Why Cubs give first-year manager David Ross rave reviews one week into season

Why Cubs give first-year manager David Ross rave reviews one week into season

Tyler Chatwood spotted Cubs manager David Ross walking toward the mound and shook his head in frustration. The starting pitcher wished he could have that last batter back.

But with another breath, he accepted that his night was over after just shy of seven shutout innings. He walked out to meet Ross, nodding his head as they passed. Ross reached out as if to give him a pat on the back.

“I respect the crap out of him,” Chatwood said after the Cubs’ 4-3 win against the Pirates on Saturday. “.. He backs you 100 percent the whole time.”

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Deciding when to pull a starter out of the game is about at normal as Ross’ job gets these days.

Ross, a first-time manager, has sailed to a 6-2 record to start the season. The Cubs have the best record in the National League. If you count Cincinnati as a three-game series – the fourth game was postponed due to rain -- they’ve clinched three straight series wins.

Still, worrying about his team sometimes keeps Ross up at night.

“It’s definitely that sense of, for lack of a better term, that dad feeling,” he said, “where every one of the guys you feel like is a child of yours. And no matter if one is doing well, you worry about the ones that aren’t doing well and how to help them.”

Some of that has to do with baseball. But not all of it.

“There's a mental side of it that each guy goes through,” Ross said, “whether it’s baseball-related, or with the pandemic, or just the social injustice and racial injustice stuff we’re dealing with. Everybody’s got something on their plate daily, and it could be somebody at home, and that’s another role that is important in this job, is the personal side outside of baseball.”

The personal side is the side Ross’ players rave about.

Back in October, the Cubs didn’t hire Ross with a pandemic in mind. His leadership skills though national crisis didn’t cross his former teammates’ minds as they rooted for him to get the job. But he only got one month of Spring Training to be a regular manager.

“Having a guy like him,” pitcher Jon Lester said, “first day you show up and you know what to expect and you know what you need to do, and I think that makes our jobs a lot easier.”

Ross’ job, on the other hand, was going to be hard even in a normal season. He had his playing experience to rely on. As a former catcher he’d at least managed pitchers before. He had prior relationships within the organization to make him comfortable. But he was still taking a career leap.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit.

When Ross returned to Wrigley Field, he wasn’t going to be judged solely on his team’s performance. Instead he was answering questions about COVID-19 every day. There was no managerial playbook on how to approach a three-week summer camp and a 60-game season.

During summer camp, Ross started bringing his dog back to the field after workouts.  They’d play fetch in left field. Unwinding with her helps him flip the switch to decompression mode, he said.

“You’re definitely around here late,” Ross said, “and thinking about the guys that you’re trying to get in there for at bats, who’s swinging the bat well, who’s throwing the ball well, all those type things. If they’re not throwing the ball well, how can we help them get better?”

Even before the season began, both Steven Souza Jr. and Kyle Schwarber said that Ross was meant for this job. He’s continued to receive glowing reviews since.

“I think the biggest thing with Rossy is just his energy,” Lester said. “The presence that he brings when he’s in a dugout or in a clubhouse, he demands respect. He demands attention to detail. And guys know that when we show up every day. So, when we’re out doing our work you kind of feel like he’s always watching you. Not in a bad way, but you want to do the right things to keep the line moving offensively or keep the line moving as far as our rotation.”

In a normal season, the Cubs’ record would be enough to put a stamp of approval on Ross’ first week managing games that count. This year, with the possibility of season cancellation hanging overhead, that first week carried much more weight.

“We’ve got a group of players that have really responded to David Ross,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Saturday. “We’ve been playing hard. I think you can see the energy they’ve been playing with every night. Everyone’s totally into this, and I want it to keep going.”



Cubs' Craig Kimbrel rises to the moment in 'sharp' outing against Brewers

Cubs' Craig Kimbrel rises to the moment in 'sharp' outing against Brewers

Cubs reliever Craig Kimbrel stuck with what was working. He pounded the strike zone with one high fastball after another against Manny Pina. Kimbrel was rewarded with a strikeout to end the inning.

In the Cubs’ 4-3 loss to the Brewers on Friday, Kimbrel pitched a shutout ninth inning to give his team the chance to rally. Instead, the Cubs’ bats went cold. But the stadium lights illuminated Kimbrel’s progress.

“He looked really good,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I’ve been trying to find a spot for him, and the feedback has been great every time I talk to the pitching guys, and his bullpens and the work he’s put in. I think you saw that tonight. The ball was exploding out of his hand really well. Some bad swings. Looked sharp.”

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It should be noted that the spot Ross found for him was in a one-run game. Kimbrel, who entered the season as the Cubs closer, at least temporarily lost that job after a string of rough outings. The Cubs blamed mechanical issues.

On Friday, Kimbrel didn’t allow a hit with the game on the line.

One of the biggest developments for Kimbrel is that he’s now throwing his curve ball for a strike, therefore not allowing opposing hitters to simply gear up for a fastball.

The third pitch he threw on Friday was a curve ball. Avisail Garcia already had two strikes on him, and then he fouled off a curve at the bottom of the strikezone.  Kimbrel sat him down with a high fastball clocking in at almost 98 mph.

“I don’t think he was far off (all year),” Cubs starting pitcher Alec Mills said, “and I think tonight he started putting a few more things together, fastball up in the zone and some good curve balls. It was good to see, for sure.”

As Kimbrel’s teammate, Mills may not be speaking from a position of objectivity. But he knows pitching, and he said he’s been excited about Kimbrel’s fastball all year.

“Even that first inning in Cincinnati,” Mills said. “The ball was coming out really good. It was electric. It was more like the Craig that I remember from past years.”

The Kimbrel from past years was a seven-time All-Star from 2011 to 2018, the year he won the World Series with the Red Sox.

But from 2017 to 2019, the average speed of Kimbrel’s fastball dropped from 98 mph to 96mph. It has remained right around 96 mph this year. On Friday, Kimbrel was locating it more effectively, while his curve ball helped put batters off balance.

Kimbrel still walked a batter – he stopped short of overpowering. But even against the one batter he walked, Justin Smoak, Kimbrel got ahead in the count early. He threw two curve balls for strikes. The first Smoak watched. The second he whiffed.

One outing isn’t a guarantee that Kimbrel will win back his role as closer. But it does show that the positive feedback Ross is getting translates into games. And that Ross is ready to trust him in close games. 

“I'm still going out there trying to compete,” Kimbrel said earlier this month.

On Saturday, he sure did.



Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

As if things weren’t already going well enough for the Cubs during this strange, short season of baseball in a pandemic, now the baseball gods are dropping gifts into their laps.

The Cardinals’ lengthy shutdown because of a coronavirus outbreak has the Cubs’ arch rivals restarting their season Saturday in Chicago with a patched-up roster and eight games over the next five days, including five games against the Cubs.

And although that means the relative hardship of two doubleheaders for the Cubs in three days, all five of those games Monday through Wednesday are against a decimated Cards roster that won’t have the front end of its rotation for any of the games.

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They catch the Cardinals at their weakest point of the early season a week after catching an otherwise formidable Cleveland team at a moment of clubhouse crisis involving protocol perps Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger.

That one resulted in a two-game sweep by a combined score of 14-3.

This one already has resulted in all 10 games against the Cardinals now being scheduled for Wrigley Field.

Combine that with the three road games against the White Sox next month, and it means that the team with baseball’s best record on the field, the perfect record in player COVID-19 testing and no significant injuries to key players so far will play 60 percent of its games within its Chicago bubble if the Cubs and MLB pull off the full 60-game season.

If the Cubs were positioned any better to make the playoffs, they’d already be there.

“You can look at it that way if you want,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “We’re just doing our thing.”

No other way to look at it from here. Have you seen the rest of the schedule?

The Cubs have 43 games left, including 29 within a National League Central Division that doesn’t include another .500 team three weeks into a nine-week season. Nine more games are against the Tigers and White Sox.

The best team on the schedule is the Twins, and all three of those games are at home and not until the second-to-last weekend of the season.

With all due respect to Ross and his fear of “bad juju,” the Cubs can’t lose.

“It’s still early on,” the manager said.

Nothing’s early in a 60-game season. And the Cubs already have matched the hot starts of their 2016 and 1908 World Series champions.

“We’ve still got a long ways to go in the season,” Ross said.

The Cubs did have to scratch Tyler Chatwood from his scheduled start Friday night because of back tightness. And Kris Bryant has missed the last two games because of a sore finger after rolling his wrist trying to make a diving catch in left field in Cleveland Wednesday.

But Alec Mills looked good in short-notice replacement duty Friday until a rough four-pitch (and three-run) sequence in the sixth. And Chatwood might be ready for one of Monday’s games — or possibly one of Wednesday’s.

“Things falling in our favor?” Ross said. “We’re playing good baseball, and that should be the focus for me and not the other stuff.”

Granted, they still have to play the games. Granted, Bryant wasn’t available off the bench with the bases loaded in the eighth Friday, and Josh Phegley struck out instead.

And, yes, they actually lost a game to the Brewers Friday night.

But if you still don’t believe the baseball gods are stirring the Cubs’ pot so far this season, you weren’t paying attention in the ninth inning when Craig Kimbrel struck out Avisail Garcia swinging at a 98-mph fastball to start the scoreless inning and Manny Piña swinging at a 96-mph fastball to end it.

What closer problem? Bring on the Cardinals, right?

These guys might not lose another game.