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Podcast: Is it time to start worrying about the Cubs' lack of power?

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Is it time to start worrying about the Cubs' lack of power?

The Cubs head to St. Louis this weekend firmly in second place in the National League Central after dropping 2 of 3 to the Brewers in Milwaukee where they didn’t score a run for the final 18 innings. What’s going on with the offense? Is it time to start panicking about the lack of power? What more does Mike Montgomery need to do to stick in the rotation?

Kelly Crull, Jon Graff and Tony Andracki discuss these topics on the latest CubsTalk Podcast plus a couple under-the-radar reasons why the series may have turned after the Cubs’ big win Monday night.

Listen to the entire CubsTalk Podcast here and check out more on the lack of longballs below:

The lack of power has been particularly troubling. 

After hitting 1 homer less than the National League leaders (Mets, Brewers) last year, the Cubs currently rank 10th in the league in longballs. They're on pace for only 169 homers after hitting 223 in 2017. Every player on the team besides Javy Baez is on pace for a surprisingly low homer total based on track record and potential. 

Kris Bryant hasn't homered in a month and is on pace for only 20 longballs, which would be well under his career norm. Anthony Rizzo is on track for 27 dingers and he hasn't hit fewer than 31 in a season since 2013 (though, he did get off to a slow start for the first 5 weeks of the season). Jason Heyward has turned things around at the plate this year, but is still on pace for 7 homers, which would tie his career low of 2016.

Addison Russell and Willson Contreras have both flashed their 20-homer power in the past yet are on pace to combine for only 15 dingers in 2018 (5 for Russell, 10 for Contreras). 

Even Kyle Schwarber is on track for only 27 bombs after hitting 30 last year in a season where he struggled to hit over .200 for much of the year and spent three weeks in the minor leagues. Ian Happ clubbed 24 homers as a rookie in 364 at-bats but is on track for only 20 in 384 at-bats this year.

Only Baez (on pace for 35 homers) has lived up to his power potential so far this year, but he also has only 4 longballs in the last 5 weeks of action (dating back to May 7).

The Cubs altered their offensive approach under new hitting coach Chili Davis, looking for more contact and aiming to use the whole field rather than pulling the ball with power and striking out a bunch.

Has that mindset messed with the Cubs' power? Is it just randomness of the early going this year? 

Weather has been a factor, but the cold, wintry weather is gone (probably). It's mid-June now and the halfway point in the season is coming up. Yes, there are still more than 90 games remaining on the Cubs' schedule and homers do tend to come in bunches, but the "small sample size" excuse can't be used anymore.

The Cubs insist they haven't sacrificed any power for contact, so maybe it just is a bad stretch in the power department. Before being shut out on back-to-back days, the Cubs had won 13 of 17, so however they approached their at-bats was working to some extent.

Last season, their offense got too reliant on homers for stretches and wasn't able to manufacture runs against tougher pitching. They worked to rectify that for this year and while it's largely worked out (the Cubs are near the top of the NL in runs/game, on-base percentage and OPS even after these last two losses), the offensive woes are not fully in the rearview mirror.

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Joe Maddon needed Mike Montgomery to get through at least six innings given the circumstances presenting the Cubs' manager before Game 2 of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Not only were the Cubs short a man in the bullpen (thanks to Brandon Morrow’s pants-related back injury), but Maddon had to use four relievers — including Pedro Strop for two innings — after Tyler Chatwood managed only five innings in Game 1 earlier in the afternoon. 

So when Montgomery — who had only thrown over 100 pitches once in the last two and a half seasons before Tuesday — saw his pitch count sit at 40 after two innings, and then 63 after three, he knew he needed to regroup to avoid creating a mess for the Cubs’ bullpen. 

What followed was a start that, statistically, wasn’t the most impressive of the five Montgomery’s made since re-joining the Cubs’ rotation earlier this year. But it was an important start in that the 28-year-old left-hander didn’t have his best stuff, yet didn’t give in to a good Dodgers lineup. And holding that bunch to one run over six innings was exactly what the Cubs needed in what turned out to be a 2-1 extra-inning win. 

“Especially when you don’t have have your best stuff, you always gotta — that’s when you really learn how to pitch,” Montgomery said. 

It’s also the kind of start that could be a major point in Montgomery’s favor when Maddon is presented with a decision to make on his starting rotation whenever Yu Darvish comes off the disabled list. Knowing that Montgomery can grind his way through six innings when his team needs it the most without his best stuff only can add to the confidence the Cubs have in him. 

Montgomery didn’t have his best stuff on Tuesday, issuing more walks (four) than he had in his previous four starts (three). He threw 48 pitches between the second and third innings, and only 25 of those pitches were strikes. Of the nine times the Dodgers reached base against Montgomery, six were the result of fastballs either leading to a walk or a hit. 

Even though the Dodgers were able to bother Montgomery a bit on his fastball, Maddon said that’s the pitch of his that’s impressed him the most over the last few weeks. 

“He never got rushed,” Maddon said. “In the past he would seem to get rushed when things weren’t going well, when he spot-started. Overall, fastball command is better — even though he was off a little bit tonight, the fastball command still exceeds what I’ve seen in the past couple of years on a more consistent basis. The changeup, really, good pitch. He got out of some jams but I think the fact that he knows where his fastball is going now is the difference-maker for him.”

Darvish will throw a simulated game on Wednesday after throwing two bullpen sessions last week. Maddon still doesn’t have a timetable for the $126 million right-hander’s return, and said he’s not entertaining what to do with his rotation until Darvish comes off the disabled list. But Maddon did mention Montgomery’s relative lack of an innings load — the most he’s thrown in a season in 130 2/3, which he did in 2017 — as a reason to perhaps not rush him into a permanent starting role the rest of the season. Going to a six-man rotation is a possibility, too, Maddon said. 

But the over-arching point is this: Montgomery will remain in the Cubs’ rotation as long as he keeps earning it. That can be the product of strong outings in which he has good stuff, or games like Tuesday in which he shows the Cubs the kind of resiliency most starters need to get through a full season. 

“I pitch well, good things happen,” Montgomery said. “I’ve always thought that. Opportunities, you just gotta make the most of them.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

For the second time in 1998, Sosa went back-to-back games with multiple home runs. After going yard twice on June 19 of that season, Slammin' Sammy again sent two balls into the bleachers on June 20.

He singlehandedly beat the Phillies that night, driving in 5 runs in a 9-4 Cubs victory.

But that wasn't the most impressive feat of the day from Sosa. His second homer was actually measured at a whopping 500 feet! It was the longest of the season, but not the longest of his career. On June 24, 2003, Sosa hit a homer at Wrigley measured at 511 feet.

The back-to-back big games raised Sosa's season OPS to 1.083 with a ridiculous .685 slugging percentage. He began June 1998 with a .608 slugging percentage.

Fun fact: Kerry Wood struck out 11 batters in 7.1 innings on June 20, 1998 to pick up his 7th big-league victory. As Wood marched to the National League Rookie of the Year that season, he finished with a 13-6 record and 233 strikeouts in only 166.2 innings for a career-high 12.6 K/9 rate.