NL Central

As Cubs continue to ride the roller coaster, they won't 'play with the scoreboard'

As Cubs continue to ride the roller coaster, they won't 'play with the scoreboard'

The Cubs woke up Friday morning riding the high of their longest winning streak in nearly four months (five games) and a season-high 11 games over .500. 

That was only good enough for a half-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the division, but the Cubs will take it considering the way things were just a week ago. 

After getting swept by Bryce Harper's Phillies on the road, the Cubs went to Pittsburgh and witnessed another late bullpen meltdown last Friday. But they haven't lost since and it's gotten to the point where Joe Maddon was asked ahead of the series with the Nationals if he feels his team is clicking in all facets of the game.

Maddon didn't answer that question directly, but it's a fair assessment of this team right now. As an added boost, Ben Zobrist should be activated off the restricted list next weekend and Willson Contreras will travel with the Cubs to New York next week and could ramp up his baseball activities there as he recovers from a Grade-2 hamstring strain. 

What a difference a week makes. 

"I can't emphasize enough — it is a 24-hour cycle," Maddon said. "It's no different than a news cycle and if you have a bad day, our game is so beautiful you can have a great day the very next night. You don't have to wait a week to play again.

"I've been involved in some really tight races in September where you're going good, good, good and all the sudden, man, you get your teeth smashed in towards the end and you can't permit that to take you out of your methods. It's great that the boys feel that way. I feel that way. 

"I still believe our best baseball's ahead of us for the rest of the season. ... With the new additions and the guys coming back, we should be capable of doing that kind of stuff."

The Cubs still have 14 games left with the Cardinals and Brewers, including a series each in St. Louis (Sept. 27-29) and Milwaukee (Sept. 5-8). 

With just over five weeks left in the season, the division race could come down to that final weekend of the year in St. Louis. That is, unless one team goes on a run and pull away with things before that point.

Either way, the Cubs are just trying to stay focused on their game while blocking out all the outside noise, which is something Javy Baez felt they didn't accomplish down the stretch last season.

"I think we're in a good spot," Baez said earlier this month. "We're actually not paying attention to other teams. It looks like they're paying attention to us. We've had ups and downs and we're just trying to get that out of the way and keep going.

"Me personally, I can't play with the scoreboard. I know where the game's at, but I can't play with numbers. I put too much pressure on myself."

Given the way last year ended and the call for more urgency this season, things certainly haven't played out in a dream scenario for the 2019 Cubs. The more time that goes by, the more 2016 looks like an outlier in terms of the way that team cruised and how pretty much everything went right.

But the rest of the division — and the entire National League — has improved while the Cubs are still searching for consistency in their own game, particularly away from Wrigley Field.

Still, there are way worse positions to be in than a half-game up in the division with five-and-a-half weeks to go.

"We all know what's at stake here," Kyle Schwarber said. "We're in a good position where we're in control of our own destiny. It doesn't really matter the home/road splits — it just comes down to playing each ballgame, one game at a time. It doesn't matter if we're at home or on the road, we got X amount of ballgames left and we can control what we do."

Cubs: 10 storylines to watch in the second half

Cubs: 10 storylines to watch in the second half

Glass half full: The Cubs enter the second half of the MLB season in sole possession of first place, carry the third-best run differential in the National League and just finished their most grueling stretch of the year.

Glass half empty: The offense is still a problem, their best starting pitcher is injured and the team has been plagued by sloppy mistakes for the past month. 

However you want to look at the Cubs' 2019 season, the jury is still out on what this team is and what they will be able to accomplish this season. 

As they get set to begin a nine-game, 10-day homestand today against the Pirates, let's look at the top storylines surrounding this Cubs team following the All-Star Break:

1. Is the reset button real?

How refreshed will this team be coming out of the All-Star Break?

The first series and homestand is going to be as important as ever for a team on the brink. In all likelihood, the Cubs are going to be buyers ahead of the trade deadline and Theo Epstein's front office will be looking to augment this roster instead of blowing it up, but it's imperative they get off to a fast start in the second half.

The All-Star Break is always a nice mental and physical reprieve for a team, and the Cubs just played 54 games in 57 days leading up to these four days off. They've earned the reputation as a second-half team under Joe Maddon and it'll be interesting to see how much of the recent struggles and sloppy baseball was a result of the grind over the last two months with hardly any time away to reset and recharge.

"I just think everybody resets," Kris Bryant said after hitting baseballs into the Chicago River Thursday afternoon. "I've seen what some of the other guys are doing — they're definitely not thinking about baseball, which is good. The four days off, we definitely need that during the year. It's a long season — a lot of games, a lot of ups and downs and guys are definitely taking full advantage of it. It's a perfect reset button and I think everybody's ready to go."

Yes, this team has many of the same issues that plagued them in the second half last year, but they also have the advantage of this break to get things in order.

"Part of our success, I think, is gonna be really just enjoy ourselves a little bit," Joe Maddon said. "Let's have some fun in the second half and permit your abilities to really come to the forefront."

Jason Heyward echoed that sentiment.

"I feel like if we stay healthy, I like our odds," he said in an interview with Kelly Crull on a recent CubsTalk Podcast. "We have a lot of experience in that. We look forward to the second half — kind of a fresh start for us as the group. It just goes back to the challenges that we're facing this season. We know it's kind of the go-time, so to speak. It's like another Opening Day mentality for us. Another kickstart — we got another challenge ahead of us and there's a lot of reward that goes into that."

In addition to rest and recovery, the All-Star Break can also be a great time for evaluation and finding a way to refocus throughout every corner of the organization.

"We're all in this together," Epstein said. "...Right now, we're all kind of in a collective slump. We're not playing in a way that I think is representative of who we are and it's gone on for a while, so we're all searching for answers. We're all looking for every lever that we can pull to get this thing going in the right direction."

2. Maddon's status

The Cubs' struggles have persisted for more than a month now and with that comes legitimate questions about Maddon's status in the final year of his contract. As Epstein talks about the potential for change with the organization, many have wondered if that means Maddon could be on the hot seat.

This season has been anything but smooth, but the Cubs still have World Series aspirations this season and it would be hard to see Epstein making such a drastic change inside the clubhouse when there are no guarantees that it would push the team closer to the Fall Classic. Then again, if the Cubs struggle out of the gate, there's no telling what might happen.

"I do my job. That's what I've done," Maddon said Sunday morning. "Theo and I get along wonderfully. I just respect his intelligence so much. Him and Jed [Hoyer]. Jed's a big part of that, too. All these guys. ...As a group, we have really straightforward discussions and I like that a lot. So I have no issues with anything like that. I'm here to do my job and I try to stay in my own lane and I feel pretty good about it."

When asked about Maddon's status ahead of Saturday's game on the South Side, Epstein turned the focus back to himself and the entire organization, repeating once again that the Cubs "are all in this together."

"Look, Joe's been remarkably effective and remarkably consistent," Epstein said. "I'm not gonna sit here and say this is on him. I look at it collectively. I think my job is to put him in a position to succeed, his job is to put the players in a position to succeed and when we're not succeeding, you can't point at any one thing. We're collectively not getting the job done right now. 

"If you want to look at it and say going back to the second half last year and now the first half this year, it hasn't been as clean as we'd like and as heads up as we'd like and maybe as intense as we'd like with our style of play. To a certain extent, we're all asking each other — can we try some new things? Some different things and adjust our approaches a little bit. I think Joe's got a natural curiosity that way. He's got a growth mindset. He may give off this air of consistency in some ways, but in other ways, he's trying new things, too, every day. He is. To try to fix it and get it locked it. 

"We're trying to find the right adjustments — all of us — to the way we do our jobs and the way we collectively as an organization prepare for games and execute during games to play better ball."

3. The defense/baserunning

When the Cubs first ascended to the top of the NL, their stellar defense and baserunning became staples of their success. The 2016 campaign may go down as the best defensive performance by a team in baseball history.

But things have not quite been as clean since, even with largely the same roster. That's been apparent over the last few weeks, as the Cubs have made plenty of physical mistakes in the field but their mental lapses defensively and on the basepaths have been even more puzzling. 

The miscues played a big role in the overall lack of success leading into the break.

"Just kinda weird plays have been happening consistently," Anthony Rizzo said. "It's part of the game — we either get better or we don't. We're in a great position now and obviously we want to be in a better position."

So can the Cubs find their way back to playing clean baseball on a consistent basis?

"I just think the sloppiness has kind of surprised all of us," Epstein said. "I think for many years now, when we're at our best, we're playing alert, prepared, heads-up baseball and making the plays we should make and keeping the mental mistakes to a minimum. I think our players are all capable of that. 

"That's kinda got us lately — coming out in the first inning, making some mental mistakes. We can't put our finger on why. It's not anyone's fault, per se. We have to shake that to get to where we're going. We're not good enough to give four outs or to make careless mistakes on the basepaths. We have to be playing assertive, heads-up baseball for a long stretch of time and that's our challenge right now."

4. The "cannibalistic" division

The NL Central hasn't been quite as good as everybody was predicting in spring training, but there also isn't any clear weak team. Every squad is within 4.5 games of first place entering the second half.

While the comparisons to the 2016 championship team are natural, the Cubs know the division is totally different now than it was three seasons ago and the road to another NL Central title will be more difficult than ever.

The Cubs play against the division a ton in the second half, including the first six games out of the break (Pirates, Reds). 

"The league's caught up the last couple years," Maddon said. "Part of it is we're not necessarily playing our best brand of Cubs baseball, but we shall. And I think that's why we're in this particular position. It's up to us to ascend. In spite of conceding that everybody else has gotten better, it's still up to us to make this all happen."

5. The potential return of Zobrist and Morrow

Regardless of what Epstein does at the deadline, Ben Zobrist and Brandon Morrow both loom as potential X-factors down the stretch for this Cubs team.

Zobrist's impact on a daily basis in both the lineup and clubhouse would be a welcome addition and it's looking more and more like a reality that he will return at some point this season.

Morrow is still rehabbing from offseason elbow surgery and after a setback in April, has been throwing the last few weeks. The Cubs still don't know if he'll be able to pitch at all this year, but if he does, that would be a big boost to a relief corps that appears to be ascending.

Speaking of the bullpen...

6. The Kimbrel Effect

Craig Kimbrel's first few outings with the Cubs have been rocky, but as he continues to shake off the rust, the belief is he will help turn the bullpen into a strength. 

That's important given the increasing value of relievers down the stretch and in October. 

Recently, the Cubs haven't given the bullpen too many leads to protect. But if they get everything else in order, it will be interesting to see how this all comes together with Kimbrel pushing Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler to earlier innings. Don't forget the return of Carl Edwards Jr., who will continue his rehab stint in Triple-A Iowa to begin the second half, but should rejoin the bullpen sometime in the near future.

7. The engine that makes the Cubs move

Earlier this year, Maddon called the Cubs' starting rotation the "engine that's gonna drive the vehicle," indicating how Jon Lester and Co. can control the game and set the tone for the rest of the team. 

Cole Hamels has been the rotation's best starter all year, but hit the injured list shortly before the break with an oblique injury. However, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said Hamels' recovery is going well and the veteran southpaw may even be ready to start a throwing program coming out of the break.

Between that and the all-clear on Kyle Hendricks' shoulder, things are certainly looking up for the Cubs starting staff. 

Hendricks hasn't been particuarly sharp in his last two outings, needing 86 pitches to get through 4 innings Sunday against the White Sox. But he said he felt great and planned to spend the break getting his mechanics locked in in hopes of returning to the form he was at prior to the shoulder impingement.

"It's huge to go out there and just feel normal, so at least I can put that out of my mind now and just focus on what I gotta do, task at hand," Hendricks said Sunday evening. "But again, fastball command has to be better overall and just attacking, being more aggressive."

As the Cubs return to health and finalize a second-half plan for top pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay, the focus will once again be on Yu Darvish. Simply put, the Cubs need more out of the 32-year-old former Cy Young candidate than the 5.01 ERA, 1.34 WHIP and 4 quality starts he put up in the first half.

8. Robel Garcia and the 2B picture

Just before the All-Star Game, the Cubs called up Garcia and inserted him into the starting lineup in the final three games before the midseason break. He didn't waste any time showing what he could do with the bat, but did commit errors in back-to-back games at second base.

Still, the Cubs need to see what they have in the 26-year-old switch hitter who spent the last half-decade playing in Italy. Considering the lack of offensive production from the second base position all season, the Cubs don't have much to lose to give Garcia a shot and see if he can become a sparkplug in the second half.

9. The trade deadline

If the Cubs continue to struggle out of the break, it's certainly possible Epstein blows the roster up and turns the Cubs into a seller. But given how tightly packed the division is and the level of resources already dumped into a talented team, it's more likely this front office will be adding pieces over the next few weeks.

But what pieces and what will the Cubs have to give up? 

It's clear this team could use another reliable left-handed reliever, but every contender would love to add a guy like San Francisco's Will Smith. Plus, the Cubs have other issues they need to address, like supplementing the offense with a veteran bat. 

They've already been linked to David Peralta if the Diamondbacks opt to sell and other hitters may emerge on the market as the deadline draws closer. Either way, the Cubs can't just sit back and rely on offensive options that may never come to fruition like Zobrist's return or the ascension of the likes of Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Albert Almora Jr.

That's because...

10. The offense is the biggest area of concern

If you said over the winter that this season, Javy Baez and Rizzo would maintain the same level, Bryant and Willson Contreras would return and be as good as ever and Heyward would have easily his best offensive season in Chicago, every Cubs fan would've enthusiastically signed up for that in a heartbeat and sat back with their feet up, expecting to coast to a division title.

Only it hasn't worked out that way. Not even close. 

The Cubs offense has once again been feast or famine, including extended periods of time where they struggle with situational hitting. 

Maddon summed it up simply after the Cubs scored only 1 run in the final game of the first half Sunday at Guaranteed Rate Field:

"I really like a lot of what we're doing," he said. "We just have to be more consistent offensively." 

One of the main issues plaguing this lineup is the inconsistent approach from game to game. For example, the Cubs have battered around AL Cy Young candidate Lucas Giolito both times they've faced him over the last month while also looking completely overmatched by Ivan Nova — he of the 5.58 ERA — twice in the Crosstown series.

"We show sometimes [the ability to adjust in-game], sometimes we don't. It's been like that the whole season. We're very inconsistent with that. [Saturday], we beat their best pitcher — got him out twice. Then we get a pitcher [Sunday] with [worse] numbers than the guy yesterday and we struggled vs. him," Maddon said, pausing to shrug. 

"I have no clue. We just have to bring it on a daily/nightly basis mentally with the at-bat. I like to reduce things and in my mind's eye, the reduction is we really have to force the pitcher within the zone and get us out within the strike zone. That's it."

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'Why did we have to start 1-6?' The resurgent Cubs look unstoppable right now

'Why did we have to start 1-6?' The resurgent Cubs look unstoppable right now

It's hard to top Cubs-Cardinals in a nationally televised game on a beautiful Sunday evening at Wrigley Field.

It's also hard to top the way the Cubs are playing right now.

Chants of "SWEEP! SWEEP! SWEEP!" spread through the 37,000+ fans on Chicago's North Side as the Cubs put the finishing touches on a three-game sweep of the Cardinals to take over first place in the NL Central.

The Cubs improved to 19-12 overall and haven't experienced defeat in nine days (since April 26 in Arizona). They're also about to welcome the worst team in baseball — the Miami Marlins — to town for a four-game series beginning Monday night.

Rewind exactly 28 days ago — four weeks before they were blasting Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne in the home clubhouse at Wrigley — and the Cubs were on their way back to Chicago from Milwaukee having lost their third straight series to open the season and watching their record plummet to 2-7 in the process. Before they had even played a home game, the Cubs were 5.5 games out of first place in the NL Central. 

But they haven't lost a series since then, going 17-5 overall and now hold the best run differential (+51) in baseball.

"Why did we have to start 1-6?" Kris Bryant asked after Sunday's game. "We've really turned it around since then — our pitchers have done great, our at-bats have been great, defense. Everything has really been clicking for us. This is the type of baseball that's super fun to be a part of."

The Cardinals came into the weekend as the hottest team in baseball, having won 10 of their last 12 games. The Cubs not only swept, but in decisive fashion — outscoring St. Louis 23-10 over the weekend (and 3 of those 10 runs came on homers off Tyler Chatwood in the ninth inning Sunday when the sweep was well in hand).

Look up and down the roster and the reasons for optimism are almost overwhelming:

Javy Baez has not only scoffed at the talk of regression, but actually seems to be getting BETTER.

Bryant has reached base in 15 straight games, hit a grand slam Sunday night and now has 3 homers in his last 8 games.

Anthony Rizzo has hit 5 homers and driven in 14 runs over the last 11 games.

Jason Heyward is still hitting over .300 with an OPS over .900.

The next homer Willson Contreras hits will tie his 2018 total...and more than 80 percent of the 2019 season still remains.

Jose Quintana is pitching better than he ever has in a Cubs uniform.

David Bote is not only excelling as a role player, but he's looking more and more like a guy worthy of an everyday role (and what a steal that would be after the extension he signed in the first week of the season).

Albert Almora Jr. entered Sunday's game with 2 extra-base hits on the season and matched that total in a span of just two innings, doubling in both the seventh and eighth inning against the Cardinals.

Even with Chatwood's tough ninth inning, the bullpen has been the best in baseball for the last month — and by a wide margin.

The pitching staff has tossed an MLB-best six shutouts. 

The Cubs are about to improve upon their depth, as Mike Montgomery and Xavier Cedeno are close to returning and Victor Caratini just took batting practice for the first time in three weeks before Sunday's game.

Brandon Kintzler is having a resurgent campaign and it looks like the Cubs have found a reliable left-handed option with Kyle Ryan in the bullpen.

The list goes on and on.

To answer Bryant's question from earlier, the poor start was due more to the bullpen meltdowns than anything else. But even the relentlessly positive Joe Maddon didn't expect this team to respond so quickly and decisively after that rough opening road trip.

"Nobody in that room believed we were going to maintain that negative approach [from the bad start]," Maddon said. "We just don't do that."

It's only May 5, but the Cubs have climbed all the way back to gain control of the driver's seat in a division that figures to be hotly contested all season.

"I just hope that we continue to maintain that focus," Maddon said. "I'd like to believe that we have this inner swagger always. You have to as a professional athlete to go on stage like that and to be exposed constantly. You have to have that thing inside of you that permits you to — pretty much the 'try not to suck' method. Try not to embarrass yourself. 

"You're always working, working, working to play at your best, obviously, but there's always that threat. I just like the way we are right now. I think the focus is outstanding. I think the work is really pointed; it's on task. The support among each other is outstanding, the dugout is really alive, so this is what I'm getting right now. From the outside looking in, that's different. But from the inside looking out, I really like how we're going about our business."

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