Cubs

No doubts: LaHair believes it's about to turn

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No doubts: LaHair believes it's about to turn

PITTSBURGH Bryan LaHair knows the trend line, and understands that what he does will be magnified.

The Cubs first baseman gets that its easy to pick out a bad week or two. Its hard to blend in when youre the cleanup hitter for a team on a 10-game losing streak.

LaHair emerged as a bright spot in April, ending the month hitting .390, and it became a story of perseverance. A former 39th-round pick, he had spent parts of the past six seasons on the Triple-A level, and was willing to go play winter ball in Venezuela.

LaHair woke up on Saturday with 10 home runs, tied with Paul Konerko for the major-league lead among first basemen. But his average had dropped 89 points. He was 1-for-25 in his previous nine games. It hasnt shaken his confidence.

Im not getting it done, LaHair said. Im not going to sugarcoat anything. I havent been doing my job to the best of my ability and its tough to do that for (162 games). These kind of things happen. As soon as the season starts, I accept that theres going to be certain parts where I struggle.

Im prepared for it. Its not something I want to happen. But now the challenge is to get past this and get back on track. I got no question Im going to do it. Theres no doubt in my mind.

LaHair looked relaxed sitting in the chair in front of his locker, and he didnt sound the least bit defensive. He believes in all the work that he put in to get to this point, that its made him more mature, better equipped to handle failure.

Its not like LaHair was putting up numbers in garbage time. Seven of his 10 homers have either tied a game or given the Cubs a lead.

Theo Epsteins front office likes LaHairs overall approach, which is why last winter they reassured the Pacific Coast League MVP that thered be a place for him here.

LaHair has been seeing 4.27 pitches per plate appearance, which ranked eighth in the National League. He reached base safely in 32 consecutive games between April 8 and May 15.

Before LaHair cooled off, the team president explained why this shouldnt be a mirage.

The results probably arent going to be this Ruthian, so to speak, Epstein said recently, but I think the quality of at-bats will remain consistent. Its not a fluke. Hes doing things the right way. Hes recognizing pitches out of the pitchers hand really early. Hes letting the ball travel and get deep. Hes really short and compact to the ball.

Hes hitting the ball hard. Hes hitting it where its pitched and hes covering just about the whole strike zone. So hes going to go through slumps and everything, but its really encouraging. Not just what hes doing, but how hes accomplishing it.

LaHair has come back down to earth, part of the natural regression as the advanced scouting picks up and pitchers learn more about his game. Manager Dale Sveum, a former hitting coach, has been a big advocate, but sees a few holes.

Hes getting to the point now where I think hes starting to guess along with the pitcher (and) you cant do that, Sveum said. Hes just not taking his walks. (Its) swinging out of the strike zone, trying to do too much (or) trying to put all the weight on his shoulders.

LaHair wants that responsibility, and isnt looking over his shoulder at first base, even though top prospect Anthony Rizzo is coming fast. The Cubs will want to find ways to put those two left-handed bats in the middle of the order.

LaHair doesnt have to be Babe Ruth, but he could still be in the All-Star conversation.

The whole point of Epsteins year of evaluation was to open up opportunities for the future, and give someone like LaHair 500 or 600 at-bats to finally show whether or not he belongs.

These guys believe in me, LaHair said. The confidence level as far as every time I walk to the box hasnt changed from the first six weeks. Its just when thoughts creep into your mind (you have to remember) its what happens. Its baseball. Im not intimidated by struggling.

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half show that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well.

“We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

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Matt Nagy says Mitch Trubisky's Week 7 struggles due to poor footwork

Matt Nagy says Mitch Trubisky's Week 7 struggles due to poor footwork

Fundamentals can oftentimes make or break a quarterback's career. For Chicago Bears third-year signal-caller Mitch Trubisky, he's struggling with one of the most important aspects of quarterback play: footwork.

Coach Matt Nagy met with the media at Halas Hall on Monday and confirmed most of Trubisky's struggles in the Bears' 36-25 loss to the Saints in Week 7 were the result of sloppy footwork.

"The No. 1 thing I came away from was footwork. I thought footwork was just OK. And then the footwork leads to a little bit of better decisions/accuracy with throws. There was some times where there were some backpedals or movement in the pocket could've been a little better or different.

"You look at the one throw on 3rd-and-five, the second possession of the game, he's hit that all week and missed that, that was the start, and then there was a few others one. The other one that I thought was a bigger error by (Trubisky) at that position was we had a 1st-and-10 at the 24-yard line going in and we took a sack for eight yards and that was an RPO. That's a learning tool for him. Hey, we call a run-pass option and we're just a little bit off in our progression on that play and we ended up losing eight yards. Now it's 2nd-and-18, now you're back to 3rd-and-14 and we have and incomplete pass and we gotta grind to make three points.

"For me, playing the position, when you have sloppy footwork, it can lead to other issues. And I think that's what we saw."

Trubisky ended the game completing 34-of-54 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns, but most of those stats were accumulated during garbage time, which Nagy dismissed as irrelevant. It's obvious Nagy is being careful with his words and, somehow, is still putting a positive spin on some pretty harsh criticism of Trubisky. 

If a quarterback is feeling the pass rush and dropping his eyes too early, which Nagy suggested is happening with Trubisky, and their footwork and accuracy are sloppy and inconsistent, the likely end result is a switch at the position. That isn't going to happen in Chicago, but it's Nagy's honest assessment of Trubisky's play on Sunday is at least a sign (even if it wasn't as harsh as it could've been) that the protective gloves will soon come off.

We just aren't 100% there yet.

"The growth of this offense needs to be better," Nagy said. "That territory, that position (quarterback), it always starts there. It always does. What I have to remind everybody else is there's other parts to this system. It's not just the quarterback play. I think we know what those other parts are that we need to play better at. Collectively, not just at the quarterback position, we need to be a little better."