubs entered the year figuring Ben Zobrist would see most of the time at leadoff against right-handed pitchers and Albert Almora Jr. would slot in there against lefties, with Daniel Descalso or Jason Heyward maybe working in there a bit, too. 

But Zobrist left the team to deal with personal matters during the first week of May while Almora has actually struggled against lefties to start the season and Descalso has struggled in general the last month-plus. Heyward has been a valuable piece to the middle/bottom of the Cubs' order all year, so Maddon needed somebody else to plug in ahead of Bryant, Rizzo and Javy Baez.

Enter Round 2 of the Kyle Schwarber Leadoff Experiment.

Back in 2017, Schwarber was dubbed as the Cubs' next leadoff hitter as Dexter Fowler went south to join the Cardinals. But the young outfielder didn't take to the spot that season, batting .190 with a .693 OPS in 36 starts atop the Cubs order before getting sent down to the minors to work on his swing. By the time he returned to Chicago, he had lost the hold on the leadoff spot. 

This time around, things are going much, much better for the slugger and his team.

Since May 16, Schwarber has started every game he's played in the leadoff spot (even against lefties). The only time he wasn't atop the Cubs' order was Friday's series opener with the Cardinals when he got a general day off and The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time (Rizzo) took over for an afternoon.

In that span, the Cubs are averaging 5.2 runs per game — which is right in line with their season tally (5.3 runs per game), so the lineup's overall production hasn't missed a beat.

But Schwarber himself is starting to take off after a hot homestand in which he's reached base 12 times and scored 6 runs in 6 games. He's also homered twice, including a 114 mph rocket into the right field bleachers on the 11th pitch of an at-bat Saturday night.

"Schwarbs, to me, that's what it's supposed to look like," Maddon said. "And not because of the home run [Saturday]. What he's doing at the plate right now, we need to keep that in a jar, because that looks really good."

Schwarber said he's been feeling pretty good the last week or so and believes he's simply not missing his pitch right now. He wasn't willing to admit this is the best he's ever been at the big-league level, but he knows the skills are in there and right now, it's just all clicking for him.

The big night Sunday boosted Schwarber's OPS out of the leadoff spot to .911 on a .258/.349/.562 slash line. He's also scored 20 runs in 23 games at leadoff while smashing 12 extra-base hits (including 7 homers) and driving in 16 runs.

Schwarber believes he's better equipped to handle the leadoff role right now because the circumstances are different than they were in 2017.

"A little bit more experience there and kinda taking away the leadoff hitter name or role or whatever it is and just go out there and take my at-bats," he said.

With that stability atop the order now, it's changed the complexion of the Cubs' lineup. In their exit interviews with Theo Epstein and the Cubs brass, some players mentioned that they wanted more consistent lineups in 2019.

Right now, it's about as stable as it gets. On any given day, it's easy enough to predict what the lineup will be: Schwarber-Bryant-Rizzo-Baez and then either Carlos Gonzalez or Willson Contreras hitting fifth and Heyward not too far behind.

It also presents as a nice left-right-left-right balance for the Cubs.

"We've all seen what he's able to do as far as working the count," Jon Lester said Saturday night. "It seems like now he's just not missing the pitch he's supposed to hit. He gets frustrated when that pitch comes and he misses it or fouls it off. Now, it seems like — knock on wood — that he's locked in and doing well. 

"We all know he knows the strike zone and he can work walks, but when he's hitting the ball out of the ballpark, that just adds another dynamic to the lineup. Especially with him in the 1-hole now, our lineup getting turned over. He's not only getting on base, but hitting for power and that makes our lineup deeper. It just extends those innings that these guys have to pitch and pitchers have to throw. 

"When we're able to throw him in there with the way our lineup's been going, it's always an added bonus."

Road struggles continue for Cubs in late-game implosion against Giants

Road struggles continue for Cubs in late-game implosion against Giants

It’s no secret that the Cubs have had their fair share of struggles on the road this season. Entering Monday’s game the Giants – the first of a nine-game road trip -- the Cubs held an 18-27 road record, 21st in all of baseball.

Things took a turn for the worse in that department on Monday night.

Clinging to a 4-2 lead in the eighth inning, the Cubs called upon reliever Pedro Strop to shut down the Giants 3-4-5 hitters. Strop, who entered action with a 4.62 ERA in 29 appearances (5.40 in July), surrendered three runs on four hits – including three doubles. The end result was the Giants taking a 5-4 lead, ultimately the game’s final score.

While Strop’s outing will get the most face time due to it occurring in a high-leverage spot, the truth of the matter is that the Cubs struggled for much of Monday’s game. After taking an early 3-0 lead, they couldn’t pull away from the Giants, watching San Francisco slowly close the gap and cut the deficit to 3-2 in the fifth inning.

The Giants actually came close to tying the game at 3-3 in the seventh inning, though Steve Cishek was able to work out of a first and second, one out jam to keep the Cubs ahead. Plus, before consecutive two out singles in the eighth inning – one being an RBI from Anthony Rizzo to give the Cubs an insurance run, the Cubs offense went through a 1-for-15 drought that began with two outs in the third inning.

At the same time, Strop struggling again is quite concerning. The 34-year-old has been the team's most reliable reliever for the past five seasons, posting sub-3.00 ERAs in each campaign from 2014-18. However, he's in the midst of a forgettable month, allowing seven runs on 11 hits in 7 2/3 innings. Strop also surrendered a game-tying home run in the eighth inning Friday against the Padres, though the Cubs were able to bounce back and win. 

Between their road woes and Strop's rough July, Monday's game did nothing to alleviate concerns over two unsettling Cubs trends. If there's one positive to take away from the game, it's that the Cubs were six outs away from picking up their third road win in seven tries this month.

Moral victories count for little when a team is in a heated pennant race, though, especially since the Cardinals took down the Pirates Monday to cut the Cubs' lead in the NL Central to 1.5 games. The Cubs have to find a way to get better on the road, and they have to find a way to get Strop back on track. Fortunately for the Cubs, there's still time to do both, as Strop pointed out postgame.

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What Brewers ace Brandon Woodruff's oblique strain means for Cubs, NL Central


What Brewers ace Brandon Woodruff's oblique strain means for Cubs, NL Central

The Brewers’ pursuit of second-straight NL Central championship suffered a devastating blow on Monday, as staff ace Brandon Woodruff landed on the injured list with a left oblique strain.

Woodruff, who exited Sunday’s game against the Diamondbacks in the fourth inning, is expected to be out for about six weeks. The 26-year-old is enjoying a breakout 2019 season in which he was named an All-Star for the first time. He ranks first among Brewers starting pitchers in wins (11), strikeouts (136) and innings (117 2/3) while ranking second in ERA (3.75) among pitchers with at least 10 starts.

The timing of Woodruff’s injury is unfortunate for the Brewers, who enter Monday two games behind the Cubs for first place in the NL Central at 53-48. Most teams aren’t equipped to lose their best starting pitcher for an extended period, especially in the thick of a pennant race. This is especially true for the Brewers, whose starting pitching has struggled in 2019.

Entering Monday, the Brewers starting pitchers rank 18th in MLB with a 4.73 ERA. This is a far cry from last season, when they ranked 11th with a 3.92 ERA. So, while Woodruff’s injury complicates matters, the Brewers already had a need for starting pitching.

The Brewers have a tough decision to make. They could swing a trade (or two) to give their rotation a much-needed boost. Potentially available pitchers include Madison Bumgarner of the Giants, Mike Minor of the Rangers, Matthew Boyd of the Tigers, Zack Greinke of the Diamondbacks and Marcus Stroman of the Blue Jays, among others.

Acquiring a single pitcher isn’t going to solve the team’s woes, however, which Matt Clapp from The Comeback pointed out.

As Clapp said, any trade will likely require some form of prospect capital, and teams would be unwise not to ask the Brewers for rookie phenom Keston Hiura in negotiations. Hiura, 22, is hitting .331/.387/.613 with nine home runs in 37 games, though, so it’s tough to imagine the Brewers parting with him in any deal.

Thus, the Brewers either must create an enticing enough package without Hiura or stand pat. If they were to do the latter, they risk losing ground in the NL Central standings to the Cubs and Cardinals amid a tough stretch in their schedule.

From July 15-Aug. 4, the Brewers will play 16 games out of 19 against teams with .500 or better records. Although they’re currently 5-2 in that stretch, Milwaukee went 9-17 from June 14-July 14, a stretch of 26-straight games against teams with losing records. Woodruff’s injury, therefore, comes at a point in the Brewers’ schedule where it’s make or break time.

The Cubs have come out of the All-Star break hot, going 7-2 to give themselves the slightest amount of breathing room in the NL Central standings. With how the Cubs are playing, the division could become out of reach for the Brewers if they can’t stay afloat during their current stretch – let alone until Woodruff returns. Not to mention the Cardinals, who are 7-3 since the break and sit just a half game behind the Brewers in the division standings.

Of course, the Brewers were five games back of the Cubs in the NL Central entering September last season, only to win the division in Game 163. Their current position is certainly not ideal, but the Cubs and Cardinals aren't out of the woods yet. There has been a great sense of urgency within the NL Central all season due to the compact standings. For the Brewers, that urgency certainly is higher than ever now.

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