Nico Hoerner

Nico Hoerner, Ian Happ give Cubs boost at the bottom of the batting order

Nico Hoerner, Ian Happ give Cubs boost at the bottom of the batting order

The bottom third of the Cubs batting order was coming up. Traditionally, that’s not the strongest part of the order for a National League team.

But this was the year of the universal designated hitter. And this was a team with more hitters than they could pack into nine spots.

The Reds made a pitching change in the seventh inning Tuesday that would immediately backfire.

Through the three games the Cubs played against the Reds this week – Wednesday’s series finale was postponed due to rain – Cubs manager David Ross continually adjusted the bottom of the order. And yet it consistently produced runs.

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“We’ve got good players down at the bottom of that lineup,” Ross said. “… The more good players you put in the lineup, that stuff’s going to happen. And that’s what we feel like, this DH gives us a little bit of length there.”

The men responsible for the bottom of the order’s success so far this season are:

Ian Happ, who has mostly batted ninth this season but also took a turn in the seven-hole Tuesday. He’s hit two home runs this season, second-most on the team.

Victor Caratini, the backup catcher who’s been the Cubs DH more than any other player this season.

Nico Hoerner, whose rookie status is still intact through this year but has a .389 batting average.

David Bote, a versatile infielder who has only had 10 at bats but gotten on base in seven of them.

Jason Kipnis, who hit the Cubs’ only triple of the season.

Through all its iterations, the bottom third of the Cubs order has combined to hit .346 so far this season.  Happ, Hoerner and Bote lead the team in RBIs with five apiece.

“With the bats we have hitting one and two in the lineup,” Hoerner said, “not your typical top of the order guys, it’s maybe even that much more important for us at the bottom of the lineup to get on base and produce. Because if we’re able to do that, then we have a chance to really put up big innings because that creates some serious depth in the lineup.”

This year, Ross named Kris Bryant the leadoff hitter, followed by Anthony Rizzo. Bryant has more traditionally hit second or third, and Rizzo third or fourth.

“It’s really good to see guys going out there and having good at-bats,” Bryant said, “working counts, barreling the ball up.”

On Wednesday, with 7-8-9 coming up in the Cubs batting order, the Reds pulled their starter Sonny Gray. He’d thrown 6 2/3 one-hit inning, but his pitch count was rising.

Left-hander Brooks Raley came in to face switch-hitting Happ.

Raley walked Happ to load the bases. Then he hit Caratini, and a run scored.

Hoerner stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. He poked a ground ball up the middle to knock in two more runs. The Cubs had already started a three-run rally by the time the top of the order got in on the fun.

Of course, the rally didn’t end up changing the final result on Wednesday – the Cubs lost 12-7. But if the bottom of the lineup continues to produce the way it has to start the year, it’ll put its imprint on the season.  

 

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How MLB's updated health and safety protocols affect the Cubs

How MLB's updated health and safety protocols affect the Cubs

Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner has been holed up in his Cincinnati hotel room all week.

The 23-year-old said he’s only left to go to the field.

“I’ve definitely felt safe in this process,” he said Thursday of the Cubs' first road trip, “and the team’s done a nice job of making it comfortable and making the most of what we can do.”

So, it doesn’t seem as if MLB’s updated travel rules will change much for the Cubs. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that a memo sent to teams on Tuesday encouraged players to only leave hotels for games, required surgical masks during travel and called for a compliance officer to travel with the team.

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The memo came after a COVID-19 outbreak within the Marlins organization that has reportedly infected at least 16 players and two staff members. On Thursday, the series between the Blue Jays and Phillies – the latter of which hosted the Marlins last weekend – was cancelled in the wake of two Philadelphia staffers testing positive for COVID-19.

“You see that and you realize what a delicate season and issue we’re having to work through,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “And it's a constant reminder of continuing to do the things we’ve been doing: wash your hands, wear your mask. It takes a lot of trust in your group and one another to continue to push forward in such a unique environment when you see some of this stuff going on.”

The memo seems to be more of a fortification of preexisting rules than a wholesale change. The 2020 operations manual already encouraged the traveling party to remain in the hotel except for essential tasks. It also asked each club to designate an existing staff member as a “infection control prevention coordinator.”

“We try to stay in our own bubble and world here,” Ross said, “and trying to do everything that we can to ... keep us and our loved ones safe.”

Several Cubs went into the week prepared for semi-isolation. Contreras said he packed his own sheets, towels and Lysol. But he also planned to make his hotel room feel “like a second home.”

“You have to read a book or do something inside,” he said. “I know it’s a little weird, but we have to make an adjustment.”

Pitcher Tyler Chatwood went a different entertainment route, hoping there would be good movies on TV.

Hotel, to ballpark, to hotel. 

“That’s all you’re going to be able to do,” Ross said. “We talked about some of the mental challenges -- there’s a lot of down time with your own thoughts in this world we’re living in. But it’s also refreshing to come to the field and be with your teammates.”

 

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Why Cubs' Tyler Chatwood thinks he's the 'best version' of himself this season

Why Cubs' Tyler Chatwood thinks he's the 'best version' of himself this season

Against the fourth batter Tyler Chatwood faced on Sunday, he tried something that he doesn’t think he’s ever done before.

Early in what would become a 9-1 Cubs victory over the Brewers, Chatwood was behind in the count against switch hitter Justin Smoak. With a 2-0 count, Chatwood threw a curveball.

“It just catches guys in between,” Chatwood said, “rather than just sitting in one gear, sitting hard.”

The Cubs’ research and development staff had given him the idea. But it wouldn’t have been effective with the control issues that defined the early part of Chatwood’s Cubs tenure. On Sunday, the curve brushed the bottom of the strike zone. Then, Chatwood threw two fastballs to strike out Smoak.

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“I think Chatty has changed the narrative around here for all of us,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “He is a guy we’re going to rely on. He’s going to get big innings. I have extreme confidence in him.”

Chatwood went from battling for the last spot in the Cubs’ rotation in Spring Training to, about four months later, being named the third starter. José Quintana cut his thumb in a dishwashing accident, and Jon Lester took a cautious approach to his quarantine throwing program.

Suddenly, the pitcher who led Major League Baseball in walks (95) two years ago was a prominent part of the Cubs’ rotation. The team kept insisting Chatwood wasn’t the same guy anymore. At least on Sunday, he certainly wasn’t.

Chatwood allowed just one run on three hits. In 93-degree heat, he was sharp through six innings. But the most telling stat for Chatwood was his two walks.

“His journey here as a Cub has had some ups and downs,” Ross said last week, “and I think he has a ton of confidence from all he’s been through and come out in a really good place. Mechanically, emotionally, mentally, all those things seem to be lining up for him.”

Chatwood agreed. He signed with the Cubs as a free agent in December 2017 with the role of starting pitcher in mind. But by August of 2018, his first season with the Cubs, he’d been relegated to the bullpen. The following year, he made just five spot starts.

“I think just all the work I put in, especially that offseason, I knew that I was back to what I could be,” Chatwood said. “So, I think now it’s just the best version of me.”

By Ross’ evaluation, Chatwood entered Spring Training as strong as any Cub. Then, when the Cactus League shut down in response to the pandemic, Chatwood remained in Arizona.

Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner was one of the hitters who stayed behind and eventually took live batting practice off Chatwood during the break.

“You want to say the first start is like any other start and try to treat it normal,” Hoerner said Sunday. “But I’m sure that felt extra good for him today. I’m not surprised.”

Not after facing him this spring.

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras suspects that when Chatwood joined the team in 2018, he was trying to prove himself. But Contreras’ message to Chatwood is, “less is more.”

Contreras saw Chatwood follow that mantra on Sunday.

“Now, I’m just able to execute a game plan,” Chatwood said, “worry about executing pitches, rather than anything else.”

 

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