The state of the National League is good news for the Cubs

The state of the National League is good news for the Cubs

Now is the time for the Cubs to strike in the National League.

Yes, it's only May and the season isn't even a quarter of the way over yet.

But the NL powerhouses may not get any weaker than it is at this very moment and the Cubs are primed to take advantage.

Take the Los Angeles Dodgers, for example.

The team that made it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series and the squad that bounced the Cubs from the postseason last year woke up Friday morning with a 16-21 record after losing to the Cincinnati Reds Thursday night. For perspective, the Dodgers have only 5 more wins this year than the Reds — a rebuilding team without a prayer of contending and already fired their manager weeks ago.

"We talk about it in the clubhouse: This isn’t a ‘try’ league," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Thursday night. "Everyone is trying. You’ve got to get production. When you can’t get separation, it stresses everyone. We’ve got to be better at all facets of the game, to be honest."

The Dodgers will not play a single game with both Corey Seager and Justin Turner in their lineup in 2018, given that Turner is still not back from a wrist injury and Seager is now done for the year after Tommy John surgery. Given their importance to the L.A. lineup, that's the equivalence of the Cubs never playing a game with both members of Bryzzo in the lineup together at the same time.

As Joe Maddon has astutely pointed out twice in the last week, the Dodgers always use the 10-day disabled list liberally, but they're also currently without Clayton Kershaw, Logan Forsythe, Tony Cingrani and Hyun-Jin Ryu (who is expected to be out for months) and they just got Yasiel Puig and Rich Hill back off the shelf. That's a significant chunk of the roster's impact players.

The Dodgers' best hitter all year has actually been Matt Kemp (.333 AVG, .913 OPS), who was acquired as a flyer of sorts in a salary dump trade with the Atlanta Braves.

Let's move to the NL East, where the Washington Nationals haven't had much better luck on the injury front.

It was just announced late Thursday Adam Eaton would be out indefinitely after undergoing surgery on his tricky ankle. He's played just 31 games in a Washington uniform since coming over in the deal with the White Sox before the 2017 season.

Daniel Murphy hasn't played a game yet this season, Anthony Rendon and Matt Wieters have missed time and a slew of pitchers (Joe Ross, Koda Glover, Joaquin Benoit, Matt Grace, Jhonatan Solano) are on the disabled list recovering from arm injuries.

All that has led to Bryce Harper in the leadoff spot (the only way new manager Davey Martinez can find protection in the lineup for Kris Bryant's bestie), a mildly disappointing 21-18 record and third place standing in the division behind both the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies.

Coming into the season, the Dodgers and Nationals were seen as the Cubs' main competitors in the race to the NL pennant and both teams have gotten off to slow starts.

In the Cubs' own division, they sit in fourth place, but just 1.5 games behind the leading Cardinals who just swept Bryzzo and Co. in St. Louis last weekend.

The Cardinals also just lost their ace and the NL leader in ERA — Carlos Martinez — due to a lat injury. Of course, St. Louis is also without its heartbeat as Yadier Molina will miss more than a month after taking a Kris Bryant foul tip to the groin last Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Brewers woke up Friday morning with a run differential of 0, which would normally not lend itself to a 22-16 record. Josh Hader and the Milwaukee bullpen have been incredible, but the first six weeks of the season have not answered many questions about the longevity and staying power of the Brewers rotation.

The Cubs will tell you they only care about themselves and can't waste their energy focusing on their competitors in the NL. But now could be a prime time to stack a bunch of wins together and this is the right part of the schedule to do so.

The Jekyll and Hyde Cubs offense has received a major gift from the MLB schedule-makers, beginning with the three games against the Marlins earlier in the week. That kicked off a stretch where 9 of 13 Cubs games come against three of the six worst pitching staffs in baseball (Marlins, White Sox, Reds). The other four games are against a Braves pitching staff that has been overperforming to date based on their peripheral stats.

Sure, the Cubs embarked on an 11-games-in-10-days run beginning with Game 1 of Crosstown Friday, but when 7 of those games come against the lowly White Sox and Reds and a team has as much position-player depth as the Cubs do, it shouldn't be too hard to put together a couple of nice weeks in a row offensively.

Now it's just a matter of the Cubs taking care of business and doing what they're supposed to do against a soft part of the schedule.

Pythons, magicians, breakdancing, power sources and 'The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All Time'

Pythons, magicians, breakdancing, power sources and 'The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All Time'

It's official: Anthony Rizzo is the latest magician to enter the Cubs clubhouse. 

Though, we've known his propensity for magic for a while:

Joe Maddon is a huge fan of mixing things up for his teams from the monotony of an exceptionally-long season. That's why he brings in zoo animals or magicians or any of his "Madd Scientist" drills.

Tuesday, he decided to employ Rizzo as the "distraction" of sorts by taking the slugger from the heart of the Cubs order to the top.

Thus marked the second run of "The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All Time."

"I really thought we needed something like a 20-foot python, a magician or a breakdancer in the clubhouse, so instead, I chose to hit Rizzo leadoff," Maddon said. "I thought it might pick the boys up a little bit. Tough series against Milwaukee. I didn't think we were on top of our game [Monday]."

It worked immediately, as Rizzo sent the first pitch from Rockies starter Jon Gray high into the night sky and out into the first couple rows of the left-field bleachers for a wind-aided homer (StatCast predicted only a hit percentage of only 1 percent on the ball). But that was all for Rizzo, as he grounded out twice and popped out his other three times up.

"Obviously i got a little lucky there with the wind," Rizzo said. "You go up there, it's 2-0, you should probably take a pitch, but Joe put me up there to swing and hit. Just go up there loose and have fun."

The Cubs, meanwhile, couldn't manage another run Tuesday night in a 3-1 loss to the Rockies.

Before Maddon wrote out the lineup card, the Cubs woke up Tuesday riding the high of a five-game winning streak, but the offense was certainly not firing on all cylinders over that stretch — setting a franchise record for wins in a row while scoring 3 runs or less in each game.

Rizzo also has been mired in a season-long slump sandwiched around a stint on the disabled list for a low back issue. He finished Tuesday's game with a .154 batting average and .489 OPS in 78 at-bats.

Maddon also wanted to give Albert Almora Jr. and Javy Baez — who have been filling the top of the order the last week-plus — a day off and somebody had to be that "power source" to give the lineup energy from the leadoff spot.

The Cubs' unofficial captain was all for it, smiling and joking at his locker before the game about getting back to the spot he filled admirably in the middle of last season for about a week.

"Probably be a little bit more loose, just leading off," Rizzo said. "It's something I don't get to do all the time."

That's exactly what Maddon's hope was — to loosen Rizzo up. And it worked to an extent.

"The whole thing is [a mental adjustment]," Maddon said. "It's all about the mind. He really hasn't been doing that badly. He's hit the ball pretty well — hitting into the shift decently. He's fouled off his pitch a couple times.

"For the most part, he does like [leading off]. That's a big part of it and he is a big kid. He understands the fun about the game."

As a funny side story, Maddon's protege Davey Martinez decided to run the same gamut with the Nationals lineup Tuesday, leading off Bryce Harper (who also homered). Though, that was more strategy-based in hopes of avoiding intentional walks to Harper.

From a Cubs perspective, it's gotta be a tough look for Rockies picher Jon Gray to immediately start Tuesday's game off by facing the two toughest hitters in the lineup — Rizzo and Kris Bryant — though Gray was unstoppable after Rizzo's leadoff dinger, allowing only two other hits.

Maddon is hoping something light-hearted and fun like this will be the mental reset Rizzo needs to get going.

It's also coming on a perfect day, as the calendar flipping to May and the weather warming up could also be the triggers Rizzo needs. A new month often brings new feelings of hope for baseball players.

"Winning definitly helps cope with [individual struggles]," he said. "In the game of baseball, you have good days, you have bad days, you have good weeks, bad weeks, good months, bad months. I'm hoping to look at April as a quote-unquote best month of just learning, learning what happened.

"Hopefully May 1st is a new story, right?"

Is this catch by Reed Johnson the best of the last decade?

NBC Sports Chicago

Is this catch by Reed Johnson the best of the last decade?

Ten years ago today, Reed Johnson had one of the best catches in a Cubs uniform.

On April 26, 2008, the Cubs outfielder made a spectacular diving catch off of Nationals' Felipe Lopez's liner to center field. Johnson had to run to his right in what felt like a mile to track down. He then dove for it on the warning track going head first into the wall. Remember this?

How he caught it? Not sure. And how he didn't get hurt? Don't know that either.

But a lot of members on the Cubs at the time raved about the catch (Len Kasper's call was also phenomenal), and joked that they're happy it didn't happen on W. Addison St.

"At Wrigley Field they might have had to call a timeout to find his head in the vines," manager Lou Piniella said after that game.

There have been some outstanding catches since that catch in 2008. Jason Heyward's diving grab in San Francisco, Javier Baez's catch against the Miami Marlins where he dove into the crowd, Anthony Rizzo's tarp catches. There are a handful of them. 

But where does this one rank?