Cubs

Series with rival Brewers just what the Cubs needed to get going

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USA TODAY

Series with rival Brewers just what the Cubs needed to get going

MILWAUKEE - The Cubs are finally coming home.

After the longest road trip to begin a season since 1899, the Cubs will get to sleep in their own beds this week. Beds they haven't been in since before they left for spring training in mid-February.

Think about that: This road trip was not only nine games long, but it spanned 11 days (plus an extra three days before the season began in Florida) and the Cubs haven't been home in two months. While it would've been awful to play in Chicago in sub-freezing temperatures over the past week, this is the longest road trip to start a season in 119 years. 

They're also returning to Wrigley Field winners, boasting a 5-4 record.

For all the panic and comparisons to last season's slow start, the Cubs are sitting in a fantastic spot entering a long homestand.

They just won three of four from a very good Brewers squad, where they took advantage of all the Milwaukee mistakes, received quality starts in all three victories and saw their bullpen shut down an offense that very well may border on "elite," even without Christian Yelich.

The Cubs also did all this without Anthony Rizzo for the final three games of the series, as the All-Star first baseman is dealing with a back injury and may not be ready for Monday's opener at "The Friendly Confines" given the chilly forecast doesn't mesh well with a balky back.

"We just played quality baseball the last four games," Ben Zobrist said. "It's a good team, so good to get off to a good start against them this year and hopefully we can continue that this coming week."

Joe Maddon called it before the series started, giving his usual spiel about how he loves playing good teams, especially early on.

After going 2-3 against the Marlins and Reds - two teams expected to be competing for the No. 1 overall pick next summer - the Cubs came out and stomped their new division rivals, giving the fans who battled the "Wisconsin residents only" presale plenty to cheer about all weekend.

The Brewers scored just 7 runs in the four games, plating tallies in only four innings of the 36 played. 

Milwaukee also made 7 errors in the series, allowing the Cubs to take advantage.

"We did," Maddon said. "We've been playing aggressively. We've been playing smart for the most part."

The Cubs still didn't look quite like themselves, struggling to play situational baseball from an offensive perspective (particularly with runners on third base and less than two outs).

But they also will take a series win against an up-and-coming divison rival who figures to be in playoff contention for the next several years. 

"We know they're deep, they're a resilient bunch," Kyle Hendricks said. "What they did last year kinda brought them together. We have to be on it, game-in, game-out, regardless of who we lose or who they lose."

There's also a budding rivalry between the two teams in terms of off-field drama and wars of words. Take the Willson Contreras issue in the eighth inning Sunday.

Or the social media spat between the two teams over the last few months, culminating in an absolutely epic takedown by @Cubs Thursday:

Either way, this was exactly what the Cubs needed to light a fire.

"Always going to be a tough battle," said Kris Bryant, who is off to a blistering start. "They seem like a fun group over there, having a lot of fun.

"Sure, it can get a little annoying, but we do the same thing. It's a nice little rivalry and they're gonna be a tough one this year."

American Legion Week has come at a perfect time for the Cubs

American Legion Week has come at a perfect time for the Cubs

If this was a movie and not real life, right now would be the montage with some classic song playing in the background while all the players get back in touch with their roots and regain their passion for the game.

Think of Rick Vaughn regaining his "Wild Thing" look and haircut or Billy Heywood and the Twins remembering how to have fun while "Runaround Sue" blares.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs are taking a page out of Hollywood and it just might be what the doctor ordered for this team.

A couple hours after Maddon and Anthony Rizzo and a few other players slid down the Williamsport hill on slabs of cardboard, the Cubs went out and won their first road series since Game of Thrones was on the air.

Sure, it was technically a neutral site, so not really a "true" road series win, but the Cubs will take what they can get at this point. 

Couple that with the beginning of "American Legion Week" at Wrigley Field Tuesday and the Cubs are really hammering home the point: This is a game — go play and have some fun.

That means players are forbidden from showing up to the clubhouse too early during this week and there is no batting practice. This is something Maddon has done every year and the Cubs are now 21-3 during American Legion Week after Tuesday night's 5-3 victory.

"September provides its own energy. August, man, you gotta find it sometimes," Maddon said. "We have taken 5,727 swings each — at least. Maybe it's 10,000, I don't know. I don't know how many throws they've made. I don't know how many videos they've looked at. I don't know how many data sheets they've read. By this time of the summer, it's gotta be at least 80 percent mental, 20 percent physical. Maybe 75/25. You get to this point, it's all mental over physical.

"You have to have that rested mind and body. So I think by picking this time of year to do this, they show up a little bit later, they don't feel compelled to do certain things that they feel like they may have to do to present the right image sometimes. A lot of this stuff is overplayed. A lot of it is eyewash. A lot of it is there to ameliorate others' concerns. Just do what's necessary.

"When hitters aren't hitting on the field, it's also about pitchers not standing in the outfield. It's also about coaches not hitting 1,000 fungoes. It's about when everybody's mind is fresher, you're gonna get a better product. I believe that."

Right now, Nicholas Castellanos is the poster boy for a loose/fun approach to the game and he went out and showed that again Tuesday night by homering in the first inning to give the Cubs an early lead. 

That initial lead didn't hold up, but the Cubs prevailed anyways, thanks in large part to big nights from Rizzo (two homers, a single and a walk) and Castellanos (two singles to go along with his first-inning blast). 

But for the newest Cub, it was just another "Opening Day."

After confirming he tells Maddon "Happy Opening Day" before each game, Castellanos refuted a reporter's claim that Tuesday is not Opening Day because the Cubs don't have an 0-0 record.

"That's only if you believe the record," Castellanos said. "It's kind of the mentality — if what has happened is a memory and what's going to happen is a thought, you're taking yourself out of right now. So in that case, every day is Opening Day."

Insert your favorite Bill and Ted GIF here. 

But Castellanos has a point and the Cubs have been feeding off his energy since he arrived at the beginning of the month. 

And it certainly helps to get a weeklong reminder of where these guys came from — the Little League fields to the American Legion ball where they just showed up and played and didn't have to worry about October or money or pressure.

"I wouldn't call it pressure," Castellanos said. "I would call it fun. This is awesome."

For the last couple months, Maddon has been preaching about how important it is for his team to take a deep breath and stop pressing or worrying about making mistakes.

What better way to drive that point home than getting in touch with their inner child?

"I remember American Legion Ball like yesterday, man," Maddon said, while giving props to Post 210 in Danville, Ill. and their trip to the American Legion World Series in North Carolina this week. "That was the summertime. That was coming home after installing fences with Richie and putting your uniform on, going down to 22nd street. There was no video, there was no analytics, there was no BP, there was no nothin'. 

"I mean, your coach couldn't throw BP, so we didn't have that, either. So you just went out and you put it on and you might've had the McDonald's burgers on the bench adn you went out and you played baseball and you played it really well."

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Will the next 12 games determine the Cubs season?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Will the next 12 games determine the Cubs season?

On this edition of the Sports Talk Live podcast, David Kaplan is joined by Hub Arkush, Mike Esposito and Jason Goch. The guys discuss whether or not the next 12 games will determine the Cubs season. (1:30) Plus how concerned should Cubs fans be with Cole Hamels? (4:15) And the panel discusses who would be the odd man out of the Cubs playoff rotation. (5:20) Plus would you choose to re-sign Nicholas Castellanos over another star? (8:00) Kyle Long apologizes for getting kicked out of practice last week. (11:45) The guys weigh in on the new trend of NFL players not playing at all in the preseason. (13:00) Plus the guys discuss an unlikely candidate to solve the Bears kicking issues. (15:30) Can Joakim Noah coexist with Lebron James? (16:30) The panel discuss whether or not the White Sox should bring back Ivan Nova next season and where does Jose Abreu fit in the rebuilding plans. (18:45) And Sox skipper Rick Renteria gives a strong response to all his social media critics. (20:40)

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: