Chicago Cubs

Anthony Rizzo knows how Cubs have to respond now: ‘This isn’t my first rodeo’

Anthony Rizzo knows how Cubs have to respond now: ‘This isn’t my first rodeo’

SAN FRANCISCO – Anthony Rizzo isn’t so much the leader of the Cubs as he’s a good dude who came along with the right attitude for this team at the right time. A franchise burdened by history needed guys to play loose, without constantly feeling that weight of 1908 on their shoulders. A young team responded to someone who had been there during the lost years, reminding them to have fun and stay relaxed.

Most of all – in a bottom-line business – this is a Silver Slugger/Gold Glove first baseman in position for his third straight 30-homer, 100-RBI season. Rizzo attacked his weaknesses, overhauling his swing, making adjustments against left-handed pitchers and choking up with two strikes. The kind of growth the Cubs are still waiting to see from some of their other 20-something hitters.

Rizzo has shown the ability to carry a team, that when he gets hot, it seems like the rest of the lineup can feel it. Willson Contreras had become that guy – until he felt something in his right hamstring during Wednesday’s painful loss to the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park. Whatever comes out of Thursday’s MRI in the Phoenix area, you know Rizzo will be the same guy on Friday when he goes back to work.

“This isn’t my first rodeo,” Rizzo said. “I’ve had guys go down around me. Guys get traded. It’s part of the game. I’m not going to change who I am, my approach. I’m going to stay within myself. That’s the only thing you can do. You start pressing, you’re going to find yourself in a bad spot.”

Contreras emerging as a legitimate cleanup hitter – combined with the Jose Quintana trade, a roster getting closer to full strength and the refreshed feeling from a mini-vacation – explains the Cubs winning 13 of their first 16 games after the All-Star break leading up to the July 31 trade deadline.

But the defending World Series champs have since lost three consecutive series to two likely playoff teams – the Arizona Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals – and an organization that might wind up with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft.

The National League Central opened on Thursday with four teams separated by less than four games, with the Cubs getting a day off in the desert before this weekend’s three-game series against the Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

“We’re losing games we got to win,” Rizzo said. “That’s it. There’s really nothing more to it. You just got to win baseball games.”

Doing that consistently becomes so much harder without Contreras, the young catcher who had put up 10 of his 21 homers and a 1.080 OPS since the All-Star break.

But there was nothing easy about how the Cubs avoided an elimination game against Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner last October, survived a 21-inning scoreless drought against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Championship Series and beat the Cleveland Indians in an epic World Series Game 7.

“What can you do?” Rizzo said. “It’s part of the game. Guys get hurt. You got to be ready for it. Obviously, you don’t want someone in the middle of your order – especially the year he’s having – to go down. It’s upsetting for him, and for us, too. But we got to keep playing baseball.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Does Joe Maddon deserve criticism for his late-game decisions?

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Does Joe Maddon deserve criticism for his late-game decisions?

Adam Jahns (Chicago Sun-Times), Danny Parkins (670 The Score) and Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000) join Kap on the panel.  The Cubs manage just a single run after scoring 15 the night before.  Does Joe Maddon deserve criticism for his late-game decisions? 

Everybody is fired up about Mitch Trubisky except for Mitch Trubisky. When will the hype become reality and he gets the starting nod?

Plus Dwyane Wade is reportedly set to accept a buyout and Jerry Reinsdorf wouldn’t hire Ozzie Guillen to be his manager ever again.

Listen to the full epidsode here

Kyle Schwarber is learning to trust himself again at the plate

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USA TODAY

Kyle Schwarber is learning to trust himself again at the plate

Baseball people talk all the time about how humbling the game is and how important confidence is.

After all, 90 percent of the game is half mental, right?

While Carl Edwards Jr. gets his confidence back on the mound, Kyle Schwarber is trying to get back into a groove in the batter's box.

Schwarber struck out in eight straight trips to the plate starting Saturday in Arizona and ending Monday night at Wrigley Field. But since then, he's reached base safely in five straight plate appearances and has swung and missed only once in that time.

One of those at-bats was a clutch single to lead off the ninth inning Tuesday night off Reds closer Raisel Iglesias. Schwarber took a pair of strikes (one of which was beneath the strike zone) but then fouled off three pitches before singling into right field on the ninth pitch of the matchup.

"Really good at-bat," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He was choking up pretty fiercly right there. Much shorter approach to the ball. He looked really good. ... Good for him."

The Cubs' ninth-inning rally fell short, but Schwarber scored his team's only run of the game and got to head home with some validation for all the work he's been putting in.

"In that spot, you have to shorten up and either force a walk or put the ball in play," Schwarber said. "You don't want to strike out there to lead off the inning when you're down by two. If you get on base, someone can put the ball out of the ballpark.

"I'm just trying to simplify things down, especially when it gets to two strikes."

One of the main things Schwarber has been focusing in is not expanding the strike zone, which he hasn't done since that eighth strikeout in a row. Sure, it's a small sample size, but a slumping hitter has to start somewhere and the young slugger now has results he can point to.

Schwarber has seen 31 pitches over those five trips to the plate, walking once, getting hit by a pitch twice and lining two singles through the shift on the right side of the infield.

Don't look now, but his average is nearing .200 (.196) while he's posted a .256/.356/.556 (.911 OPS) slash line in 31 games since being recalled from Triple-A Iowa on July 6.

He does have 39 strikeouts in that span, but he also has drawn 12 walks and clubbed 12 extra-base hits, including seven homers.

"It's just fine-tuning," he said. "Just trusting yourself, trusting that you're gonna lay off a pitch in the dirt."

This is the guy who didn't see a live pitch in more than six months last year and then returned on the biggest stage to mash and work tough at-bats against the likes of Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller.

Yet somehow this same dude has lost his confidence and his mojo and has been searching for it almost all year. 

He's trying not to let the bad times build up, attempting to leave poor results in the past.

"You just gotta go at-bat by at-bat," Schwarber said. "You think about that at-bat the next inning, but whenever that inning's over, it's a whole new ballgame, a whole new at-bat."

Strikeouts are gonna happen. That's always been a part of Schwarber's game, but it's also a part of today's game.

Whiffs are up all across the league. Aaron Judge has struck out the second-most times in baseball and has whiffed in 32 straight games, but he's also leading the AL in homers, walks, runs, slugging percentage, OPS and is a legitimate MVP candidate.

Guys like Joey Votto and Anthony Rizzo — who choke up with two strikes consistently and actually walk more than they whiff — are a dying breed.

Strikeouts are viewed differently nowadays. The Tampa Bay Rays have told their players to specifically not shorten up with two strikes this season, looking to take big hacks in every count.

Schwarber can't strike out in eight straight appearances each week, of course, but he can still be a very effective hitter in this Cubs lineup even if he doesn't morph into the next coming of Tony Gwynn.

"Javy [Baez] struck out five times in one game and he's done pretty well since then," Maddon said. "We have a lot of faith in Schwarbs."