NLCS

Matt Carpenter giving the Cubs Daniel Murphy PTSD

Matt Carpenter giving the Cubs Daniel Murphy PTSD

Say the name Daniel Murphy around Cubs fans (who have been around since before they won the 2016 World Series) and expect a dirty look or shade of some sort.

What Murphy did to the Cubs in the 2015 National League Championship Series still haunts the fanbase, even if they did end the championship drought the following fall.

Now, the Cubs are seeing it again and their PTSD is in overdrive.

St. Louis infielder Matt Carpenter has been on an unreal tear of late, setting Cardinals franchise records in the process.

Throughout this five-game series at Wrigley Field, Carpenter is 9-for-16 with 6 homers, 10 RBI, 8 runs scored, 3 walks, a pair of doubles and a bunt single to lead off Sunday's game against the Cubs' shift.

"We're seeing this guy probably at his best moment in his life as a baseball player," Joe Maddon said. "My god. We saw it a couple years ago in the playoffs. We're seeing it all over again.

"Similar kind of a swing, not missing anything. It's pretty impressive."

In that 2015 NLCS, Murphy — then with the New York Mets — homered in all 4 games while hitting .529 with a 1.850 OPS, driving in 6 and scoring 6. 

To put that in perspective: The Cubs scored only 8 runs as a team in the 4 games.

Maddon and the Cubs don't know what to do to get Carpenter out right now, so they've resorted to walking him whenever possible, like in the second inning Sunday when they just dealt out a free pass to the Cardinals infielder with runners on second and third and two outs.

They also tried out a funky shift in the seventh inning Sunday, with Kris Bryant as a fourth outfielder in left-center, Addison Russell as the only defender on the left side of the infield and Javy Baez playing on the grass in shallow right field. It worked, as Carpenter grounded it to Baez for a routine out.

Beyond that, all the Cubs can do is hope time eventually wears Carpenter down. After all, nobody can stay this hot forever.

Even though Carpenter and the Cardinals are leaving town after Sunday's game, these two team square off against each other again next weekend for the final series in St. Louis.

"For them, it's a blast to watch," Maddon said. "Give the guy credit. What he's working right now is unique. The last time I saw it was Daniel Murphy. 

"Before that, I think, was Barry Bonds in the World Series in 2002. Playoffs with Murphy a couple years ago, where the guy — every pitch that is thrown — he's on time, he's on balance with a forceful swing that looks like the ball can go out of the ballpark every time. Bonds, Murphy and now him."

That's some serious company to be in.

So what's led to this insane stretch from Carpenter?

Maybe it's the salsa.

When told about that theory, Maddon laughed and said:

"Listen, that makes total sense to me. Can he send a jar over here, please?"

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

How much do the Cubs really need Manny Machado? 

They entered play Tuesday leading the National League in runs per game, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and run differential.

That doesn't sound like a team desperate for another bat and would trade future assets to go all-in for only a few months of a player, even one as good as Machado.

Of course, the Cubs went out and got walloped 10-1 by the Indians Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but that had more to do with awful pitching and Machado won't do a thing to help that area of the game. In fact, Machado would actually hurt the team's run prevention given he's a worse defensive shortstop than Addison Russell.

All that being said, the Machado rumors probably won't be going anywhere until the Baltimore Orioles deal their shortstop to either the Cubs or another team, so Russell will have to get used to hearing his name included in such conversations.

Any Cubs package headed to Baltimore for Machado likely has to start with Russell, the Cubs' 24-year-old shortstop who won't become a free agent until after the 2021 season.

"He would be robotic if it did not [affect him]," Joe Maddon said. "I think honestly if he was 7, 8, 10 years into the league and something like this was being bandied about, probably not nearly as much. But the age that he's at, the experience level that he's at, I think it just can't help but have an impact.

"So we just gotta continue to nurture him here. I talk to him all the time. There's certain things you can't control. You can't control what's being said, but you can control how you react to it. That's about the best thing we could encourage him to do and he'll get our support."

Maddon said he gives Russell a hug and reminds him of "something" before every game as he tries to massage the confidence of a player that is currently the shortstop of a Cubs team with World Series expectations.

Russell doesn't turn 25 until next January, yet many people act like he's already peaked as a player. 

He's two years removed from hitting 21 homers and driving in 95 runs as part of the 2016 championship season.

2017 was a lost year for so many reasons — from off-field issues to shoulder and foot problems — and Russell has only 1 homer in the first quarter of the 2018 season, but he's taken other strides this year.

He currently boasts career best marks in walk percentage, strikeout percentage, line drive percentage, groundball percentage and is using the opposite field more than ever.

The power hasn't come yet this year, but a .343 on-base percentage is a pretty solid complementary piece to one of the best all-around defenders in the game.

Russell ranks 10th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved among all players, tied for second among shortstops. Fielding metrics are not perfect, but Machado is 133rd in DRS among qualifed fielders and 24th among shortstops, so there is clearly a gap between the two players' glovework.

Maddon has never shown any outward sign of altering his belief in Russell becoming a dynamic player.

"Addy's gonna continue to progress to the point where all his game is gonna become consistent," Maddon said. "And even beyond that, who do you like better at shortstop [defensively] right now? ... His throwing's dramatically improved. His baserunning decisions — I know he had a gaffe in Cincinnati, but for the most part, he's gotten better.

"So what we're really talking about is his hitting. That's where people get hung up about this game all the time. I see absolute progress in that, also. He just came off a hot week and he had a couple tough days and then all of a sudden, it becomes exaggerated. Why? Because he's 24.

"I think the sky is the limit for this guy. He's a confidence guy like most of us are. As he's feeling good about himself, that's when the line drives start to occur. I mean, one of the biggest hits so far was the ball over the centerfielder's head in Atlanta [last week].

"And he always has this tendency to do some really good work when it matters most. He's been that guy already. So just be patient. He's just gonna keep getting better."

Remember, Russell is the same guy that hit a grand slam and drove in 6 runs in Game 6 of the World Series in Cleveland and started every game at shortstop that postseason. Every year Russell has been the Cubs' shortstop, the season has included a trip to the National League Championship Series.

"Our front office has always been one to make moves and they’re not afraid to do things and we’ve seen that," Kris Bryant said. "We won a world series because of that, getting [Aroldis] Chapman and some of the other guys we got, but we don’t put one ounce of thought into that because we’re happy with the guys we have here.

"The effort that everybody puts forth day in and day out when they’re on the field is spectacular. You know we have a great group of guys here and until someone is gone, we’re going to play with what we’ve got and continue to play the way we have. So, not much thought about [trade rumors]."

Russell has also quietly been very productive over the last month after a slow start to the season. Since April 26, he boasts a .306/.386/.444 slash line (.830 OPS).

It's still hard to see the Cubs willing to give up the next 3.5 years of Russell for 3 months of Machado and MAYBE a slightly better chance of re-signing the superstar this winter.

"I was talking about a 24-year-old hitter, what about a 24-year-old human being having to process all of that?" Maddon asked. "Whether he's hearing it or not from anywhere here, it's just mom, dad, brother, friend, former coach on the phone — 'What's that all about?' 

"He's gotta be inundated with that conversation. He didn't ask for that. He's just doing his job."

Kyle Schwarber invites opponents to continue testing his arm in the outfield

Kyle Schwarber invites opponents to continue testing his arm in the outfield

Kyle Schwarber smiled and shrugged. 

He doesn't take it personally when opponents try to take the extra base on a ball hit to him in the outfield. Why would he? It just gives him another opportunity to show off his arm and steal an out for his team.

Schwarber threw out two runners at home plate over the last week — one in St. Louis last weekend and then one in Friday's Game 1 of the Crosstown Series at Wrigley Field.

"I love throwing to the bases and if they want to keep challenging, go for it," Schwarber said. "Obviously they're not all going to work out, but I'm just gonna keep trying to put some good throws out there and try to get those guys.

"I always want to pride msyelf with my defense. Just being able to be accurate with my throws is a big thing for me."

Those are the only two outfield assists Schwarber has in 2018, but he threw seven guys out last year from left field, a position he's still learning on the fly.

The book clearly isn't out yet on Schwarber's arm, but it will be soon if he keeps this up.

"He's a good thrower," Joe Maddon said. "He's got great technique with his throwing. He comes and gets the ball, he uses his feet well, he gets it on a line and it's got that one-hop skip.

"He works on things, give him credit, but definitely I think that part of his game is underrated."

Schwarber's defense has been a point of national contention since the 2015 National League Championship Series when he had an adventure in left field against the New York Mets.

Baseball fans and pundits alike are quick to label Schwarber as a "DH-only" player but Schwarber worked incredibly hard this offseason to shed weight and improve his outfield play.

He's gotten more athletic and it shows, rating as a positive defender in the first quarterof the 2018 season: +1 Defensive Runs Saved, according to FanGraphs. He was rated at -9 DRS during the 2017 season.

Part of that is the strong, accurate arm, which could be tied to his experience at catcher.

Schwarber said his background as a catcher has helped him calm down when he's approaching the ball and understand how to work quickly without rushing his body. That helps lead to the deadly accuracy that gives Willson Contreras a chance to make a tag on runners trying to score.

"Footwork matters," Maddon said. "You saw how he came up on that ball [in St. Louis], one-handed, came up a little bit, but he still got that clean and he worked his feet well and the line was direct.

"And that's why the throw didn't vary. So he did a lot of good things technically. When you're a catcher, you work on your feet all the time, so maybe there is something there."