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Sports Talk Live Podcast: What to keep an eye on in baseball's second half

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: What to keep an eye on in baseball's second half

Hub Arkush, Ben Finfer and Ricky O'Donnell join Luke Stuckmeyer on the panel.

0:00 - The second half of the baseball season is about to begin. If the Cubs get off to a slow start, what changes will Theo and Jed need to make?

11:00 - The White Sox are flirting with .500. Should they go for a playoff spot? If not, should they look to deal vets like McCann, Abreu and Colome?

17:30 - Mark Schanowski joins the panel to talk about the latest NBA news. Kawhi Leonard agrees to a two-year deal with a third-year player option. Should the Bulls start thinking about recruiting him right now?

25:00 - If Russell Westbrook heads to Miami, how will he get along with Jimmy Butler?

28:00 - Have the Bulls done enough to turn their young roster into a playoff team? Plus Ricky has some rare praise for GarPax.

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

Alec Mills gave the Cubs what they needed, but they still couldn't find a way to win

Alec Mills gave the Cubs what they needed, but they still couldn't find a way to win

Someone capable of mixing pitches and having success without a high-velocity fastball delivered a stellar start for the Cubs on Friday. Sound familiar?

No, it wasn’t Kyle Hendricks’ turn in the rotation – though he did throw an 81-pitch, complete game shutout against St. Louis back in May. Rather, it was Alec Mills who stymied the Cardinals offense this time around.

Mills was thrust into action in place of Cole Hamels, whose turn in the rotation was skipped due to left shoulder fatigue. Despite being pressed into action, the 27-year-old Mills delivered, tossing 4 2/3 shutout innings, allowing just two hits and two walks while striking out six.

“He was outstanding. He gave us everything we needed,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after the game, a 2-1 Cubs loss and fourth-straight. “[He] pitched really that well, like we’ve been talking about the whole time.

“He really demonstrated what he’s made out of.”

Mills has been emerging as a quite a contributor for the Cubs as of late. He now holds a 0.84 ERA over his last four outings, which also includes two scoreless innings against the Reds on Tuesday.

Friday, he looked Hendricks-esque, making up for a lack of fastball velocity – he averaged 89.9 mph with his four-seamer – with a stellar slow curveball and sweeping slider. His curveball averaged 67.7 mph, even touching 65 mph at times.

Such fastball velocity might seem more hittable than something in the upper 90s. However, as opposing teams have seen time and time again with Hendricks, 89 looks a lot different when blended in with effective breaking pitches.

“I think every at-bat, I’m trying to be something different, cause I don’t have the stuff to just say ‘Here you go, here’s what it is,’” Mills said postgame. “If I can be something that keeps them off balance every at-bat, it’s what I want to do.”

Mills got four called strikes and four swinging strikes, respectively, with his curveball on Friday. None of those were for strike three, but when the Cardinals actually put Mills’ curve in play, they went 0-for-4.

“It’s one of those things where I feel like I can throw it for a strike at any point,” he said postgame about the pitch. “It’s something I can lean on when I need it, so it’s nice.”

Despite his personal success, Mills kept things in perspective after the game. Not only does Friday’s loss drop the Cubs to five games back of the Cardinals in the NL Central, but also 1.5 games back of the second Wild Card spot. This is pending the outcome of Friday night’s Brewers-Pirates, though.

“It’s always nice to throw well, but at the end of the day, a win is all that matters at this point,” he said. “Obviously a lot of guys are upset, but it’s one of those things where it’s definitely not over.

“I don’t think there will be an ounce of quit in here. We’re just going to come tomorrow ready to play and go for a win.”

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Cubs playoff race: Where is the offense?

Cubs playoff race: Where is the offense?

After a 2-1 loss Friday, the Cubs have dropped the first two games of this crucial series while giving up only 7 runs total across the 19 innings.

The Cubs are now 5 games behind St. Louis in the NL Central with only 8 games to play, essentially putting any thoughts of a division title to bed. It also means they will once again wake up Saturday morning out of a playoff spot.

This is the first time the Cubs have lost four straight home games since May 2018.

With the Brewers and Nationals also winning, the Cubs are 2 games out of the final playoff spot.

Quick thoughts

—Where is the offense?

The lineup that averaged 13.75 runs per game and hit .393 as a team in the first four games of this homestand is suddenly nowhere to be found. They're hitting just .180 total over the last four games and that mark dips to .111 with runners in scoring position (they hit .553 with runners in scoring position during the first four games of the homestand).

Outside of the 3-run rally in the bottom of the ninth inning Thursday, the Cubs have scored just 6 runs in the other 36 offensive innings since Monday.

"I've been saying it all year — the run's gonna be in the offense," Joe Maddon said. "Today, 1 run. Yesterday, we lost by 1 run and the two losses vs. Cincinnati were low-run scoring games for us, also. Whereas Pittsburgh, we pounded in that first game.

"We have to somehow get more consistent offensively. When the opportunities come up, we have to take advantage of them. We've had some good at-bats in those moments without any kind of luck, but we gotta figure it out.

"Obviously we are running out of time. To catch [the Cardinals] is becoming more difficult, but there's still a solid opportunity to be a playoff team. But you gotta keep playing the game as though you're going to catch St. Louis. You gotta go out there with that attitude."

The Cubs walked more than they struck out (4 to 3) Friday and one of those whiffs was by pitcher Alec Mills, so there’s definitely an element of bad luck at play here.

They hit into four double plays, including Kyle Schwarber bouncing into a twin killing with the bases loaded to end the third inning. He also watched his bunt single to lead off the eighth inning get erased by Willson Contreras' double play on the very next pitch.

Even Anthony Rizzo's return atop the order has not been enough to spark this offense and the lineup is continuing its Jekyll and Hyde ways at the absolute worst time.

Why is this offense so inconsistent? It's hard to make heads or tails of it. Even they have no answers for it, especially after out-hitting the Cardinals 9-4 on Friday.

"I mean, it's just one of those things," Nicholas Castellanos said. "I don't think there's really a rhyme or reason for it. I don't even know how many hits we got, but we got a lot more than they did. It's baseball."

"We have to figure it out somehow," Maddon said. "There's no question about it."

—Yadier Molina continues to come up with big hits against the Cubs.

The Cardinals didn't muster up much offense of their own Friday afternoon, going only 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position. But that one hit was a big one — a 2-run single from Molina in the sixth inning after a pair of Cubs relievers (David Phelps, Steve Cishek) combined to walk the first three hitters of the inning.

—Alec Mills pitched well once again, this time in spot start duty while Cole Hamels deals with an ailing shoulder.

Mills tossed 4.2 shutout innings and now has a 2.90 ERA this season. He's been extremely effective in limited big-league duty over the last two seasons, posting a 3.31 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 across 49 innings (15 appearances).

Maddon has compared him to Kyle Hendricks a couple different times and it's easy to see the comparison, especially when Mills is spinning a 66 mph curveball, 79 mph changeup and 91 mph fastball.

Next season is a long way off, but Mills has certainly pitched himself into the conversation for a spot in the 2020 rotation or bullpen.

—The Cubs bullpen walked 7 batters in 4.1 innings of work.

The back-to-back-to-back walks in the sixth inning wound up being the dagger, but overall, this was not the best performance from a unit that entered the day with the best bullpen ERA in the big leagues this month.

What's worse is the Cubs utilized eight different pitchers after Mills left the game, including most of the team's top relievers. That could leave some slim pickings for Saturday's game, especially considering Rowan Wick (32 pitches Friday) may be unavailable.

Brewers update

The Brewers beat the Pirates 10-1 Friday night and hold a 2-game lead on the Cubs for the second Wild Card spot.

Milwaukee lost Christian Yelich 10 days ago and their offense has been very similar to the Cubs over that entire time, but they're still somehow finding ways to win games:

Nationals update

After an off-day Thursday, the Nationals were back in action Friday and handed the Marlins their 100th loss of the season.

The Nationals currently own a 1-game lead for the top Wild-Card spot, meaning they're 3 games ahead of the Cubs at the moment to host the one-game playoff.

What's next?

The Cubs and Cardinals play another afternoon matinee game Saturday at Wrigley Field with Jose Quintana and Dakota Hudson facing off.

Quintana will be working on an extra day of rest after the Cubs opted to move him back to Saturday and inserting Mills into the rotation for a spot start.

If the Cubs thought the earlier games were "must-win," these next couple become even more important as they have now dug themselves quite the hole.

"That's all you can do," Rizzo said. "It's not gonna be easy, but you can't think about what's gonna happen and different outcomes. You just gotta come in tomorrow and win. That's what we'll be focused on doing."

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