Kyle Schwarber

Cubs' 'unbelievable' defense is bringing back 2016 vibes early on

Cubs' 'unbelievable' defense is bringing back 2016 vibes early on

The Cubs’ 9-2 start is their best through 11 games since 2016 (also 9-2). It’s probably not fair to compare anything about this team in this surreal set of circumstances to that team. But one element of this group that reminds the Cubs of that fateful season is the stellar defense they’ve played so far.

“Yeah, that’s certainly what it feels like right now,” said Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks Tuesday of whether the defense compares to 2016.

The 2016 Cubs lapped the league in advanced fielding metrics, finishing first in Defensive Runs Saved (91) and Ultimate Zone Rating (47.1). DRS rates how far or below average (0) a team is defensively, while UZR quantifies how many runs a team saves or gives up through their fielding.

Through 11 games, the 2020 Cubs are first in DRS (15; the Dodgers are second at 14) and fifth in UZR (2.8).

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“The defense has just been unbelievable right now,” Hendricks said. “It gives all the pitchers more confidence in the world to go right at guys.”

Hendricks is well equipped to make that evaluation because his game is all about inducing soft contact. That’s also the case for Alec Mills, who benefited in his start Monday from several excellent plays by David Bote at third base.

In the fourth inning, Bote, positioned near shortstop in a shift, ranged to his right, picked a grounder on a short hop and made a strong off-balance throw to retire Alex Gordon. In the seventh, he charged a bunt barehanded and threw out Adalberto Mondesi.

“Obviously, when that happens it’s a big energizer for the whole team,” Mills said Monday. “Bote made two really good plays. It does nothing but fire you up.”

Those are only a few examples of strong showings by Cubs fielders in recent days. Kyle Schwarber threw out Jacob Stallings at the plate on a single to leadoff the 10th inning against the Pirates Sunday. Javier Báez executed another magical tag on a Mondesi stolen base attempt Monday.

Kris Bryant made two diving plays at third on Tuesday, including a game-saver in the ninth. Cubs manager David Ross said Bryant looks as good as he’s seen him defensively, highlighting the work Bryant put in with bench coach Andy Green in spring training.

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“I think KB’s played phenomenal defense this year for us, especially at third base, and that’s not easy to do as much as I’ve moved him around,” Ross said Tuesday. “He’s really athletic over there, moving well, the glove’s working. It’s fun to watch our defense right now. We’ve got some really slick gloves out there."

“All around, guys have been making all the plays, even making the great ones,” Hendricks said. “Everybody's in a really good spot right now.”

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Cubs, Brewers show restraint under stricter pandemic rules — but can it last?

Cubs, Brewers show restraint under stricter pandemic rules — but can it last?

As if booing Ryan Braun from the rooftops and hitting Anthony Rizzo and Javy Báez with pitches weren’t enough.

Leave it to the Cubs and Brewers to push tempers to the limits of baseball’s new policy on brawls — and the limits of their own restraint — on the second day of the season.

Brewers pitcher Corbin Burnes buzzing inside fastballs in the first inning, including hitting Báez on the arm, started raising the temperature between the teams on an 87-degree afternoon, and by the end of the third inning, Willson Contreras had enough.

The Cubs’ DH for the day — who already showed anger as a brushback in the first — barked at Burnes on the way back to the dugout after an inning-ending strikeout, sparking actions from both chirping benches.

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“Both sides were going back and forth,” Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber said.

"That’s just one of the things we’re going to have to adjust to this year," Brewers starter Corbin Burnes said. "Without any fans, you can hear every word that comes from the dugout, and the dugouts can hear each other."

Schwarber: “I think it’s just baseball.”

But not as we’re used to seeing it — and that’s the point.

Báez jumped the dugout rail, Rizzo joined him, and several Brewers stepped out of their dugout. And just like that, both teams reached the limit of baseball’s new, stricter policies on bench-clearing incidents during a pandemic — contact resulting in automatic suspensions.

“I don’t know how it all started, but that’s to be expected in an environment like this,” Cubs manager David Ross said of the fan-less conditions that allow almost every word from one dugout to be heard in the other.

“When you can hear everything that everybody says, that’s going to spark some intensity.”

Intensity?

“We’re all going to have each other’s backs," Brewers center fielder Lorenzo Cain said. "Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that, but emotions are high. Hopefully we can avoid that situation because we don’t want to be in close contact. But if it happens, it happens.’’

Schwarber downplayed Saturday's incident, as well as any likelihood that such an incident will escalate into a problem as the season goes on.

“There’s always scrumbles throughout the year, and I think there’s going to be scrumbles throughout this year, too,” he said. “The only thing is we’re going to have to always be careful with the new rules here, not being able to really go into each other there. You can’t really bench-clear or anything like that. You kind of have to keep the tempers down to the best of your ability.”

They did it on this day — neither team venturing farther than the edge of the grass toward the other. Umpires declined to issue warnings to either bench.

But when it’s two weeks into the season, and not two days — and the rules aren’t as fresh, the environment not as new and strange, the guard not held as high?

“I think that everyone in the league knows what’s at risk here,” Schwarber said. “It’s obviously one that if that were to ever happen, that’s an automatic suspension, and you’re hurting your team by being suspended.

“Anything can happen,” he added. “We’re a bunch of grown men out there. There could be a scrumble here and there, but I think that ideally we’ll all have a good mindset that this is a sprint, and we’re going to need each other throughout the whole year.”

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Kyle Schwarber on Cubs' unheralded relievers: 'Don't sleep on this bullpen'

Kyle Schwarber on Cubs' unheralded relievers: 'Don't sleep on this bullpen'

The Cubs bullpen didn’t do anything in its season debut Saturday to ease concerns about whether it can provide the kind of strength this short season promises to require.

But at least one Cubs hitter who scrimmaged against the group the last three weeks offered an over-the-top endorsement on a day five relievers gave up five runs, including three on homers, in five innings during an 8-3 loss to the Brewers.

“Don’t sleep on this bullpen,” Kyle Schwarber said. “I was wowed facing these guys in summer camp. I was like, `Man, you guys didn’t throw this hard in spring training. Where did this come out of now?’

“There’s some electric arms in our bullpen with some absolutely plus secondary stuff,” he added. “I think we’re going to see the best out of these guys.”

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Even if he’s right, time is not on their side. For now, Saturday looked a lot like a first round of tryouts to survive the first in-season roster cutdown (30 to 28 on Aug. 7).

“You’ve got to get them out there,” manager David Ross said.

The electricity in some cases has not been the issue as much as location. Case in point: prospect Dillon Maples, who was the only one from Saturday’s crew to deliver a 1-2-3 inning (in the ninth).

Power-arm left-hander Rex Brothers (eighth inning) was the only other one with a scoreless inning.

The Cubs played from behind from the start of the reliever parade, so the team’s closer and primary setup men in the 11-man, early-season pen weren’t in play.

But it’s hard to overestimate the importance, if not challenge, of learning quickly in a 60-game season who’s reliable enough to trust even in the middle innings.

“I don’t think it’s a challenge,” Ross said. “You’ve got to get guys in there and see how they look. That’s part of it. You’ve got to get them out there and see what you’ve got.”

To that end, right-hander Duane Underwood Jr. looked sharp but for one elevated 94-mph fastball that Justin Smoak banged off the right-field foul pole.

Lefty Brad Wieck gave up a two-out walk, followed by a two-run homer to Christian Yelich in the sixth as his lagging velocity continues to be “monitored” by the team.

And righty James Norwood pumped 98-mph fastballs in the seventh inning, but three consecutive hits, including the third off a centered splitter, cost two more runs.

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“I’ve said these guys have got to continue to grow. They’re still learning, still pitching, still trying to execute pitches,” Ross said of a group that admittedly doesn’t have the luxury of doing any of that in such a short season.

“Growth is going to be a strong point for them,” he said. “And there’s no way to find out until we get them in there.”

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