Cubs

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

Smiling came easy for Anthony Rizzo as he stood at his locker and fielded questions in a robin-egg blue T-shirt that read: "positive vibes."

This was roughly a half-hour after he went through the high-five line telling all his teammates the 12-11 victory was a "season-defining win" for the Cubs.

Who knows if it will really be that big of a "W" for this ballclub in the midst of what has been an up-and-down season to this point, but there has certainly been no shortage of positive vibes around the clubhouse lately.

One thing's for certain: The Cubs will wake up Thursday morning in sole possession of first place again as the Cardinals lost to the Brewers in a rain-shortened game in St. Louis.

Yu Darvish and the Cubs bullpen squandered a 6-2 lead and then a 10-9 lead. Yet the offense picked up the slack, smacking 14 hits, including Kris Bryant's game-winning two-run blast in the bottom of the eighth inning.

"We haven't won a game like that really all year, I don't think," Rizzo said. "They scored 9 runs in the fifth to seventh innings. Teams don't really win when that happens. Just a good, hard-fought, never-quit win."

Rizzo is right: The Cubs haven't won a game in which they allowed at least 11 runs since Sept. 2, 2017 when they beat the Braves 14-12.

The Cubs have claimed 14 of 17 games at home since the All-Star Break and are now 43-19 at Wrigley Field this season - a winning percentage approaching .700 to combat the .390 winning percentage on the road.

So is it a season-defining victory?

"That's what Rizz told me," Bryant said. "We were high-fiving there and Rizz told me this is a season-defining win. I mean, I can't disagree with him. It's one of those games where you don't feel like you're gonna win just because you take a lead and then you're giving it back, but we came out on top. 

"Definitely some good momentum. We're playing good at home here, obviously and just gotta roll with the records at home and on the road."

Early on, it looked to be a night where the Cubs would cruise to victory behind Darvish, who came into the game red-hot and had settled into a rhythm after serving up a two-run shot to the third hitter of the game.

But that wasn't the case, as Darvish served up four homers overall and Derek Holland and Tyler Chatwood combined to allow 4 runs while notching just two outs as the first arms out of the bullpen.

Before the game, Joe Maddon talked again about how he felt like the only way the Cubs would be able to pull away in a tight NL Central race would be if the offense got into a groove and for one day at least, they were certainly firing on all cylinders.

The only starter who didn't reach base safely at least twice was Kyle Schwarber, and he drove in 3 runs on a homer and a groundout in which he hustled down the line to avoid a double play. Darvish even chipped in with an RBI single in the second inning.

Yes, it was a good win. Yes, the Cubs can go to sleep feeling content and wake up feeling hopeful.

But the only way this becomes a "season-defining win" is if the next five weeks play out like they hope. There have been several wins before Wednesday that seemed like they could propel the Cubs - including the finale in Cincinnati on the last road trip where Bryant once again came through with a clutch late homer. And every time, the team failed to keep the good times rolling for an extended period.

This is all a moot point if the Cubs come out and look flat this weekend or fail to carry any momentum onto the road.

"We'll find out," said Maddon, who has been in this game for nearly four decades. "I mean, I've been involved in those seminal moments and all of a sudden, things switch. 

"I'll tell you one thing though - I liked the method at the plate. Nobody was grinding sawdust; everybody was up there nice and chill and were getting good hacks on good pitches. ... I liked that. That's what we need to get to that point."

Craig Kimbrel sounds off on Thursday's loss: 'I'm pretty disappointed in myself'

Craig Kimbrel sounds off on Thursday's loss: 'I'm pretty disappointed in myself'

All it took was one swing from Matt Carpenter on Thursday to tarnish Craig Kimbrel’s return from the injured list while simultaneously denting the Cubs’ playoff hopes.

With the Cubs and Cardinals tied 10th inning, Carpenter hit an absolute no-doubt home run deep into left center field, giving St. Louis a 5-4 lead that they never relinquished.

“[The pitch] just ran back over the plate, and he drops the barrel at the bottom of the zone really well and put a good swing on it,” Kimbrel said postgame.

The Cubs activated Kimbrel Thursday following a two-week stint on the injured list. And, really, outside of the Carpenter at-bat, he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat.

Carpenter’s home run was sandwiched between two strikeouts — one with a fastball, one with a knuckle curveball. Still, Thursday’s loss is a gut-punch for the Cubs, as it drops them to four games back of the Cardinals in the NL Central and a game back of the Brewers for the second Wild Card spot.

It also doesn’t help that the Cubs erased a three-run ninth inning deficit, which allowed them to get into extra innings in the first place.

“It’s frustrating,” Kimbrel said. “I’ve been doing everything I can to get back out there and our team battled til the very end. We needed that, and [I’m] pretty disappointed in myself to go out there and give up a home run like that.”

Some way wonder why Kimbrel was pressed into action the same day of his activation. The answer to that, is simple: If not now, then when? With nine games left in the regular season, Kimbrel needs to be pitching.

“Physically I felt great,” Kimbrel said postgame. “The balls coming out of my hand good. I just made a bad pitch.”

Cubs manager Joe Maddon echoed a similar sentiment about Kimbrel’s condition on Thursday.

“I was very encouraged, from what I saw yesterday," Maddon said pregame. “I thought he looked pretty normal, and again, when you talk to the guy conversationally, it’s very upbeat."

If Kimbrel sat out Thursday’s game, many would call out Maddon for not using his $43 million arm. Plus, the longer the closer sits, the greater chance there is of him getting rusty.

“If we can get on the field, we’re gonna do everything we can to get out there and help this team win and try and put us in a position to get into the playoffs,” Kimbrel said. “We’re getting down here til the end. We still got a lot of games.”

Nine regular season games remain for the Cubs in 2019. Kimbrel summed up the latest, as big as any yet, as well as one can.

“Tonight was a big game for us,” he said. “We really needed it. [The] season’s not over, we still got a lot of games left. But it definitely would’ve helped. I wish I would’ve pitched a little better.”

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Anthony Rizzo on his miraculous return to Cubs: 'I love this team'

Anthony Rizzo on his miraculous return to Cubs: 'I love this team'

The story could not have followed a more perfect trajectory:

Injured star (Anthony Rizzo) makes a miraculous recovery, hits a big home run in a huge game and helps will his team to victory.

Except for the last part. 

After suffering a nasty-looking ankle injury in Sunday's game, Rizzo was announced as the Cubs' leadoff hitter and first baseman about 20 minutes before first pitch Thursday night and hit a game-tying homer in his second trip to the plate.

It was the only offense the Cubs were able to muster against Jack Flaherty, but they pulled off an epic comeback in the ninth inning — with Javy Baez scoring the game-tying run in his first action since Sept. 1.

That was quickly erased with Matt Carpenter's go-ahead homer off Craig Kimbrel in the top of the 10th inning and the Cardinals went on to win 5-4 and bury the Cubs 4 games back in the division.

But nobody's pointing the finger at Rizzo, who has spent the last four days in a walking boot and was unable to even put weight on his right ankle up until Wednesday when he retired his snack-filled scooter. 

Joe Maddon was planning on being without one of his most important players until the moment Rizzo was out in left field, running and jumping on the grass

Rizzo didn't even know he was going to be able to play until that moment, either.

"You get the questions of waiting a couple more days, but we don't have a couple more days," Rizzo said. "We gotta win now. And I love this team...I love playing. That's what I want to do. It's what I love doing — playing baseball, especially for this team that we're fighting at Wrigley Field in late September to go to the playoffs and that's where all the magic happens."

He exited the game after the fifth inning and immediately went back into the training room to continue treatment. He received a cortisone shot Monday and otherwise has been religiously following the "RICE" treatment plan (rest, ice, compression, elevation), with help from the Cubs medical staff at the ballpark and his wife — "Nurse Emily" — at home.

"I kept saying, 'this ankle doesn't stand a chance,'" Rizzo said. "It's still obviously sore, but it was good enough to play."

Rizzo walked into and out of the Cubs press conference room without the boot and said he felt "good" and was hoping to play Friday, though he admitted he would be smart and let the team know if he was unable to suit up.

Quite the turnaround from a guy who stood at his locker Monday afternoon with his right knee bent and resting on the scooter (which did not yet have tassels or a horn or snacks at that point) and the Robocop-like boot on his ankle. 

"Honestly, when I told you guys [Monday] 'I'll let you know in a few days,' I did not think in a few days I'd be doing this," he said. "I had a positive mindset — 'It's gonna take me three days. Watch, it's gonna take me three days.' And everyone was just kinda like, 'no way.' I believed I was healthy and I am."

Still, even with the made-for-Hollywood return, the Cubs will wake up Friday morning out of a playoff spot for the first time since April 30. 

Thursday could've been an epic, season-altering comeback, but instead, the Cubs are forced to find a way to move on after another gut-punch.

At least they now have Rizzo, Baez and Kimbrel back in the fold, even if they're not all 100 percent.

"It's just all hands on deck," Rizzo said. "We have to win and I think guys want to win and are pushing themselves. Everyone is banged up this time of the year, so it's just mind over matter, really."