Wrigley Field

Anthony Rizzo's injury presents nightmare scenario for Cubs

Anthony Rizzo's injury presents nightmare scenario for Cubs

A Cubs team already without its closer and top two shortstops will now hold its breath waiting to hear on Anthony Rizzo's status.

Rizzo left the Cubs game Sunday after rolling his ankle on a nasty-looking play in the top of the third inning. He approached a bunt in front of the plate and slipped on the Wrigley Field grass, making a huge divot and rolling his ankle in the process.

He finished the play (though his throw to first base was wide) and crumpled to the ground in serious pain as Cubs trainers, coaches and teammates rushed to his side:

The Cubs are calling it a sprained right ankle for Rizzo and initial X-rays at the ballpark did not reveal a fracture. He will get an MRI on Monday to determine the severity and we will know more about his timeline then. The Cubs welcome the NL Central-leading St. Louis Cardinals to town Thursday night for a crucial four-game series that could decide the fate of the division.

"It's not different than [Christian] Yelich lost for the Brewers," Joe Maddon said. "Stuff happens man. You just gotta keep moving it forward. We'll wait and see how it plays out. There's a potential that it's not gonna be that long. We'll just remain optimistic and see what they say tomorrow."

Rizzo remained on the ground for a few minutes before getting to his feet and had to be helped back to the dugout by a trainer and teammate Jason Heyward. Ian Happ took over at first base.

The air completely went out of the stadium and to make matters worse, the Pirates jumped all over Jose Quintana and plated 5 runs in the inning immediately after Rizzo's injury. The Cubs offense later picked up the slack and notched a third straight game with double digit runs against the Pittsburgh pitching staff en route to a 16-6 victory.

Kris Bryant liked the way the Cubs responded to the tough moment and said the concern for Rizzo from the entire stadium was palpable. 

"It was really weird, standing out there after it happened, everybody was just kind of quiet," Bryant said. "I've never really experienced that here. That just shows how much everybody loves him and why he's so important here.

"I was standing there next to him and I was like, I've never seen him like this. It was just one of those things that you never wanna see that. And then at third base right after it happened, fans very upset. ... Anthony truly wanted us to come together after that and we really did for him."

Considering the shape of the National League playoff race, this is a nightmare scenario for the Cubs. They entered Sunday 1.5 games behind the Washington Nationals for the top Wild-Card spot and 3 games behind the Cardinals in the division, with those two teams squaring off against each other in St. Louis Monday through Wednesday.

"Listen, from the fan's perspective, it is what it is," Maddon said. "You're gonna be devastated by that. We are, too, to a certain extent. Then you gotta move it forward, man. We're missing Javy [Baez] right now, we missed [Willson] Contreras for a large part of the season, KB's been in and out, [Ben] Zobrist was not even here. We're used to this, in a sense. And the depth has got to pick us up."

Rizzo has always been one of the Cubs' most important players, but he's been a huge key to the offensive turnaround of late by stepping into the leadoff role.

Since Joe Maddon moved him into the top spot last Thursday, Rizzo has responded by reaching base safely to lead off all four games and scoring runs in three of those instances. He drew a walk in the first inning Sunday and came around to score on Bryant's homer, then walked again in the bottom of the second inning before leaving the game with the injury.

The leadoff spot has been a huge point of contention surrounding this team lately and for good reason. In 6 starts leading off, Rizzo has been a difference-maker hitting .421 with a .560 on-base percentage and 1.297 OPS while reaching base safely 14 times and scoring 7 runs. Even with those contributions, the Cubs are still last in the majors by a wide margin in terms of batting average (.207) and OBP (.288) out of the leadoff spot. 

Maddon already said he planned to roll with the veteran atop the order indefinitely. Rizzo's 2019 success only adds to his stellar career numbers in the leadoff spot (.328/.426/.602) and he currently leads all active players in OBP, SLG and OPS as a leadoff hitter (minimum 50 games).

In Rizzo's absence, Ben Zobrist might be the best bet to slot back into the leadoff spot, but they've had to manage his playing time to try to keep him fresh and he started both Saturday and Sunday's games. When Zobrist returned from personal leave earlier this month, he was immediately inserted atop the order, but after initial success, he struggled in his last four games there (2-for-16, 0 BB).

On days Zobrist doesn't play, Maddon may have to revert back to playing matchups in the leadoff spot, with Happ, Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward possibilities against right-handed pitchers and Willson Contreras a potential option against lefties when he catches.

Defensively, the Cubs have gone with both Happ and Victor Caratini at first base when Rizzo has had to miss games in the past. Both would figure to be in the mix here, especially since Caratini could be freed up behind the plate with the Cubs currently carrying three catchers. Zobrist also has experience there and while those three are solid options, Rizzo is a two-time Gold Glover (including 2018) at the position, so any scenario where he's not playing first base is a downgrade for the Cubs.

Rizzo joins Baez (fractured left thumb), Addison Russell (concussion) and Craig Kimbrel (right elbow inflammation) on the shelf, plus Bryant has been hampered by a right knee issue for the last couple months.

How Cubs are viewing the Cardinals-Brewers series this weekend

How Cubs are viewing the Cardinals-Brewers series this weekend

While the Cubs are battling the last-place Pirates at Wrigley Field and trying to claw their way back into an enviable spot in the pennant race, their top two competitors are squaring off in St. Louis.

The Cardinals and Brewers are playing each other this weekend, and the Redbirds already took Game 1 Friday night. With that and the Cubs' big win, it moves the Brewers 1 game behind the Cubs in the fight for the final National League playoff spot. But it also kept the Cubs 4 games behind the Cardinals in the division with only 15 to play.

No matter what happens down in the shadow of the arch, the Cubs have to take care of business themselves this weekend. That much is a given.

The perfect scenario would include sweeping the Pirates and the fourth-place Reds before the Cardinals come into town for a four-game series beginning Thursday night.

But the series in St. Louis is prime fodder for scoreboard watchers, and it also brings about an interesting conundrum for Cubdom: Are fans and the team rooting for the Cardinals or Brewers?

The Cardinals already won the first game, but if they were to sweep and the Cubs also sweep, the Cubs would remain 4 games back of the division with only 13 to play. However, they would also hold a 3-game lead on the Brewers in the Wild-Card race, which is crucial given Milwaukee's schedule the rest of the way is cake (San Diego, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Colorado). 

If the Brewers storm back to win the next two games while the Cubs take care of their own business, it would diminish the NL Central lead to only 2 games with 13 to play — including 7 head-to-head matchups between the Cubs and Cardinals.

Which is the better scenario? 

"Our goal is to win the division, so you want any kind of help you could possibly get to win the division," Joe Maddon said Saturday morning. "So that would be that the Brewers would beat the Cardinals. It doesn't matter — just Cubs win, Cubs win. We just gotta take care of our own house and if you do that, this is all gonna work out properly. 

"Rooting interests or whatever — yes, I did look at the score before I went to bed last night, but I was much happier about the fact that we really swung the bats well [Friday] and the bullpen was great."

The Cubs have admitted over the last few weeks that they've been scoreboard-watching a bit and are cognizant of the incredible run the Cardinals have been on. They also have the advantage of playing in the afternoon both Friday and Saturday and seeing their games conclude before the Brewers and Cardinals even begin.

But that doesn't mean the players care one way or the other. 

"Earmuffs — we don't give a shit about what anybody else is doing," Jason Heyward said. "We have enough fun right here with what we can control and after that, we leave it up to whatever's going on. That's out of our hands.

"We've done a lot of winning [at Wrigley Field] fortunately and that's fun to be a part of. But along with that is not worrying about what everybody else is doing. And that's the fun part of this job and the fun part about being with a group of guys like this here."

Even if the players aren't super concerned with scoreboard watching, Cubs fans are going to have their eyes glued to the box scores early next week, too. Before the Cardinals come to Wrigley, they will host the Wild-Card-leading Washington Nationals for three games Monday through Wednesday.

That means if the Cubs continue to win, they will be guaranteed to gain ground on at least one of the teams they're chasing each day.

Of course, if the Cubs can't win at home — where they're 48-24 this season — this is all a moot point.

The message from Cubs brass to players for final stretch of 2019

The message from Cubs brass to players for final stretch of 2019

The Cubs didn't have a team meeting in San Diego to hash things out the way they did back in June 2017

But that didn't stop the leaders of the organization from delivering their message to the players ahead of the final homestand of the 2019 season — and the Cubs' last shot at working themselves back into an enviable spot in the race for October.

The Cubs narrowly escaped San Diego with a series split this week and returned home to Wrigley Field feeling like they let the 3-5 road trip get away from them. Road woes are nothing new for this year's team, but with the season on the line, the last thing the Cubs wanted to do was give the Milwaukee Brewers life or drop back-to-back games to a rebuilding Padres club. 

Before Friday's contest against the Pirates, manager Joe Maddon said he didn't like the energy his team had in the final game in San Diego and felt his guys were putting too much pressure on themselves.

They responded with their best offensive showing since April 30, 2008 — scoring at least 5 runs in three separate innings en route to a 17-8 win.

"Everybody's playing a little bit too tight and that's the one thing I'm just trying to get across to these guys," Maddon said. "When you play uptight, it's very difficult. Play with your hair on fire, play the game, don't worry about all this information. Our guys care so much. ... I want us to loosen up and play baseball and I think if we're able to do that over the next two weeks, we'll get the result that we're looking for."

Maddon and the Cubs didn't get the result they were looking for in the top of the first inning Friday, as back-to-back throwing errors from Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. led to 4 runs for the Pirates. But the offense stormed back with an impressive power display in the bottom of the inning, scoring 5 runs on dingers from Nicholas Castellanos, Contreras and Nico Hoerner (playing in his first career game at Wrigley). 

The lineup didn't stop there, scoring 5 more runs in the third inning and then sending 12 batters to the plate in a 7-run fifth inning that was all started by Kris Bryant's hustle.

Maddon said he has been "infiltrating the group" in his own ways as he tries to get the Cubs back to playing loose and free. 

Jon Lester — who pitched around the poor defensive showing from his teammates to earn his 13th win of the season Friday — agrees that this squad has put too much pressure on themselves at times this season.

"I think we're all trying too hard sometimes," Lester said. "I'm guilty of it; I think everybody in that clubhouse is guilty of it. You want to win the game before the game is even played. That's part of the grind of playing 162 games. You get into those funk sometimes. I think a game like today can help guys loosen up a little bit. I think whenever you struggle, whether it be the pitching side of the game or defensively or offensively, you always try to make up for that in that one instance.

"For us, it's that one pitch — 'I'm gonna make this perfect pitch, I'm gonna get him out and it's gonna be over with and move on to the next guy.' Well, sometimes that puts you 1-0 as opposed to being 0-1 just with a quality pitch. Same thing with hitting — 'oh I'm gonna try to hit a 4-run homer with nobody on right here.'

"You get into those funks where you just almost have to play yourself out of it. Hopefully today is a day where we can all kinda move on from that. It was a big team win for us, all-the-way-around. ... Hopefully we can just continue that and use that momentum from today."

Theo Epstein took to the radio waves to deliver his message to the masses of Cubs fans, but he's also been talking to players behind the scenes and trying to help his team get on the right track with only two-plus weeks remaining in the season.

"The guys have been really frustrated because I think they look around at the other names and how they feel about themselves — 'We have so much talent, how come we're not winning? How come we're not performing?'" Epstein said before Friday's game. "It's just frustrating because they care. So I think it's gonna come.

"We haven't been hot in four months or so. Just frustrating that we seemingly can't get going in certain spots — on the road, especially. But I have not seen any quit by any individual players. I don't see guys who think we can't get it done. I see a team that can certainly play really well down the stretch and change the script and that's what we intend to do."

Epstein is referencing the Cubs' 54-53 record since May 14, a four-month stretch that has seen them drop into a tie with the Brewers for the final playoff spot in the NL with only 16 games to go. 

A lot can happen in 16 games — the Brewers made up 5 games in the standings on the Cubs in the span of a week.

With seven games remaining against the division-leading Cardinals and a 4-game deficit in the division, there is still a scenario here in which the Cubs can avoid facing Max Scherzer and the mighty Nationals in the Wild-Card Game.

But in order to do so, they have to find what's eluded them all season — a consistent brand of winning baseball.

"I think we all feel like this is a team that should be winning," Epstein said. "The players aren't happy with how we're playing. Joe, coaches, managers, front office — we all have different ways of expressing it. But I don't believe in hiding the ball and saying everything's great when things aren't. 

"I still believe in this group. I still think most importantly we have a chance to write our own story here. Sometimes it's better late than never. You'd like to have a season where things really go your way and you can separate a little bit. That hasn't been our path this year. [We'll have] a lot of time after we're done playing — hopefully in November — to talk about why. 

"I'm the first one accountable for it. I run the baseball operations here, so if I'm upset with anything, I'm upset with myself. But that's not the story. The story is we're tied for a playoff spot. We have seven games left against the team we're chasing in the division. And we have a really talented group of guys that hasn't put it all together yet. But we can and we're planning on making that happen."

Friday was a great start if the Cubs are going to change the script and rewrite the story of their season.

Now the key will be carrying that over into Saturday.

And then Sunday.

And then Monday.

And then...