Josh Hader

Cubs: 3 things to know about the 2019 Brewers

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AP

Cubs: 3 things to know about the 2019 Brewers

As the Cubs welcome the Milwaukee Brewers to Wrigley Field Friday for the first time since the National League Wild Card game last October, let's take a look at the division rival.

The Cubs have already played the Brewers this season up in Milwaukee, but quite a bit has changed since then — for example, the Cubs have been on a roll, going 8-0-1 in series since.

These aren't your 2018 Brewers. They're still good — 23-16 and in second place, 1 game behind the Cubs. But this is not the team Cubs fans remember in many regards.

The Brewers are 7 games above .500 and are riding a 6-game winning streak into Chicago, but they have just a +2 run differential — a far cry from the Cubs' +57 run  differential, which leads the National League.

1. Christian Yelich is as good as ever.

These might not be the same Brewers, but some things never change. 

The reigning NL MVP is slashing .356/.462/.797 (1.258 OPS) with 16 homers and 37 RBI. He's on pace for 66 homers, 154 RBI and 129 runs despite the face he's on track for only 490 at-bats (he missed time earlier this season with a back issue). Half his homers (8) have come against the Cardinals, so the Cubs can't complain too much about that.

But the good news for the Cubs is Yelich has been insanely successful at home and not so good on the road. He's posted a 1.665 OPS and hit 15 of his homers at Miller Park and on the road, he's just been a pedestrian hitter — .766 OPS, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 14 K in 54 at-bats.

The Cubs were actually really good at minimizing Yelich's damage last year, as they did not give up a homer to the star outfielder and permitted only a .213/.279/.246 slash line (.525 OPS). 

But he's already hit a homer and driven in 5 runs in 3 games against the Cubs this season, so how do they plan on stopping him this time around?

"It's one thing to plot and plan, it's the next thing to execute," Joe Maddon said Thursday. "You could go out there with the greatest intentions and if you can't really throw the ball where you want to, then that becomes moot. I think to this point, we've had a decent plan. He still looked good the first time we saw him. 

"You gotta come up with the right plan, yes, but then you gotta execute the plan. I sit right next to [Cubs catching coach Mike Borzello] the whole time and [pitching coach Tommy Hottovy] and we're constantly talking about the next pitch, next pitch — 'how does this sound right here?' ... But guys like him, man, they're an enigma. They're so good."

2. However, the rest of the Milwaukee offense is not...

Besides Yelich, the Brewers have only 2 players with an OPS north of .800 — Mike Moustakas (.901) and Eric Thames (.840).

Lorenzo Cain is slashing only .250/.310/.395 the year after playing like an MVP candidate (though he's still a fantastic defender). 

Jesus Aguilar was in the Home Run Derby a year ago and finished the season with 35 homers, 108 RBI and an .891 OPS. But he did not end 2018 strong (.245 AVG, .760 OPS, 11 HR, 38 RBI) and he is off to a woeful start to 2019 (.181 AVG, .591 OPS, 3 HR, 14 RBI). 

Travis Shaw has hit 30 homers each of the last two seasons, but is batting just .172 with a .561 OPS and 4 dingers to begin 2019.

But with the way the Brewers have played the Cubs the last few months of regular season action, how much comfort is it really that a few key Milwaukee guys are off to a poor start?

3. This is not the same pitching staff from a year ago. 

The Brewers rank 21st overall in Major League Baseball with a 4.58 ERA and they're even worse as a starting staff (4.92 ERA, 23rd in league). 

Their plan to integrate their young right-handers (Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta) into the rotation has not gone well and the Brewers have had to sign Gio Gonzalez again to help eat innings. Even Jhoulys Chacin — who victimized the Cubs often in 2018 — has a 5.03 ERA to begin the year.

But Milwaukee has never invested much into its rotation and got one win away from the World Series last fall on their dominant bullpen. However, that's also been an issue in 2019. 

Josh Hader has given up 4 homers, but otherwise has still been ridiculous, with 10 saves, a 2.95 ERA, 0.76 WHIP and 41 strikeouts in 18.1 innings. Over his last 9.1 innings, he's struck out 26 batters.

Beyond him, however, the Brewers have a 4.18 bullpen ERA and are without their closer from a year ago (Corey Knebel — Tommy John surgery) while the other part of their three-headed monster (Jeremy Jeffress) is recovering from a shoulder injury and has lost 3 mph on his fastball.

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Javy Baez is here for all your 'bullcrap'

Javy Baez is here for all your 'bullcrap'

MILWAUKEE — Javy Baez always tells it like it is.

When the Cubs were stunned and knocked out of the playoffs last fall, he stood at his locker and explained exactly what went wrong and how. When he got to spring training, he explained how this team learned from last year and how they can carry it over into 2019.

So when the Cubs get out to a 2-7 start to the season, Baez is the best person to tell it like it is. 

"We've been playing good," Baez said after the Cubs' 4-2 loss to the Brewers Sunday afternoon. "We've been hitting the ball. It's just everything's been going the other way. We gotta make the adjustment and just try to get out of it. ... We just gotta keep staying positive and move on to the next day."

Sunday's loss ensured the Cubs have their worst record to open a season since the 1997 team rattled off 14 straight defeats before they were finally able to break out the W flag at Wrigley Field.

Obviously this is not the way anybody envisioned the beginning of the season to play out.

Nobody thought the Cubs would manage only three quality starts from this rotation in nine games or the bullpen would allow nearly a walk and a run per inning. Nobody predicted this defense — that has been a staple of the team's success the last few years — would be averaging more than an error a game and set a new Major League Baseball record with a catcher's interference in three straight games.

"Yeah, it sucks," Anthony Rizzo said. "You want to get off to a good start, right? You go to spring training, you're all like 'rah-rah, let's get off to a good start.' It's not 'rah-rah,' but that's the mentality. Every team has it.

"Some teams do [get off to a good start], some teams don't. We've been on ones that have and some that haven't. I think with the group we have, we know how good we are and string together good at-bats and everyone will settle in and it'll be good for us."

All things considered, the Cubs' loss Sunday had plenty of positives to take away.

The bullpen didn't implode — in fact, they tossed 4 shutout innings. The defense was fine — they did not commit an error after 11 miscues in the previous five games. The offense wasn't great, but they had some solid at-bats and also had to face maybe the best reliever in the game (Josh Hader) for the final 2.2 innings.

Kyle Hendricks was tagged for 4 runs in 4 innings, but outside of the first-inning homer to Christian Yelich, he wasn't hit all that hard and he only walked 1 batter. 

For all the offensive firepower the Cubs showed in the series (26 runs scored), their heart of the order struggled to make an impact — Baez, Rizzo and Kris Bryant combined to go 7-for-39 with 16 strikeouts. Those guys aren't going to produce every single day and it's definitely encouraging the rest of the lineup was able to pick up the slack at times.

But the common refrain in sports is you are what your record says you are. The Cubs are 5 games below .500 and 5.5 games behind the Brewers and it's not even mid-April yet.

So it's understandable fans are upset or even panicking.

"They can do whatever they want," Baez said. "I don't control them. They don't control my game or our game. We just gotta keep everything out of the clubhouse and just block everything negative that is coming to us right now and go out there and have fun."

Have the 2019 Cubs done a good job blocking out all the hate?

"Yeah, for sure," Baez said. "We're the Chicago Cubs. Obviously everybody's gonna talk about us and about 2016 and all this bullcrap. But like I said, I don't control that. I like it, 'cause when people talk about you, it's 'cause they care. They either care or they hate you."

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Brewers dealt a huge blow with closer Corey Knebel done for the season

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USA TODAY

Brewers dealt a huge blow with closer Corey Knebel done for the season

ARLINGTON, Texas - The season is just one day old and the reigning NL Central champs have already been dealt a big blow. 

Milwaukee closer Corey Knebel has a torn ligament in his elbow and as a result, has chosen to undergo Tommy John surgery to repair it instead of the riskier option of rehab:

Knebel, 27, is a big part of the Brewers bullpen, breaking out with a 1.78 ERA in a league-leading 76 appearances in 2017. That included 39 saves, 11 holds and an absurd 126 strikeouts in 76 innings. 

Last year, he dealt with some injuries and general ineffectiveness, even getting sent down to the minor leagues for a little over a week in August. But he was still a huge piece in the Brewers bullpen, leading the team with 16 saves and striking out 88 batters in 55.1 innings.

Knebel was absolutely lights-out following his demotion to the minor leagues. After being recalled, he did not allow a run in all of September (16.1 innings) and permitted just 8 baserunners (5 hits, 3 walks) while whiffing 33 batters. He carried that right into the postseason as he allowed only 1 run on 2 hits in 10 October innings against the Rockies and Dodgers.

Over his career, Knebel has a 2.77 ERA against the Cubs in 26 innings, striking out 38 of the 107 batters he's faced. He picked up the win in Game 163 at Wrigley Field last October.

This leaves the Brewers shorthanded in the bullpen, which was a major area of strength for the team last year. Josh Hader is still around and was his usual dominant self in Game 1 Thursday, but now Knebel won't be able to provide anything in 2019 (and who knows how he'll bounce back for 2020) and fellow high-leverage reliever Jeremy Jeffress is on the injured list with a shoulder injury.

Milwaukee also opted this spring to move up-and-coming young right-handers Corbin Burners, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta into the starting rotation, which further weakened the relief corps. All three were effective out of the bullpen down the stretch last season.

Maybe this Knebel news will push the Brewers to go out and get Craig Kimbrel, as it's been reported the team has been in talks with the elite free agent closer. 

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