Kyle Schwarber sent a long fly ball clattering around the center field bleachers, and there was only one way for Cubs manager David Ross to properly celebrate in the time of COVID-19: a sweeping air high-five.
Ross jogged out to Schwarber during Friday evening’s intrasquad scrimmage, and they mimed the celebration.
During intrasquad games, Ross’s alliances flip back and forth so quickly it’s dizzying. Early in Summer Camp, he remembers one of the pitchers saying, “It’s really weird having your manager rooting against you.”
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Said Ross: “I tried to tell him, I’m on everybody’s side.”
Of course Ross wants his pitchers to succeed. But if the Cubs make a deep playoff run this season, it likely won’t be because of dominant pitching.
“I think our offense is going to be out strong suit,” Ross said three days into Summer Camp.
That’s no knock on the pitchers themselves. Ross has consistently praised the pitching staff’s work during the pandemic. But their challenges keep mounting.
The starting rotation was already thin before Jose Quintana sliced the thumb on his pitching hand while washing dishes. A week into Summer Camp, he still can’t throw, and Jon Lester’s program had him pitching to live batters later than the rest of the healthy starters.
Not to mention, even the most diligent training during the shutdown couldn’t make up for the length of training camp. Pitchers have just three short weeks to ramp up to game shape. Being ready to throw five innings will be a feat on that timeline.
Those factors make the Cubs hitters’ approach to the past four months all the more important.
“People are going to say the pitchers are ahead,” Schwarber said, “but you see all of our hitters out there putting in really good quality at-bats as well.”
In a normal Spring Training, the pitchers starting ahead of the hitters would be expected. But over the past week, the Cubs’ bats have called that assumption into question.
Schwarber, Willson Contreras and Josh Phegley have hit two home runs apiece in intrasquad scrimmages.
Ross attributes some of his hitters’ early strides to the amount of live batting practice they took even after Spring Training closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Schwarber was one of those who remained in Arizona. There, Ross said, Schwarber faced Cubs pitchers Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish and Colin Rea.
“Those guys who were able to be in that environment are obviously going to be a little bit further along,” Ross said, “and you can see it in Kyle’s swing and how good he looks.”
Even players who didn’t have that advantage have been making solid contact. Jason Heyward, who said he only had one day of live batting practice during the break, had the first intrasquad hit of Summer Camp.
The way hitting coach Anthony Iapoce sees it, the limits the shutdown placed on batting practice may have been a blessing in disguise.
“Guys are hitting in the garage off the tee, they’re hitting in open fields by themselves while somebody’s flipping them balls,” Iapoce said. “So, nobody was in these grand facilities with all these types of things, so you really had to work on yourself as you’re hitting. You have to (practice) what I call tee meditation. … That does a lot for a player when he can be alone with his thoughts and work.”
Now, they’re back in big-league facilities with Opening Day just two weeks away.
The pitchers’ ability to navigate this unprecedented season will set the Cubs’ floor. But during the upcoming 60-game sprint, the Cubs’ success depends on their hitters giving Ross more reasons to dole out air high-fives.