Steve Cishek

For Theo Epstein and the Cubs, it's time to ask the right questions

For Theo Epstein and the Cubs, it's time to ask the right questions

PITTSBURGH — If there's any positive to this last week for the Cubs, it might be that everything is out in the open.

All the weaknesses, all the flaws — there's no way to sugarcoat it or turn a blind eye to it anymore.

The Cubs are what their record and their position in the standings say they are — a third-place team that is will be mathematically eliminated from playoff contention before the final weekend of the regular season.

That may not make this seven-game losing streak or the brutally frustrating series against the Cardinals any easier to stomach for Cubs fans, but it's the reality of the situation.

The next move is for Theo Epstein and Co. to try to learn and grow from it, as he said Wednesday evening in the visiting dugout at PNC Park.

"When you have the best-possible outcome and you overcome a lot of things and do some transcendent things, I think you grow from that, because you do something you haven't done before and accomplish things," Epstein said. "The middle-of-the-road outcome, you can always tell yourself whatever story you want to hear. It's a gray area. Last year, we had some issues, but we won 95 games, so you try to get to the bottom of some issues, but there's always a, 'Yeah, but we won 95 games.'

"But, when you have the worst-possible outcome like we've had recently, it reveals everything. And I think, as painful as that can be, that also creates a real opportunity for everyone to learn from it and grow. I just flew in today and I'll be with the team the rest of the trip. Just walking through the clubhouse, even for five minutes, three players come up to me and we started talking about things and they kept asking, 'What can I do different? How can we make sure this doesn't happen again?' 

"Those are the right questions for all of us, me included, the whole organization. I think it's important, if you're going to suffer through something like this, to be really determined, really dedicated to making sure that you grow from it, learn from it, and something good happens."

This will be the first time since 2014 in which the Cubs don't go to the postseason. Playing in October is the only big-league life guys like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras have ever known.

It ultimately doesn't matter that the Cubs lost six straight games at home by only 7 total runs. They were still losses.

It doesn't matter if the Cubs finish the season with a run differential north of +100 because they won't be going to the playoffs.

"When you go through things like this, the extreme nature of what's happened can make things clear or make things unavoidable," Epstein said. "You can't spin a narrative for yourself and avoid facing some realities. So, I think there are important things that we need to examine and fix in every aspect of our operation. I think that's the mindset we're all going to take."

So how do the Cubs go about fixing the issues at hand? 

Epstein wasn't ready to go into that just yet, but promised a more thorough evaluation of the 2019 Cubs after the season officially ends Sunday afternoon. 

Still, he and the front office might not have all the answers right away. If they did, they would've fixed things after 2018, when they finished "one game short" and vowed to come out in 2019 with a greater sense of urgency from Day 1.

"When you're heavily invested in something and — in my case — responsible for something, when it goes well and you win and a lot of people get something out of that and are happy about that, it's really uplifting and rewarding," Epstein said. "And when you're invested in something and — in my case — responsible for something, and you don't win, there is extra weight. There is burden, because you feel like you've let everybody down. So, it becomes really painful."

One such change figures to be with on-field leadership, as Joe Maddon's contract is up after this season and it's widely speculated the Cubs will move on from him and bring a new manager into the fold. 

It's certainly not fair to put it all on Maddon's shoulders. Every aspect of the organization deserves blame for how this campaign has played out. But maybe it's the right time for both sides to part ways and that would definitely qualify as change for the organization, though there's absolutely no guarantee it would help things.

At the end of the day, this roster needs work to fill some of the holes that hampered the team this season — from leadoff hitter to lack of second base production to bullpen pieces that can hold late leads consistently.

Even if the Cubs made the postseason this fall, the roster was always going to dominate Epstein's focus this winter, with a large group of names set to become free agents (Ben Zobrist, Nicholas Castellanos, Cole Hamels, etc.) and the team holding options on several more players (Jose Quintana, David Phelps, etc.).

The positive news is the Cubs have a lot of core pieces still under team control and they will definitely head into 2020 with high expectations once again.

"Absolutely, the goal is to win a championship next year," Epstein said. "One-hundred percent. That's what this organization's about and I think the thing that gets you excited — even in the face of this adversity — is waking up and trying to build the next championship Cubs team. 

"We want that to be as soon as possible. We have to build the next championship Cubs team."

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Why Joe Maddon sticking with Steve Cishek during loss to Padres made sense

Why Joe Maddon sticking with Steve Cishek during loss to Padres made sense

The biggest talking point following the Cubs' 9-8 loss to the Padres Tuesday is why Joe Maddon stuck with reliever Steve Cishek in the 10th inning.

Cishek entered the game in the 10th with the score knotted at 8-all. The Padres 6, 7 and 8 hitters were due up, making the appearance less strenuous than facing the top of their order. Considering how Cishek is one of the more reliable relievers on the Cubs, the matchup appeared to favor the visitors.

Although the inning got off to a solid start for Cishek – Ty France hit a ground ball to Anthony Rizzo that resulted in a 3-1 putout – things went downhill from there. Cishek allowed a ground ball single to Luis Urias before walking three straight Padres – Austin Hedges, Travis Jankowski and Manuel Margot (the latter on four pitches) – to secure a 9-8 walk-off victory for San Diego.

So, after Cishek walked Hedges and Jankowski, why did Maddon stick with the sidearmer rather than make a call to the bullpen? The answer is simple: Cishek was the Cubs' best bet at getting the game into the 11th inning.

Even with expanded rosters giving the Cubs 13 relievers in the bullpen, the group was stretched thin on Tuesday. Here are the statuses of those pitchers during the 10th inning:

-Tyler Chatwood: Unavailable (pitched innings 4-6)
-Brandon Kintzler: Unavailable (faced four batters in the 7th inning before exiting)
-Kyle Ryan: Unavailable (faced two batters in the 7th inning before exiting)
-David Phelps: Unavailable (faced two batters in the 7th inning before exiting)
-Rowan Wick: Unavailable (pitched 8th and 9th innings, allowing just one baserunner before exiting)

Perhaps one can argue that Maddon didn't have to use three pitchers in the seventh inning. However, Kintzler allowed three hits (granted, two on groundballs) and Ryan entered to face the left-handed hitting Eric Hosmer, whom he retired.

Ryan then walked Wil Myers on five pitches, and with the right-handed hitting Ty France due up, Phelps gave the Cubs a righty-righty matchup. Ryan has a 4.02 ERA vs. righties compared to 1.57 vs. lefties, hence Maddon going to Phelps in this spot.

After Wick's two shutout innings, the Cubs had Brad Wieck, Alec Mills, James Norwood, Derek Holland, Pedro Strop, Danny Hultzen, Duane Underwood Jr. and Cishek left in the bullpen. Wieck, Mills, Norwood and Holland pitched Monday, though outside of Wieck (who pitched a third of an inning), they each pitched just one frame.

Wieck was warming up in the bullpen in the 10th, but Margot (.365/.460/.494 slash line in 85 at-bats) excels against left-handed pitching. Therefore, the Cubs weren't going to insert Wieck, Holland or Hultzen – all lefties – to face Margot, even after Cishek walked two-straight batters. The same can likely be said about Mills and Norwood, since they pitched the day before, meaning the Cubs were left with Strop, Underwood and Cishek.

Underwood has shown flashes in limited big league action this season, but not enough for him to be considered more reliable than Strop or Cishek. Strop hasn't allowed a run in three-straight appearances (2 1/3 innings), but with how he's struggled this season, it wouldn't have made sense for him to come in for Cishek.

So, Maddon sticking with Cishek was the most logical move. It might have made sense to insert one of the aforementioned lefties to face Jankowski, but no one could've predicted that Cishek would walk him and then a third straight batter. Plus, Cishek (whose groundball percentage is 48.7 this season) was one pitch away from inducing an inning-ending double play.

The end result didn't go the Cubs' way on Tuesday, but sticking with Cishek was the best option at the game's tipping point. 

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Cubs battle, but Tuesday's brutal loss to Padres a missed opportunity to gain ground in postseason standings

Cubs battle, but Tuesday's brutal loss to Padres a missed opportunity to gain ground in postseason standings

As the clock ticks down on the 2019 regular season, the only way to view Tuesday is as a missed opportunity for the Cubs.

With the Cardinals losing to the Rockies and the Nationals falling to the Twins, the Cubs had a golden chance to gain ground in the National League postseason standings. A win would've put them three games behind St. Louis for first place in the NL Central and 1.5 behind Washington for the top NL Wild Card spot.

Instead, the Cubs suffered a brutal 9-8 walk-off loss, one that you can't help but feel slipped right through their fingers. To add insult to injury, the Padres scored the victory by recording three straight walks off Steve Cishek in the 10th inning, the final one coming on four pitches.

Woof.

The anticlimactic ending was disappointing in its own right, but especially when considering what the offense did on Tuesday. Despite going down 6-2 and 8-5 at various points in the game, the Cubs fought back, eventually tying the game at 8-apiece in the eighth inning. 

Seeing the Cubs claw their way back into the game should be viewed positively despite the loss. So should the individual performances of Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward, two players who have struggled over the last month or so.

Entering Tuesday, Bryant held a .241/.328/.414 slash line since Aug. 1, hitting just five home runs over that stretch (none since Aug. 21). Heyward's line over that same stretch is even more glaring: .170/.295/.330. The duo led the charge Tuesday, though, as both hit a pair of home runs while walking once and twice, respectively.

So, if you're looking for positives, Bryant and Heyward are a great place to start. The Cubs won't be able to start a full-strength lineup until October, at the earliest, as Javier Báez is out the rest of the regular season due to a hairline fracture in his left thumb.

Nevertheless, they still have a roster capable of being formidable offensively, as evidenced by Monday's 10-run outing and their most-recent showing. This is contingent on Bryant being healthy, of course, which he certainly looked Tuesday, his first game since receiving a cortisone shot in his balky right knee on Sunday.

Ultimately, however, the Cubs finished the night in the same position as they started in, if not a worse one. The Brewers took down the Marlins 4-3, which, combined with the Cubs' loss, puts Milwaukee a game behind the Cubs for the second Wild Card spot. For what it's worth, the Brewers have an uphill battle to climb, as they'll be without Christian Yelich (fractured right kneecap) for the rest of the season.

At this point in the season, though, moral victories are worth little to nothing. With 18 games left in the regular season, every game and win means more than prior to it, especially for teams in a heated postseason race.

The Cubs still have seven games against the Cardinals in their back pocket, meaning that if they can keep their divisional deficit in a similar position as it is currently, they'll have a chance to usurp St. Louis. This task only becomes more difficult by the day, though, when opportunities like Tuesday's aren't taken advantage of.

2019 has featured plenty of heartbreaking losses for the Cubs. Considering the chance they had Tuesday, the latest should be right up there amongst the rest.

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