Tommy Hottovy

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy is home in Kansas City for a couple rare days during the baseball season. His mom wants to meet him for lunch, and his sister, a grade-school teacher in town, just had a baby that he hasn’t had a chance to see yet.

“How much would I love to go get to see her and my new nephew?” Hottovy said. “Can’t do it. Just can’t.”

Not this time. Not with what’s at stake. Not when possible threats to health and professional purpose lurk in every unfamiliar hallway, byway and unmasked face while the Cubs navigate their first multi-city road trip of the season.

Don’t believe the risk of spread and large-scale COVID-19 team outbreaks are that sensitive, extreme and potentially swift? Just ask the Marlins and Cardinals, whose outbreaks in the first week of play put their seasons on hold and threatened the status of the league’s season.

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“I’m not leaving the hotel. I told my family and friends and everybody [in Kansas City],” Hottovy said. “We all signed up for this, to make sure that for this to work we all have to make those kinds of sacrifices. I love my family to death and would love to get to see them, but right now this is our home.”

The Cubs second trip, which started with a 6-1 victory Wednesday in Kansas City and continues to St. Louis before finishing in Cleveland next week, coincides with stepped-up COVID-19 protocols from Major League Baseball following the Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks.

The Cubs already had protocols in place that exceeded MLB’s original mandates and that are in compliance with the new mandates. And a month into the league’s restart they remained the only team without a player having tested positive for the virus.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

In fact, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant decided on his own to start wearing a protective mask on the bases when the Cubs played last week in Cincinnati, where three Reds players were sidelined either by positive tests or self-reported symptoms as that series opened. And first baseman Anthony Rizzo told ESPN 1000 on Tuesday that he plans to keep a mask in his pocket while in the field in St. Louis and will consider wearing it when somebody reaches base.

“No matter what measures you put in place, when you’re trying to pull off a season that requires travel in the middle of a global pandemic, it ultimately does come down to personal responsibility,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “And everyone is at the mercy of the least responsible person because of the nature of the spread of this disease.”

Nobody knows that more than Hottovy and many of the Cubs who watched their pitching coach deteriorate in real time during daily Zoom sessions in May and June until the worst symptoms of his frightening monthlong bout with the virus forced him to hand off his job duties.

Whether Hottovy’s experience led directly to the Cubs’ more extreme safety policies or the individual players’ apparent hyper diligence, MLB’s recent coronavirus outbreaks and other cases at least raise questions about whether some teams and players — or even the league — respect the potential severity of a virus that has killed more than 158,000 Americans in five months.

“I don’t think people underestimate that aspect of it; I think they underestimated how easy it was to spread,” Hottovy said of the outbreaks — including a Cardinals outbreak that reportedly was traced to one asymptomatic, outside individual familiar with the team.

Hottovy called the highly contagious nature of the virus “the scary part of this,” both in terms of the potential to quickly render an organization unable to field a team as well as the subsequent, inherent risk that poses to family members and others who might, in turn, be among those who then become severely impacted by the virus.

And the hardest part, he said, is not letting down your guard within the team bubble when it’s easy to trust that when it’s only teammates in the room that it’s OK to disregard masks, distancing and other safety measures.

“That’s when it gets dangerous,” said Hottovy, whose team talks often about assuming everyone — including each other — has the virus.

So just like in Cincinnati, neither he nor anyone else in the Cubs’ traveling party plans to go anywhere but to and from hotels and ballparks during their trip.

“Listen, you don’t have to search too far for a reason to take it serious,” Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis said.

“I have three of my close friends who got it, that are over it. But the symptoms are as real as it gets from the sounds of it. And I think you have guys who are risking stuff coming and playing this season, whether it’s Craig [Kimbrel] and his daughter [heart condition] or Anthony [Rizzo] and Jon [Lester] with their [cancer] history.

“You’re paying respect to them and doing your teammate justice by not being the one to kind of go out,” Kipnis added. “It’s one of those years where, hey, you’ve got to buckle down and stay the course. I think everybody’s going through it, so you don’t want to be the one that kind of screws this one up.

The Cubs’ 10-2 start to a 60-game season seems to further incentivize that discipline — some players in recent days even suggesting the discipline in following the protocols has carried into the professionalism on the field.

It’s impossible to know if any of it will be enough for the Cubs to keep their moving bubble secure, much less whether the two outbreaks that MLB seems to have withstood will provide the significant enough wakeup call that MLB and team officials have suggested.

“The vast, vast majority of everyone involved in this enterprise, the players and staff, are doing a solid job so far in making a lot of sacrifices,” Epstein said. “And we just have to get everybody on board. And hopefully these two outbreaks are enough to get everyone to the point where we have essentially perfect execution going forward, because that’s largely what it will take.”

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Inside the bullpen: What Cubs' Craig Kimbrel is working on behind the scenes

Inside the bullpen: What Cubs' Craig Kimbrel is working on behind the scenes

Craig Kimbrel’s brief appearance in the Cubs’ 5-4 victory over the Royals on Tuesday offered a glimpse into what he’s working on in bullpen sessions behind the scenes.

“I've been working a lot,” the seven-time All-Star closer said Wednesday. “I felt like last night I did some things a little better, but when it comes down to it, you still have to execute a certain pitch at a certain location at certain times. And I wasn’t able to do that.”

Tuesday was the least troubling of Kimbrel’s three outings this season, which isn’t much of a vote of confidence after four walks in his first and back-to-back home runs in his second. On Tuesday, Kimbrel recorded one strikeout and put two runners in scoring position before Cubs manager David Ross replaced him with Kyle Ryan. Both runners scored.

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Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said the focus for Kimbrel, as he works through mechanical issues, is consistency.

“I think that's the key to pitching in general,” Hottovy said, “consistency in mechanics, consistency in delivery, consistency in where your release points are. All those things add up to better stuff, better velo, better spin, but also better command.”

Hottovy has identified inconsistency in Kimbrel’s arm path and release point. Kimbrel’s control issues stem from that. Those control issues have shown up in different ways for his two pitches.

First, the fastball: Hottovy used two different at-bats in Kimbrel’s appearance Tuesday night as an example.

Against Royals pinch hitter Franchy Cordero, Kimbrel located a 97-mph fastball at the top of the zone for a swing-and-miss strike three. Against Adalberto Mondesi, that same pitch crept into the middle of the zone, and Mondesi scorched a line drive off the right field wall.

“What you see from Craig, the stuff is still trending in the right direction,” Hottovy said. “The breaking ball was better yesterday. The fastball life is coming back. But in the end, in this game, we're facing professional hitters.”

Professional Hitters who can make a pitcher pay for a mistake.

That becomes especially easy when teams can gear up for one pitch and ignore the rest.

“You have to get them to honor it,” Hottovy said of Kimbrel’s curve ball, “and to get them to honor it, you have to consistently be able to throw that pitch in the strike zone, and then be able to attack (with the) fastball.”

Kimbrel has faced three different teams: The Reds, Pirates and Royals. None of them have swung at his curve ball.

“I think at times it's one of two things,” Kimbrel said, “Either I'm showing it too early or it's not starting as a strike, or they've already had that game plan to eliminate the curve ball.”

In the Reds’ case, it was the latter. Cincinnati rookie Tyler Stephenson told reporters as much after the game. He laid off three curve balls in his at-bat against Kimbrel. Stephenson walked.

According to Hottovy, Kimbrel is working on slowing down his lower body – “staying taller, sitting more on his back side” – to consistently give his arm time to get to the right release point.

 “I'm still going out there trying to compete,” Kimbrel said. “I'm not going out there and saying, 'I think I'm going to get beat today, I don't want to be out here.' By no means am I anywhere close to that. I think if anything, it’s just more frustration towards myself (for) putting myself in I'm spot I'm in, … having to ask guys to get up and throw more, based on my performance.”

 

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Cubs bullpen turns loss to Reds into blowout, has 'just got to get better'

Cubs bullpen turns loss to Reds into blowout, has 'just got to get better'

David Ross saw an opening for levity, and he took it.

“That’s the kind of thing I want when I bring you in (with) bases loaded, nobody out,” the Cubs' manager said to reliever Duane Underwood Jr. “A triple play.”

Underwood started off his outing Wednesday with exactly that, in a 12-7 loss that carried few other silver-lining moments for the bullpen. It was the Cubs’ first loss to the Reds, in the third of a four-game series, but not the first time the bullpen has faltered in pressure situations.

“We felt good about where all those relievers were coming in,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said before the game. “Now though, it’s about getting them consistent work and seeing how they can handle some bigger moments, especially when the game’s on the line.”

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Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks held the Reds scoreless through three innings, but when he left the game in the fifth, the Cubs were down 4-0.

“It was a battle from the start today,” Hendricks said. “Really, it wasn’t good. Everything was up. I kind of got away with some pitches, even in the first, second inning, first time through the order. Just rolling through my delivery, just really didn’t do anything well.”

For a night when none of his pitches were working, four runs and two runners on base wasn’t terrible. The Cubs' offense has shown it can make up that kind of difference.

But the bullpen, with the glaring exception of Jeremy Jeffress’ save on Monday, has proven to be unreliable when taking over with runners on base.

“We’ve got some guys that have got to kind of step up,” Ross said, “and that’s some of the stuff that we’re finding out here early on: Who’s a guy that we can bring in, in the big situation?”

Ross didn’t find the answer on Wednesday.

Rex Brothers loaded the bases by walking the first batter he faced, Mike Moustakas. Then, he gave up a grand slam to former Cub Nicholas Castellanos.

Even after a second homer off Brothers in the same inning, the Cubs charged back. James Norwood took over for Brothers to get the final out of sixth, and the Cubs scored five runs in the seventh inning.

Then Dillon Maples took the mound. Three runs scored without him recording an out: walk, walk, error, double, walk, walk.

Underwood replaced Maples with the bases loaded and no outs. The fates stepped in.

In the moment, third baseman Kris Bryant was certain he’d caught Shogo Akiyama’s line drive just above the ground. A replay called that into question. But what mattered was third base umpire Larry Vanover’s opinion. His fist shot into the air to call the out. Bryant hopped up and stepped on third. Then, he threw to first to make it a triple play.

MORE: Cubs' Kris Bryant's diving grab starts triple play vs. Reds — kind of

“I just watched the video now,” Bryant said after the game. “I don’t know, it’s hard to tell. … I should have just thrown it to second, and he could have thrown it to first. It would have been four outs.”

At that point, there was no use arguing whether the ball had hit the dirt. The play wasn’t reviewable.

The Cubs' bullpen needed that stroke of luck. Brothers and Maples had combined for six runs (five earned) and six walks in just over one inning.

“From a (former) catcher’s standpoint, it’s frustrating to keep giving free passes,” Ross said, “and you’re going to get into trouble at some point. So, we’ve just got to get better.”

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