Cubs

The state of the National League is good news for the Cubs

The state of the National League is good news for the Cubs

Now is the time for the Cubs to strike in the National League.

Yes, it's only May and the season isn't even a quarter of the way over yet.

But the NL powerhouses may not get any weaker than it is at this very moment and the Cubs are primed to take advantage.

Take the Los Angeles Dodgers, for example.

The team that made it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series and the squad that bounced the Cubs from the postseason last year woke up Friday morning with a 16-21 record after losing to the Cincinnati Reds Thursday night. For perspective, the Dodgers have only 5 more wins this year than the Reds — a rebuilding team without a prayer of contending and already fired their manager weeks ago.

"We talk about it in the clubhouse: This isn’t a ‘try’ league," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Thursday night. "Everyone is trying. You’ve got to get production. When you can’t get separation, it stresses everyone. We’ve got to be better at all facets of the game, to be honest."

The Dodgers will not play a single game with both Corey Seager and Justin Turner in their lineup in 2018, given that Turner is still not back from a wrist injury and Seager is now done for the year after Tommy John surgery. Given their importance to the L.A. lineup, that's the equivalence of the Cubs never playing a game with both members of Bryzzo in the lineup together at the same time.

As Joe Maddon has astutely pointed out twice in the last week, the Dodgers always use the 10-day disabled list liberally, but they're also currently without Clayton Kershaw, Logan Forsythe, Tony Cingrani and Hyun-Jin Ryu (who is expected to be out for months) and they just got Yasiel Puig and Rich Hill back off the shelf. That's a significant chunk of the roster's impact players.

The Dodgers' best hitter all year has actually been Matt Kemp (.333 AVG, .913 OPS), who was acquired as a flyer of sorts in a salary dump trade with the Atlanta Braves.

Let's move to the NL East, where the Washington Nationals haven't had much better luck on the injury front.

It was just announced late Thursday Adam Eaton would be out indefinitely after undergoing surgery on his tricky ankle. He's played just 31 games in a Washington uniform since coming over in the deal with the White Sox before the 2017 season.

Daniel Murphy hasn't played a game yet this season, Anthony Rendon and Matt Wieters have missed time and a slew of pitchers (Joe Ross, Koda Glover, Joaquin Benoit, Matt Grace, Jhonatan Solano) are on the disabled list recovering from arm injuries.

All that has led to Bryce Harper in the leadoff spot (the only way new manager Davey Martinez can find protection in the lineup for Kris Bryant's bestie), a mildly disappointing 21-18 record and third place standing in the division behind both the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies.

Coming into the season, the Dodgers and Nationals were seen as the Cubs' main competitors in the race to the NL pennant and both teams have gotten off to slow starts.

In the Cubs' own division, they sit in fourth place, but just 1.5 games behind the leading Cardinals who just swept Bryzzo and Co. in St. Louis last weekend.

The Cardinals also just lost their ace and the NL leader in ERA — Carlos Martinez — due to a lat injury. Of course, St. Louis is also without its heartbeat as Yadier Molina will miss more than a month after taking a Kris Bryant foul tip to the groin last Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Brewers woke up Friday morning with a run differential of 0, which would normally not lend itself to a 22-16 record. Josh Hader and the Milwaukee bullpen have been incredible, but the first six weeks of the season have not answered many questions about the longevity and staying power of the Brewers rotation.

The Cubs will tell you they only care about themselves and can't waste their energy focusing on their competitors in the NL. But now could be a prime time to stack a bunch of wins together and this is the right part of the schedule to do so.

The Jekyll and Hyde Cubs offense has received a major gift from the MLB schedule-makers, beginning with the three games against the Marlins earlier in the week. That kicked off a stretch where 9 of 13 Cubs games come against three of the six worst pitching staffs in baseball (Marlins, White Sox, Reds). The other four games are against a Braves pitching staff that has been overperforming to date based on their peripheral stats.

Sure, the Cubs embarked on an 11-games-in-10-days run beginning with Game 1 of Crosstown Friday, but when 7 of those games come against the lowly White Sox and Reds and a team has as much position-player depth as the Cubs do, it shouldn't be too hard to put together a couple of nice weeks in a row offensively.

Now it's just a matter of the Cubs taking care of business and doing what they're supposed to do against a soft part of the schedule.

It's safe to say Kyle Hendricks has figured 'it' out

It's safe to say Kyle Hendricks has figured 'it' out

It was only a matter of time before Kyle Hendricks figured it all out. 

It appears Friday was that day. 

The 29-year-old right-hander was off to a slow start to the season, surrendering 24 hits and 8 earned runs in 13.1 innings across his first three starts, good for a 5.40 ERA and 2.18 WHIP. 

Things looked a little better last time out — only 2 earned runs allowed on 6 hits in 5 innings last Saturday against the Angels — but even after that start, Hendricks admitted he still feels like he's fighting himself and searching for his fastball command.

"You can't rush it," he said after that outing. "You can't rush the process. But it definitely gets frustrating. I need to do a better job and give the team a better chance to win when I'm out there regardless. And set a better tone — be more aggressive with my fastball and set a better tone for the game. You want it to come quick, but at least I'm seeing something, so I just gotta stick with what I'm doing."

Whatever he was seeing with his mechanics came to pass in Friday afternoon's 5-1 Cubs win, as he completely baffled the Diamondbacks in a brilliant performance — 7 shutout innings, permitting only 3 singles while striking out 11. It was his first double-digit strikeout game since he whiffed 12 Cardinals on Aug. 13, 2016 en route to his ERA title that season.

"Yeah, like I said, you kinda always want it to come, but I didn't think it was gonna come this quick," Hendricks admitted after Friday's game. "So to go out and make that many good pitches, yeah it helps the confidence a lot. It solidifies the things we've been working on, so I just told the guys this was just one good day, so tomorrow, gotta get right back at it with another good work day and hopefully get on a roll here."

It was also the Cubs' third straight appearance from a starting pitcher of 7 shutout innings, after Cole Hamels and Jose Quintana turned the trick in the final two games in Miami earlier in the week.

The one pitch Hendricks felt good about last time out — his changeup — was his bread and butter Friday, too. He threw it 30 times out of his 100 pitches and induced 8 swings and misses.

"That was kinda classic Kyle," Joe Maddon said. "Great changeup, again. A lot of called strikes, pitching on the edges. ... That first inning or so, still seeking and then once he found it, he got into a nice groove."

Part of the success of the changeup was due to Hendricks' command with his fastball, which he apparently figured out — for one start, at least. He threw 66 percent of his pitches for strikes throughout the game and 35 of his 56 fastballs went for strikes. 

"From the get-go, I just felt more comfortable in my mechanics, so it just freed everything up," Hendricks said. "From there, I just used my fastball a lot better — kinda like what I was talking about. Fastball command and just establishing it early. Everything else worked off that and it just had good action today. Kept it down, made a lot of good pitches, so it worked out."

Hendricks even saw 17 pitches at the plate despite an 0-for-4 performance, as the Cubs offense put 19 runners on base throughout the course of the afternoon.

However, his day was not without negatives. He took a 110 mph liner off the left leg in the seventh inning, but stayed in the game and finished off the last two hitters he faced.

He also snapped his fascinating personal streak, as he threw his first wild pitch since Sept. 5, 2016 — a span of 6,662 pitches:

"I had no idea; I came in the clubhouse and someone brought that to my attention," Hendricks said, laughing. "Time to start a new streak."

In all, Hendricks picked up his first win of 2019 and lowered his season ERA to 3.54 and WHIP to 1.67 with his performance. He also helped pitch his team back to the .500 level (9-9) for the first time since the opening weekend of the season.

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Joe Maddon weighs in on the bat-flip debate

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon weighs in on the bat-flip debate

You won't be finding Joe Maddon among Tim Anderson's defenders, but he's also not using this week's incident as a teaching moment for his players.

Maddon is still under the belief that it's better not to create a list of rules in the clubhouse to govern the players, but he also isn't into the whole show of celebration, of which bat-flips are at the forefront.

When Anderson flipped his bat on a home run Wednesday against the Royals, Kansas City pitcher Brad Keller responded by drilling Anderson the next time up. That resulted in a benches — and bullpens — clearing incident and then on Friday afternoon, both Anderson and Keller were hit with suspensions (Anderson was suspended for using a racial slur in his response to Keller). 

This is just the latest — and maybe one of the most charged — examples of the whole bat-flip/unwritten rules ordeal. Baseball's long tradition of punishing players for "showing up" a pitcher is alive and strong, and that's true even in the younger generation (Keller is only 23 years old). 

At 65, Maddon has been in the game of baseball since decades before Keller was even born, but he subscribes to a similar line of thinking as the Royals right-hander.

"I know my first year [with Cubs in 2015], I got upset at Junior Lake down in Miami [for flipping his bat]," Maddon said. "At that time, my being upset was about trying to flip the culture here — being more professional-looking and act like you're gonna do it again. That was my whole point about that.

"For me, I would prefer our guys didn't do that. I would prefer that the younger group right now doesn't need to see demonstrations like that in order to feel like they can watch baseball or that baseball is more interesting because somebody bat-flips really well and I kinda dig it and if I watch, I might see a bat-flip. 

"I would prefer kids watch baseball because it's a very interesting game, it's intellectually stimulating and when it's played properly, it's never too long. I prefer kids learn that method as opposed to become enamored with our game based on histrionics. I really would prefer that, but it seems to be that we are catering to that a bit.

"...When somebody choose to [bat-flip] and somebody gets hit in the butt because of it, that's what you're looking at. Regardless if you're old or new school, if you're a pitcher, I think you're gonna be offended by that. Act like you're gonna do it again would be the method that I would prefer with our guys. I want to believe we're not gonna do that, but it may happen here, too. And then we're just gonna have to wait and see how the other team reacts."

Though Maddon is not a fan of bat-flips and excessive celebration for big moments, he has not coached his players into avoiding such moments. 

That's why you still see Javy Baez out there being his typical flashy self and David Bote with an epic bat-flip on his walk-off grand slam (though that was obviously a much bigger moment than a run-of-the-mill fourth-inning homer) and Pedro Strop nearly dislocating his shoulder with some aggressive fist-pumps after nailing down a big out late in games.

But if anything does get out of line, Maddon prefers the policing comes from the players within the Cubs clubhouse or from the other team. Think back to last year when Baez tossed his bat in frustration after a pop-out against the Pirates at Wrigley Field and Strop pulled Baez aside to let him know "we don't do that here."

"I think the tried-and-true method of policing the group — whether it's the team policing itself or the industry and players doing the same thing," Maddon said. "I'd be curious to see if [Anderson] ever does that again, based on the result the other day." 

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