Cubs

Theo Epstein admits there's a bit of frustration in Cubs' clubhouse over constant lineup shuffling

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein admits there's a bit of frustration in Cubs' clubhouse over constant lineup shuffling

Joe Maddon will be back as the Cubs’ manager in 2019. Theo Epstein confirmed as much during his approximately 70-minute end-of-season press conference Wednesday.

There was speculation that Maddon and the Cubs might have parted ways after the earliest end to a season during his tenure, speculation that perhaps there was some unseen behind-the-scenes head-butting going on between the skipper and the front office. Epstein made sure to say that wasn’t true, that conflict over baseball ideas is welcomed and that he in no way prefers a yes-man running his team.

But while Epstein did his best to put that issue to bed, he was refreshingly honest to the point that he revealed not everyone in a Cubs uniform is always happy with Maddon’s methods. The team president fessed up that certain players are a little frustrated with Maddon’s constant lineup shuffling, something that’s been a Maddon trademark since he arrived on the North Side ahead of the 2015 season — and the Cubs’ rise to the top of the baseball heap.

“Maybe a little bit, honestly,” Epstein said when asked if there’s frustration among the players over the lack of a set, everyday lineup. “But I also think they understand. They look around and they see the talent here. And that’s how players talk about it. ‘We have so many talented players who deserve to play, and that’s what makes us great, that’s what makes us really good. But here’s how sometimes it makes me feel, and here’s how if we could communicate about it it could make things a little bit easier.’ I just think it’s important to hear that and to listen and to communicate as much as possible about it and to be transparent.

“In a situation that’s more uncertain —more uncertain than a set lineup every single day, which we don’t have with this group — helping players anticipate as much as possible when they’re going to play, their role so they can think along is really important. And I think that’s something that Joe tries to do and does effectively. But we can all get better at it. I learned some things from talking to the players today, and I’m going to share those with Joe. I’m sure Joe learned some things from his discussions with the players, too. We’re going to continue to try to get better at it.

“I would say the players very much understand but that they’re human and of course at times they get frustrated, more often when they’re not playing or not hitting than when they’re in there a lot and hitting.”

The lack of a set 1 through 8 in the batting order during the majority of a 162-game season has worked rather well for the Cubs since Maddon took over as manager. They’ve averaged more than 96 wins during his four seasons, all of which ended in playoff berths, three of which saw the Cubs reach the NLCS and one which ended in a World Series championship.

It’s been a luxury for a team that’s had plenty of depth during this stretch. Maddon’s juggling of certain positions on the field and his desire to get certain, more traditional everyday guys rest has allowed the Cubs to stock their bench with players whose talent makes them capable of being everyday guys on many, if not most, other teams.

Being able to bring guys like Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ — and, before his rise to superstardom, Javy Baez — off the bench has helped the Cubs late in games. And as Epstein put it, it’s saved the Cubs in injury situations over the years.

“The fact that we have more than eight everyday-caliber players to throw out there and we have depth, it’s a huge part of what’s helped us win 95 games this year, what’s helped us average 97 (wins) the last four years, more than anyone in baseball,” Epstein said. “When you lose Addison Russell, Javy Baez slides over, Ben Zobrist slides to second base, and when you lose Kris Bryant, David Bote’s there to fill in. Player after player. The alternative to that overexposing a reserve or forcing a Triple-A or Four-A type player into that role, and that hurts the team and that hurts your ultimate goal.

“That said, there is a price to pay, sometimes with players not knowing they’re in the lineup every day and not having that confidence that they can go out and play and develop at their own pace. If they’re sometimes wondering if they have to get that hit today to be in the lineup tomorrow, that’s something that you wrestle with.

“Honestly, I think the right thing for the organization overall is to have too many good players instead of not enough, or to have eight guys for eight spots and then the second you suffer one or two or three injuries your whole season’s down the tubes.

“It’s the depth of really quality players we’ve had that’s kept us afloat at many times.”

The existence of frustration isn’t exactly surprising for players who consider themselves — and in many cases have proved themselves — capable of everyday roles. But this is not a new topic for the Cubs, one that predates even these comments from Zobrist in spring training.

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody,” Zobrist said in February. “You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

So while Maddon’s methods might be a tad frustrating at times, they also allow for plenty of opportunities. And more than 96 wins a season.

Cubs playoff race: Hope on life support after another disastrous meltdown

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USA Today

Cubs playoff race: Hope on life support after another disastrous meltdown

The Cubs took the field Saturday afternoon with only a 21.3 percent chance of making the postseason.

That number will certainly go down after another epic meltdown in a season full of disastrous moments.

Just five days earlier (after Monday's win), the Cubs had a 76.7 percent chance of October baseball.

But that's what five straight losses will do, especially when the other teams in the race keep on winning. They still couldn’t get back to their winning ways Saturday despite a hard-fought effort in a wild 9-8 loss that saw seven lead changes.

The Cubs are now 6 games back in the division and — as of the final out of their game — 2.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the National League with only seven contests remaining.

"Obviously it sucks," said Javy Baez, who struck out to end the game. "But we are really close to the other teams. We just gotta play our game — try to get hot in the last two series and see what happens when the last game is over."

"It doesn't matter how you lose at this time of the year," Anthony Rizzo said. "It sucks. A loss is a loss. Especially with seven games left. It sucks." 

Quick thoughts

—Kimbrel’s disastrous weekend

This is not what anybody had in mind when the Cubs addressed their biggest weakness and signed Craig Kimbrel to a three-year deal in early June.

In his first 19.2 innings as a Cub, the closer on a Hall of Fame trajectory surrendered 9 home runs — the latter two coming on back-to-back pitches in the top of the ninth inning Saturday.

Called on to protect a 1-run lead, Kimbrel could only watch in disbelief as Yadier Molina sent his first pitch into the left-field bleachers and Illinois native Paul DeJong followed suit on the very next offering.

"It's tough. it is," Rizzo said. "Craig's a Hall of Fame closer. He's got a track record for a reason. He puts in the work. We all see it. He's an amazing guy in the clubhouse. You don't want to ever see anybody give up runs. We have his back. It's tough. It feels bad, but he's a competitor and a champion and he'll bounce back."

Kimbrel spent most of this month on the injured list with right elbow inflammation, but returned Thursday only to give up the lead and get saddled with the loss in the 10th inning after the Cubs had just pulled off an epic 3-run rally in the bottom of the ninth to send the game to extras.

Kimbrel now has a 6.53 ERA in 23 games with the Cubs this season.

—Javy suits up

Baez scored the tying run as a pinch-runner Thursday night, but his at-bat to end the game Saturday was his first plate appearance since breaking his left thumb three weeks ago. 

He struck out against Cardinals closer Carlos Martinez to end the game and admitted it was a tough at-bat given the layoff.

"It was hard, especially with him out there throwing 100 mph," Baez said. "It's tough, but you gotta give it a try and try something for the team."

Baez said he hopes to be able to start the game Tuesday for the Cubs in Pittsburgh.

"I've been feeling good," he said. "It's still bothering me a little bit, but I would do anything to help my team. We're in a hard situation right now that we gotta win games and if not, we'll be out of the playoffs. We're in this together. If we're gonna give everything, we're gonna give everything together. I'm trying my best to come back before the regular season is over. It's been a quick process, so hopefully I'll keep getting better and after the day off, I'll probably be out there."

—The winds of change

At first pitch Saturday, the wind was blowing straight out at Wrigley Field at 17 mph. That proved to be a huge factor in the game.

Each team felt the benefit of Mother Nature, with Marcell Ozuna somehow golfing this very low 0-2 pitch from Kyle Ryan into the bleachers in the top of the seventh inning for a go-ahead blast:

The Cubs’ big boost from the wind came on Tony Kemp's signature moment with the team in the bottom of the inning (though this game won’t be remembered for his heroics).

After Ben Zobrist had doubled with one out, Kemp was sent up to the plate as a pinch-hitter and appeared to strike out, only to get new life when it turned out a balk was called. He hit the next pitch in the air to center field — deep enough to at least get Zobrist home from third as the tying run — but it wound up carrying just a few rows into the bleachers for an enormous, game-changing home run.

The Cubs had been waiting for their baseball luck to turn and I think it's safe to say the balk call qualified, though it ultimately proved to only set the stage for even greater heartbreak for the fanbase.

—Brad Wieck's big moment goes for naught

Kemp wasn't the only player to deliver his signature moment with the Cubs Saturday afternoon.

Wieck was called on to protect the 1-run lead in the eighth inning of a crucial, Game 7-esque contest Saturday — just like everybody predicted back when the Cubs traded for him on July 31. Despite walking the leadoff hitter and plunking Tommy Edman, Joe Maddon left Wieck in the game to face the heart of the Cardinals order — righties Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — even though veteran Steve Cishek had been warming up in the Cubs bullpen.

Goldschmidt flied out to left field and Ozuna struck out, giving Wieck a huge boost of confidence and setting the Cubs on the path for a much-needed victory before the ninth-inning meltdown.

—Oh, that's where the offense was hiding...

Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson certainly helped out with back-to-back-to-back-to-back walks after Nicholas Castellanos' double in the first inning.

The team that scored only 1 run on 9 hits in Friday's ballgame then plated 3 runs on just 1 hit in the first inning of Saturday's contest.

Baseball, man.

The Cubs generally had a solid approach at the plate all day, drawing 6 walks and slugging 7 of their 10 hits for extra bases.

Rookie Nico Hoerner delivered a clutch go-ahead homer in the bottom of the sixth, his third longball of the homestand after hitting just 3 homers in 75 minor-league games this year.

—What bum ankle?

This weekend series hasn't gone the way the Cubs wanted, but Anthony Rizzo's shocking return to the field and subsequent play has been one of the consistent bright spots.

After a nasty-looking sprained ankle that was originally thought to keep him out for the rest of the regular season, Rizzo returned to the Cubs leadoff spot just 20 minutes before Thursday's game and he even provided a homer in that contest before the Cardinals pulled out a victory in the 10th inning.

In 11 plate appearances over those three games, Rizzo reached in six of them, including three hits Saturday. He even hustled out a double in the second inning, sliding into second on that injured ankle and trying to give his team a spark.

—Q's about Q

What is going on with Jose Quintana. He hasn't made it through 4 innings in any of his last three starts and has gone more than a month since pitching at least 6 innings (Aug. 18).

He's now given up 18 earned runs and 25 hits in 13.2 innings this month - good for an 11.85 ERA and 2.19 WHIP.

Quintana was a rock for the Cubs in the rotation for the first five months of the season, but he's taken a sharp turn in the wrong direction at the absolute worst time. His struggles are even tougher to swallow when taken alongside Cole Hamels' last couple months of injuries and ineffectiveness.

At the moment, Quintana would be in line to start the first game in St. Louis next weekend, but the Cubs could always utilize the off-day to change up their rotation a bit.

Brewers update

Milwaukee hosts the Pirates Saturday evening with Kyle Davies on the mound. The Brewers are 2.5 games up on the Cubs for the final playoff spot in the National League.

Nationals update

Washington sends Stephen Strasburg to the mound in Miami against the 100-loss Marlins. The Nationals have a 3.5-game lead on the Cubs and are 1 game up on the Brewers for the top Wild-Card spot.

What's next?

The Cubs finish their 2019 regular season home slate Sunday afternoon, though some serious storms are projected to hit Chicago.

If they are able to play, will this be the final game at Wrigley Field in 2019? If they're not able to play, the Cardinals have a game Monday night while the Cubs are off, so the makeup would have to be pushed back to Sept. 30 if it still holds weight for the playoff race.

Yu Darvish takes the hill for the Cubs against Miles Mikolas. Catch all the action on NBC Sports Chicago or the My Teams app, with pregame live beginning at 12:30 p.m.

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Cubs struggling to pinpoint source of inconsistent offense as season nears finish line

Cubs struggling to pinpoint source of inconsistent offense as season nears finish line

If the Cubs could determine why their offense goes from scoring often in one series to struggling to scratch out more than a single run each game in the next, they would.

But the thing is, finding the answer to that problem is far easier said than done right now.

“It’s just one of those things,” Cubs outfielder Nick Castellanos said on Friday, a 2-1 loss to the Cardinals. “I don’t think there’s really a rhyme or reason for it. It’s baseball.”

After scoring a whopping 55 runs from last Friday to Monday, the Cubs offense has scuffled their last four games. Granted, 47 of those 55 runs game against the lowly Pirates, and the Cubs have faced better pitching this week (specifically Reds starter Sonny Gray on Tuesday and Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty on Thursday).

Still, it’s hard to fathom how the Cubs have scored just nine times since Tuesday, a stretch where they’ve lost four straight home games for the first time since May 2018.

The up-and-down nature of this Cubs team has been a common sight in 2019, with the last 10 days being a microcosm of the season as a whole. Their current four-game losing streak comes on the heels of a five-game winning streak, one where the Cubs reached a season-high 14 games above .500 (82-68).

Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that while the offense has struggled as a unit, many Cubs hitters are having successful seasons individually. Six Cubs have hit at least 21 home runs this season – seven, if you include what Castellanos has done before and after the North Siders acquired him from the Tigers.

Six Cubs also hold an OPS above .800 (minimum 220 at-bats), so it’s not that they’re getting less production than needed from their core guys. For some reason, the Cubs tend to struggle as a unit offensively.

“Statistically, you look at a lot of the numbers [and] it just doesn’t correspond to where we’re at,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said on Saturday. “We’ve had a lot of really good individual years offensively."

Maddon expanded on the up-and-down nature of the 2019 Cubs, mentioning the infamous home/road splits and that while his bullpen is maligned, their overall numbers are solid.

“These are some really crazy, hard to wrap your mind around things,” he said. “Just to have your mind try to extrapolate what is going on, it’s hard to pinpoint anything.

“A lot of guys are having really good seasons and we’ve lost a lot of one-run games. Is that the lack of a hit, or is that a lack of a pitch? I don’t know. A lot of close games – is it the other teams have gotten better?"

Whether it’s the lack of a big hit or making the right pitch, the fact of the matter is that the Cubs are 19-25 in one-run games this season. Their last three losses have come in such a fashion, with the latter two coming in their biggest series of the season.

The Cubs entered Thursday three games back of the Cardinals for first place in the NL Central. They now sit five back, with time running out on them to secure even a Wild Card spot. Whatever is plaguing the offense, it has to go away, and fast.

“It’s so hard to really cull it down to one particular event or moment or thought,” Maddon said. “It’s difficult, but we still have this strong opportunity in front of us that we have to focus on."

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