Kyle Schwarber and Javy Baez could face off in the Home Run Derby

Kyle Schwarber and Javy Baez could face off in the Home Run Derby

It’s official.

For the first time since Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant in 2015, the Cubs will have representatives in the Home Run Derby.

The Cubs announced Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez will participate in this year’s contest next Monday in Washington, D.C.

The two have shown special power throughout their young major-league careers that has made fans and players excited to see them take part.

Baez has hit a team-leading 18 home runs this year, giving him the seventh best total in the National League, while Schwarber trails with 17 homers of his own. Both are also on pace to notch career highs in 2018, topping the 30 (Schwarber) and 23 (Baez) they hit last season.

They will each attempt to be the first Cubs player to win the Home Run Derby since Sammy Sosa, who hit 26 home runs in 2000. Bryant and Rizzo had a tough time in 2015, the first year of the newer head-to-head format, when they were both eliminated in the first round.

In this year's opening round, the fifth-seeded Schwarber will face the Astros' fourth-seeded Alex Bregman, and the sixth-seeded Baez will square up against the Dodgers' Max Muncy, a three seed. The bracket also includes the Brewers' first-seeded Jesus Aguilar, the Nationals' second-seeded Bryce Harper, the Braves' seventh-seeded Freddie Freeman, and the Phillies' eighth-seeded Rhys Hoskins.

With the way the bracket is formatted, Schwarber and Baez could face each other in the final round.

The Home Run Derby is a chance for both the Cubs’ second baseman and leftfielder to showcase their talents on one of the most exciting stages in baseball. It’s an opportunity Schwarber has always wanted.

“It’s on the bucket list, being in the Home Run Derby,” Schwarber, who was not selected to the 2018 MLB All-Star Game, said. “… it’s definitely a thing that I want to do and at least try once.”

Some players in the past have said the Derby negatively affects hitters’ swings, but Cubs manager Joe Maddon isn’t worried about having his 25-year-old sluggers in the home run hitting event. In fact, he thinks it will be a good thing for their careers.

“I’m more worried about fatigue, but I also believe the benefit’s gonna be that they did it,” Maddon said. “I would never want to restrict ‘em from that and, like I said, at their age, it’s kind of perfect.”

The Cubs have been one of the best teams in the major leagues as of late, so having one of the team’s players win in this Monday’s competition would be even sweeter for the organization.

All-Star Game festivities come at a good time for the red-hot Baez, who has shined all season in Chicago with a team-leading 66 RBIs (second in the NL) and 95 hits. Those marks have earned him a starting spot in the All-Star Game at second base. He will try to bring the Home Run Derby title back into the hands of the National League after Aaron Judge’s 47-dinger win for the American League in 2017.

“A lot of people got the question mark on their mind how I’m going to do I guess,” Baez said. “It’s all about putting on a show and having fun. We’ll see what happens.”

Better days ahead for Kyle Hendricks?

Better days ahead for Kyle Hendricks?

Could Kyle Hendricks’ recent outing indicate he’s starting to turn the page?

Hendricks took the hill in his second start of July against the Giants Monday night, and this could’ve been his best performance in a Cubs uniform.

That’s according to manager Joe Maddon, after he spoke with reporters after the game.

“I thought Kyle was outstanding.” Maddon said. “That’s the Kyle that we all know and love. That’s actually one of the best games I’ve seen him throw physically. His stuff was that good.”

“He was fresh there at the end, and he did an outstanding job out there.”

Hendricks tossed 8.1 innings, yielding five hits, one unearned run, one walk and tallied eight strikeouts.

For Hendricks, it was a huge step in the right direction, and he hopes to build on this performance.

“Now you just want to keep rolling.” Hendricks said postgame. “Stay on the routine and try to lock in on these good habits.”

“Relief in a way but still it’s just one outing. Felt good to feel the good ones, and now I’ve got to ingrain those good habits. But today was a big positive for me.”

Before this start, Hendricks started against the Tigers July 3rd, and he lasted just five innings, gave up seven hits and three earned runs.

Now three earned runs is not a lot, but it was a positive sign after his rough month of June.

Hendricks finished at 1-4, with a 7.03 ERA and 1.685 WHIP in 24.1 innings pitched.

This was something the Cubs aren’t used to seeing out of the “professor”, considering Hendricks led MLB in ERA in 2016 at 2.13.

In 2016 and 2017, Hendricks combined for a 2.51 ERA.

But coming into the start against the Giants, Hendricks ERA was at 4.27. That quickly dropped to 3.93 after yesterday.

As his ERA continues to slowly drop, it’s encouraging for the Cubs pitching staff.

This is definitely a confidence booster to say the least for Hendricks. Even though he got the no decision against the Giants, consider it a job well done.

Cubs with few answers on injured Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish, but they're having plenty of success without them

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USA TODAY

Cubs with few answers on injured Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish, but they're having plenty of success without them

When will Kris Bryant return to the Cubs’ lineup?

The Cubs don’t exactly know.

When will Yu Darvish return to the Cubs’ rotation?

The Cubs don’t know.

What do the Cubs know?

The Cubs know that they’ve won six straight games, that they’re getting some terrific outputs from their offense and that they’re a game and a half out of first place with the second best record in the National League.

That enough?

The hot topics around this team right now might be Bryant and Darvish, a pair of injured All Stars whose extended stays on the disabled list are nearly as puzzling as their uncustomary performances this season. But while both induce nothing but head scratches over their absence, the Cubs are playing some of their best baseball of the campaign.

Bryant’s case isn’t as severe as Darvish’s, the third baseman three games past the date he was eligible to come off the DL while recovering from a shoulder injury. Bryant hit for the second time this week before Friday’s game against the visiting Cincinnati Reds. The update that came from Cubs president Theo Epstein was that Bryant “had a good day” and the team would figure out what comes next.

Whether that means Bryant’s return to the lineup is imminent is unknown, but prior to that update from Epstein, Cubs skipper Joe Maddon said that Bryant’s still feeling discomfort at the end of his swing and that it’s potentially something that could linger as the season marches on.

“I don’t think we’re necessarily waiting for (a complete lack of discomfort), maybe it’s more of a manageable situation to begin with,” Maddon said. “I think the no discomfort’s going to be down the road a bit. That’s something we’ve been talking through, also. How much can he handle?

“We’ve all been through that where you get these kind of nagging things. Whether it’s sometimes you slide and you put your hand down, all of a sudden that wrist bothers you for an entire season, it gets well in November and December.

“I really don’t know. It’s not totally gone, whatever he feels at the end of his swing. … We’re trying to manage it right now, we’re trying to find out where we’re at, what he’s capable of doing and just playing it as he sees fit.”

Bryant’s unusual-for-him numbers — he’s got a .280 batting average and just nine homers on the season, with a .188 average in the 12 games prior to him going on the DL — have been a panic point among fans this season. Can the Cubs hope to make another run at a World Series championship without Bryant’s heretofore dependable bat anchoring the lineup?

But Bryant’s situation pales in comparison to Darvish’s on the Cubs Twitter Freakout Richter Scale.

Darvish is starting anew in his recovery process, which has kept him out of action since mid May. That means he’ll be working on getting his strength back before he can start throwing again, and that’s well before he can start pitching in games, be they with minor league affiliates or with the big league team. Epstein said there’s no timetable for Darvish’s return.

Maddon was asked if Darvish could make his return around the July 31 trade deadline and said that maybe the pitcher could return around then — only to follow that up with admitting he really has no idea.

“I don’t have any kind of preconceived finish line, thoughts, whatever. I just want him to be well,” Maddon said. “Of course we want Yu back sooner rather than later, but if biology’s not going to permit it, it’s not going to permit it.

“(July 31), that’s not unreasonable. I think that would be a good target date, something in that area, but I don’t know. I honestly have no clue on this one. I want to see him get out there, play catch, talk to him. ‘I feel good today’ or ‘I’m still feeling it.’ I just don’t know. I really don’t know where this is at.”

Darvish is more of a flashpoint for fans after he brought World Series expectations with him when the Cubs inked him to a big-money deal on the first day of spring training. He hasn’t done much to live up to that hype in his brief action with the team, pitching only eight times and owning a 4.95 ERA.

Darvish, be it because of those expectations or the second-guessing following his ugly performances with the Los Angeles Dodgers in last fall’s World Series, has earned more scorn than his rotation-mates, though similar woes are shared by the majority of the Cubs’ starting staff: Jose Quintana has a 4.22 ERA, Kyle Hendricks has a 4.27 ERA, and Tyler Chatwood has a 4.54 ERA.

That the Cubs have managed to stay one of the NL’s best while only one of their starting pitchers, Jon Lester, has been his dominant self is astounding and a credit to what the rest of the team has done. Epstein, for one, sees it as an indication that brighter days are ahead for the Cubs following the All-Star break.

“I think the optimistic way to look at it is we’re on a really nice pace, we’ve had a really nice season so far and most of our starting pitchers haven’t locked it in yet,” he told reporters Friday. “A pessimist might look at it and say, ‘this is unsustainable because your starting pitching’s bad.’ I don’t look at it that way. I think our starting pitching is going to carry us for long stretches of the season, and it hasn’t happened yet. But I think that lies ahead of us.”

Without Bryant and without Darvish — because of lack of expected production or their time on the DL — the Cubs have remained World Series contenders. When those two return remains a mystery. But if the Cubs keep winning, keep playing like they’ve been playing, their returns become far less pressing an issue than it would seem.