Why Cubs hitters are catching up to pitchers earlier than expected

Why Cubs hitters are catching up to pitchers earlier than expected

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.



Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Millions of Americans have lost jobs or taken pay cuts because of the economic impact of a coronavirus pandemic that in this country shows no signs of going away anytime soon, including countless members of the sports media.

So despite some of the more laughably ignorant opinions from the dimmer corners of social media, exactly nobody in the media wants any sport to shut down again.

That said, what the hell are we doing playing games outside of a bubble during the deadliest pandemic in this country in more than 100 years?

With Friday's news that another Cardinals staff member and two more players tested positive in the past two days for COVID-19, the Cubs-Cards weekend series was postponed as officials scrambled to test and retest Cardinals personnel and try to get their season restarted.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since the intake process began in June, have done everything right, from management to the last player on the roster, to keep their team healthy and playing.

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But the operative, most overlooked, word in all of this has always been “playing.”

And the longer MLB pushes through outbreaks, and measures the season’s viability in counting cases instead of the risk of a catastrophic outcome for even one player, the deeper its ethical dilemma in this viral cesspool.

“Ethically, I have no problem saying we’re going to keep doing this,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said over the weekend about asking players to continue working as the league experienced outbreaks involving the Marlins and Cardinals.

“That said, we have to do it the right way,” Hoyer said, citing the extra lengths the Cubs have taken to keep players and staff safe.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

But even he and other team executives understand the limits of all the best-made plans.

“The infection is throughout the country. That’s the reality,” team president Theo Epstein said. “If you’re traveling around, there’s a real risk. Protocols are not perfect. No set of protocols are perfect. They’re designed to minimize the risk as best you possibly can.”

And while the odds for surviving the virus favor young, athletic people such as baseball players, the nearly 160,000 Americans killed by COVID-19 in the last five months include otherwise healthy toddlers, teens and young adults.

Add that to the best-known characteristic of this virus — its wildfire-like ability to spread within a group — and baseball’s attempt to stage a two-month season involving travel in and out of 30 locales starts to look like Russian roulette.

Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez, 27, contracted COVID-19 last month and as a result developed myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart — that might shut him down for the season even after multiple tests say he’s clear of the virus.

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, a fit, 39-year-old, recent major-league athlete, had a monthlong case so severe he went to the emergency room at one point for treatment before the viral pneumonia and high fever began to improve.

The vast majority of players insist they want to play, including Rodríguez, even after his heart diagnosis. More than 20 others have opted out because of the risk, including All-Stars Buster Posey, David Price and — in the past week — Lorenzo Cain and Yoenis Céspedes.

Obviously the owners want to play, with more than $1 billion in recouped revenues at stake in a season of deep financial losses.

“Everyone that I know outside of baseball who’s become positive, who’s gotten COVID-19 at some point, did everything right — washed their hands, wore masks, socially distanced — and they still became positive,” Epstein said. “They don’t know where. It could have been the grocery store. It could have been walking down the street.

“And as far as I know that’s the case inside baseball, too,” he added. “This is everywhere in the country and unfortunately going the wrong direction nationwide. It’s a fraught environment out there that we’re operating in, and we’re going to need to do our absolute best and also be fortunate.”


Cubs-Cardinals series postponed after Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak worsens

Cubs-Cardinals series postponed after Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak worsens

The COVID-19 pandemic finally caught up to the Cubs, who had their weekend series against the Cardinals postponed Friday after the Cardinals' coronavirus outbreak worsened by three positive tests before the teams were scheduled to open a three-game series in St. Louis on Friday night.

The Cardinals, who haven't played since last week because of an outbreak that now includes at least 16 players and staff, scrambled to test and retest personnel Friday as Major League Baseball wiped another series off their schedule.

Cardinals president John Mozeliak said Friday the latest players to test positive are outfielder Austin Dean and pitcher Ryan Helsley. The club announced Tuesday catcher Yadier Molina and shortstop Paul DeJong recently tested positive.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since intake testing began more than a month ago, had not lost a game on their schedule because of coronavirus issues.

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The Cubs (10-3) were scheduled to fly home from St. Louis Friday night and are not scheduled to play again until Tuesday in Cleveland. This weekend's series has not been rescheduled yet.

“Based on the information MLB has shared with us, postponing this series is a necessary step to protect the health and safety of the Cardinals and the Cubs,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said in a statement. “Therefore, it is absolutely the right thing to do.

“While it’s obviously less than ideal, this is 2020, and we will embrace whatever steps are necessary to promote player and staff wellbeing and increase our chances of completing this season in safe fashion,” he added. “We will be ready to go on Tuesday in Cleveland. In the meantime, we wish the Cardinals personnel involved a quick and complete recovery.”