Mike Montgomery

What we learned about the Cubs in June

What we learned about the Cubs in June

The summer heat has finally descended upon Chicago, but the good news for the Cubs is it appears their bats have rolled in along with the humidity.

The Cubs endured a brutal schedule in June, having to play 28 games in 30 days, including a doubleheader on the 19th. 

Sure, there was that 4-game losing streak in Cincinnati, but they also went 4-3 against the Los Angeles Dodgers and finished the month 16-12 overall.

That final record looks a whole lot better thanks to a 3-game winning streak to close out the month in which the Cubs hammered out 35 runs on 47 hits.

Here are 10 things we learned about the Cubs in June:

1. The Cubs offense is making its march toward October.

That's not to say they're ready for postseason baseball just yet.

But the Cubs hitters are willing students and they've clearly taken the lessons to heart lately.

Hitting coach Chili Davis called a team meeting in LA before the game on the 26th, in an effort to regroup with an offensive focus on using the whole field/going the other way, cutting down on strikeouts and not trying to force home runs.

The result was 4 wins in 5 games to close June, in which the Cubs scored at least 5 runs in every contest. That continued into July, plating 11 runs against the Twins Sunday at Wrigley Field.

It's not always going to be this easy, of course. The Cubs aren't going to average more than 9 runs a game forever.

But after seeing how the offense faltered in the postseason last year and paying close attention to how the game has shifted (strikeouts up, hits down), the Cubs coaches have been thinking about October since Day 1 of spring training with an emphasis on scoring runs against elite pitching without hitting homers.

Right now, we're seeing clear development from the young hitters in that regard.

2. Jon Lester is the Pitcher that was Promised.

In Year 4 of his $155 million megadeal, Lester is still getting it done in a major way and right when the Cubs needed it the most.

With Yu Darvish out for the entire month, Kyle Hendricks enduring uncharacteristic struggles and Tyler Chatwood still trying to right the ship, Lester was every bit an ace for the Cubs in June.

He won all 5 of his starts with a 1.13 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and averaged more than 6 innings per outing to help ease the burden on the bullpen.

Lester's strikeout rate is at its lowest mark since 2008 (the year he became a full-time starter) and he's given up some hard contact as his velocity has dropped off a bit, but he's found a way to do more with less and just keeps taking the ball every fifth day to give his team a chance to win.

3. Kris Bryant is not OK...
 
...but it's probably gonna be OK.

June 2018 will go down as the worst month of Bryant's career to date. 

He endured a long slump that saw him hit just 1 HR, drive in 9 runs and post a .707 OPS in 18 games in June. He also hit the disabled list for the first time ever with a left shoulder injury.

Bryant denies the shoulder may have had an impact on his power, but Joe Maddon is insistent the 10-day reprieve will do wonders for the 2016 NL MVP.

Bryant has been taking swings in the cage and is eligible to come off the disabled list Tuesday at Wrigley Field. At the very least, he should be fresh and either 100 percent physically or awfully close. That's a dangerous thing to add to a lineup that's currently firing on all cylinders.
 
4. Kyle Hendricks is not OK...
 
...but it's probably gonna be OK.
 
Like Bryant, June 2018 was probably Hendricks' worst month in a Cubs uniform at any level. He went 1-4 with a 7.03 ERA and 1.69 WHIP, allowing 19 earned runs on 26 hits and a whopping 15 walks in 24.1 innings — all numbers we're not used to seeing associated with The Professor.
 
He's giving up home runs at an alarming rate (he's already surrendered 16 and his career high is 17), but insists he's healthy.
 
This is the guy who pitched the Cubs to the World Series in 2016, dominating the Dodgers in the NLCS. And the same guy who started Game 7 against the Indians. And Game 1 against the Nationals in last year's NLDS.
 
Hendricks is one of the most cerebral pitchers in the game and is an avid student of pitching and the Cubs' scouting reports.
 
If he truly is healthy, then chances are extremely strong that he'll figure this all out and get through this bump in the road.
 
5. Javy Baez is a legitimate MVP candidate.
 
Baez hit .318 with a .915 OPS in June, finishing 1st or 2nd on the Cubs in almost every offensive category. He also became a father for the first time. Heck, he even drew 5 walks in June!

When the best players in baseball head to our nation's capital for the All-Star festivities in two weeks, Baez should be front and center (yes, he should be in the Home Run Derby).

He's on pace for a near 30-30 season, 121 RBI, 105 runs scored and a whopping 84 extra-base hits while playing spectacular defense all over the infield and hitting anywhere in the Cubs lineup.

With half the season in the books, Baez is firmly in the NL MVP conversation.
 
6. Yu who?
 
Darvish hasn't pitched all month...unless you count a rehab stint in Class-A South Bend.

The 31-year-old pitcher received a cortisone shot in his right elbow Friday to address the impingement/inflammation and could resume throwing this week.

But he'd have to build his arm strength and stamina back up, so he probably won't be able to return to the Cubs rotation before the All-Star Break.

Through June, he had only accounted for 40 innings and a 0.2 WAR (FanGraphs) in a Cubs uniform.
 
7. Mike Montgomery talked the talk, now he's walking the walk.
 
Montgomery made waves multiple times since the end of last season as he continued to be outspoken on his desire to be a starting pitcher.

When finally called upon for the opportunity, Montgomery has been absolutely phenomenal. He accounted for more innings (35) in June than any other Cubs pitcher, sporting a 2.83 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 2-1 record. 

Maybe more importantly, Montgomery has gone at least 5 innings in every start, including a string of 5 straight outings where he completed 6 innings

Whenever Darvish returns to the rotation, there's no way Montgomery is going back to the bullpen if he can keep getting these results.
 
8. The Cubs have depth, and they've needed every bit of it.

The Cubs filled up the DL in June. They began the month with Darvish, Carl Edwards Jr. and Eddie Butler on the shelf and then added Bryant and Brandon Morrow, Rob Zastryzny and Justin Hancock. Reliever Brian Duensing also hit the DL after the Cubs' win over the Twins on June 30.

Then there's the paternity leave, with Chatwood missing a start because of the birth of his first child and Baez out of the starting lineup for one game (Friday) for the same reason.

The Cubs built up their depth in every facet of the game over the winter and they've needed every bit of this summer already.

The shuttle of "Iowa relievers" was in full force and was met with mostly good results from Anthony Bass (0.73 ERA), Randy Rosario (2.45 ERA), Luke Farrell (3.95), Cory Mazzoni (1.50) and even Duane Underwood Jr., who pitched well in a spot start in LA.

The Cubs have also needed to lean heavily on their position player depth both with Bryant on the DL and a stretch of 17 games in 17 days to end the month. Maddon has been diligent about getting all his players rest and it's worked out beautifully to this point.

9. It would be silly to trade Addison Russell.

2018 hasn't gone exactly like Russell or the Cubs have planned, but he had a really good month of June while side-stepping trade rumors and a lingering finger issue on his left hand.

Russell hit .329 in June (2nd on Cubs) with an .867 OPS (4th on Cubs). He even flashed his formerly-lost power with a pair of homers in the final few games of the month.

On the season, he's hitting .286 with a .358 on-base percentage and .407 slugging percentage while playing Gold Glove caliber defense at shortstop.

10. THIS is the Jason Heyward we've been waiting for.

When the Cubs handed Heyward an 8-year, $184 million contract before the 2016 season, they thought they were getting a Gold Glove defender, clubhouse leader and solid hitter with room to grow as he entered his prime.

Instead, he struggled at the plate in the first 2+ years in a Cubs uniform before June came along. 

He finished the month second on the team in OPS (.873) and RBI (16) while leading the Cubs in hits (34). Since May 29, only Paul Goldschmidt (.360) had a better batting average in the NL than Heyward (.359).

Heyward and the Cubs are confident the changes are built to last, too, now that he's gotten his hands a lot more involved in his swing and is able to drive the ball and catch up to elite velocity.

He's still the leader in the clubhouse and a fantastic defender and now that he's hitting consistently, Heyward has emerged as one of the most valuable players on the team.

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

The Cubs and their fans may want to invent and use one of those Men In Black neuralyzers because the four-game series in Cincinnati was one to forget.

The Reds finished off a four-game sweep of the Cubs on Sunday with an 8-6 win. The way the Reds won the finale will be especially painful for the Cubs considering they led 6-1 after six innings. Mike Montgomery appeared to tire in the seventh inning and Pedro Strop got rocked out of the bullpen to lead to a seven-run seventh for the hosts.

The Reds have now won seven in a row and 10 of 12, but still sit 13 games under .500. Bizarrely, the Reds also swept the Dodgers, the Cubs’ next opponent, in a four-game series in May. Duane Underwood will start for the Cubs Monday against the Dodgers and make his major league debut.

Here are some other wild facts and figures from the series:

  • The last time the Reds swept the Cubs in a four-game series was back in 1983. That was the first week of the season and three weeks before the infamous Lee Elia rant.
  • One positive for the Cubs from the game was Montgomery’s start. Through six innings he allowed one run on three hits and two walks. However, he gave up a single, a double and a single in the seventh before Strop relieved him. Montgomery had gone six innings and allowed one run in each of his last four outings.
  • Strop was definitely a negative. On his first pitch, Strop gave up a home run to pinch-hitter Jesse Winker, the second home run for a Reds pinch-hitter in the game. Then Strop allowed a single, a walk, a single and a double before getting an out. Strop’s final line: 2/3 inning pitched, four runs, one strikeout, three walks, four hits.
  • The Cubs led in three of the four games this series, including two leads after five innings.
  • The Cubs were 5-for-23 (.217) with runners in scoring position in the series. On the season the Cubs are hitting .233 with RISP, which is 22nd in the majors and fourth-worst in the National League (but ahead of the division-rival Brewers and Cardinals).
  • The Reds outscored the Cubs 31-13 and scored at least six runs in every game. The Reds are now 6-3 against the Cubs this year after going a combined 17-40 against the Cubs from 2015-2017.

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching

Dominating.

That's how a smiling Theo Epstein described Yu Darvish's simulated game at Wrigley Field Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, in the bowels of the "Friendly Confines," the Cubs' clubhouse was getting used to the idea of closer Brandon Morrow on the disabled list.

Such is life for the current state of affairs for the Cubs pitching staff with their two biggest additions from the winter now on the shelf at the same time.

Darvish threw roughly 50 pitches in his sim game against hitters Ian Happ and Tommy La Stella. He worked in all his pitches and liked the way his fastball and slider felt, but needs to refine his curveball and splitter with more work.

"I feel good," Darvish said through a translator. "There was some anxiety beforehand, but I think it turned out to be better than I expected."

Darvish said the anxiety stemmed mostly from his past elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2014.

"Definitly the elbow aspect," Darvish said. "The anxiety came from whether I could throw at 100 percent condition."

This is the second time Darvish has mentioned his past elbow injury is in the back of his mind as he's worked through the current triceps issue. He said the same thing last week in Milwaukee after his first bullpen session.

Remember, too, Darvish was concerned about the possibility of cramps in his arm in his Cubs debut in Miami in late March.

It appears as if he has some mental hurdles to work through with his history of elbow problems, but he hasn't reported pain in weeks now and the MRI showed no structural damage in late May.

The Cubs do not yet have a set plan for Darvish after this sim game and will evaluate how he feels Thursday. If the reports are all good, he could head out on a rehab assignment shortly.

Darvish said he would only need one rehab start before he'd be ready to rejoin the Cubs rotation.

Meanwhile, Morrow's back tightened up on him in the wee hours of Monday morning after the Cubs made the trip back from the night game in St. Louis. He hurt his back taking off his pants, he said, and was unavailable Monday and Tuesday before the Cubs put him on the disabled list Wednesday morning.

"It's just one of those freakish things," Maddon said. "People bend over and hurt their backs all the time."

The Cubs have been uber cautious with Morrow all year with his injury history and now that they're in the midst of a stretch of 14 games in 13 days thanks to Tuesday's doubleheader, can't afford to not have a fresh arm in the bullpen.

"We thought it would be wise to give him a couple days," Joe Maddon said. "It's like a back spasm, back tightness. We just can't go with one less pitcher right now coming off the doubleheader. 

"...It's for him, too. I don't want him to go out there and pitch coming off that right now. There's really no reason to rush it back. Prefer him getting 100 percent well, getting him back out there when it's right and then moving on from there."

In Morrow's absence, Maddon will play matchups with the closing options as he did in Game 1 Tuesday. Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson and Pedro Strop all have experience closing.

The Cubs also don't have an update yet on Carl Edwards Jr. as he works his way back from a shoulder injury. He's been throwing from flat ground and looking "outstanding," Maddon said, but the team doesn't have a finish line yet. Edwards would probably need a short rehab stint before returning, too.

Then there's Brian Duensing, who is currently on the bereavement list due to the passing of his grandfather. The Cubs expect to have their left-handed veteran back by Friday.

All told, the Cubs are without Morrow, Edwards, Duensing, Mike Montgomery (rotation) and Eddie Butler (DL - groin) from their Opening Day bullpen. Only Cishek, Strop and Wilson remain from the group.

In their stead are Luke Farrell, Justin Hancock, Randy Rosario, Rob Zastryzny and Anthony Bass — all 5 of which have been pretty successful during their time in Chicago.

As if there wasn't already enough complications with the Cubs pitching staff, here are three more:

—The weather in Cincinnati this weekend
—Tyler Chatwood's wife is about to have the couple's first child
—Monday's rain/light-out at Wrigley Field pushed Chatwood back a day, so he cannot start Saturday's game

Let's start with the weather. As of Wednesday afternoon, there was a 100 percent chance of rain all day in Cincinnati on Thursday, where the Cubs begin a four-game series. The forecast doesn't look much better for Friday, either.

Even if the Cubs are able to play every game as scheduled, who will start Saturday? It can't be any of the current rotation members given none would be on regular rest. 

Chatwood would be in line to start Sunday's series finale in Cincinnati, but that's only if his wife isn't given birth at the time.

So right now, the Cubs don't know who's going to start either game this weekend. They could call somebody up from the minor leagues or give the ball to Farrell, who is still stretched out enough to give them 4-5 innings or so.

"It's totally by ear," Maddon said. "This is absolutely seat of the pants. We have Farrell, of course. By not using Farrell [Thursday or Friday], he would be a consideration, no question. 

"But other than that, we got a baby on the way, we got all kinds of stuff going on, so we're just gonna have to play that by ear."

With the pitching shortage, it makes what Jon Lester (7 shutout innings Wednesday) and Mike Montgomery (6 innings in Game 2 Tuesday) even more important to the overall health of the unit, eating up innings at a desperate time.

The Cubs' next off-day won't come until July 2, barring any weather delays. So this stretch will be huge for how Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff/front office handles the pitching staff.

But hey, at least it's only June and not October.