Chicago Cubs

Hard to believe this Cubs offense will be ready for prime time

Hard to believe this Cubs offense will be ready for prime time

The Cubs have enough high-end talent, layers of depth and big-game experience to hang on and win the National League Central. The Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals are also flawed teams that didn’t really expect to be here, either, only two games behind the defending World Series champs on Sept. 11.

But it’s harder to believe this offense will be ready for prime time and able to beat Max Scherzer and the Washington Nationals three times in a five-game series — or wear down Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers again — much less generate the sustained pressure to win three playoff rounds.

Just listen to manager Joe Maddon, who sounded like he was running out of ideas after watching his team score three runs total while the Brewers pulled off a three-game sweep over the weekend: “All of a sudden this series, we chose not to hit.”

After getting shut out in the first Friday night regular-season game in Wrigley Field history, the Cubs got two garbage-time runs on Saturday after the Brewers built 15-0 lead, and then needed Hernan Perez to misjudge a flyball to right field on Sunday to score their only run.

Look at this offensive snapshot against Milwaukee: The Cubs struck out 32 times while drawing only six walks; went 2-for-20 with runners in scoring position and left 21 men on base; and hit .196 overall with only three doubles and a solo home run.

“We’re definitely in the hunt,” Maddon said. “It’s up to us to mentally rise to that moment. It’s a mental challenge as much as anything. Yes, this time of the year, when you get to the playoffs, you’re facing good arms every night. You have to beat the better pitching to be the team you want to be. I love the challenge. I think our guys do also.

“It’s up to us now to respond properly.”

This isn’t overreacting to a small sample size or overlooking a franchise that’s made so many big investments in hitters or underselling a Brewers team that shrewdly uses defensive shifts and advance scouting reports and hired a pitching coach (Derek Johnson) who used to work for the Cubs.

The Nationals (748), Colorado Rockies (733) and Arizona Diamondbacks (710) are the only NL teams that have scored more runs than the Cubs (707) so far this season. And the Cubs have averaged 5.7 runs per game since Aug. 1. But that stat is skewed by the stretch where the Cubs played 13 games in a row against last-place teams, and six wins where they put up football scores: 16, 15, 13, 17, 17 and 14.

“Every day, (Joe) sends us the lineup in the morning and he’s kind of tried every combination to find that consistency, and we really haven’t found it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We have scored a lot of runs, but it seems like we’re blowing a team out once a week and scoring more than a dozen, but then having plenty of nights where it’s not there.

“It has been inconsistent, and I think Joe has been as frustrated as anyone trying to find that right combination. Hopefully, we’ll find it.”

Without Dexter Fowler’s name to put at the top of his iPad, Maddon has used 10 different leadoff hitters this season and gone through 129 lineup combinations (including pitchers) in 143 games.

Ben Zobrist — the other switch-hitter who saw so many pitches and made this feel like an American League lineup last year — has gone from being the World Series MVP to a part-time player. It’s impossible to know how much of that is Zobrist’s age (36) or injuries or fatigue after back-to-back championship runs with the Cubs and Kansas City Royals — or a new reality with two more seasons left on his $56 million contract.

After becoming a Chicago legend, Kyle Schwarber got demoted to Triple-A Iowa this summer and has also morphed into a kind of platoon hitter, though his numbers have spiked since that minor-league reboot (13 homers and an .876 OPS).

Jason Heyward is a Gold Glove outfielder, a clubhouse leader and a more productive offensive player, but his .702 OPS is still 47 points below the league average.

Remember when Maddon protected Addison Russell during his 2015 rookie season by batting him ninth in 117 games? Switch-hitting rookie Ian Happ — two years removed from his draft class and with only 26 Triple-A games on his resume — has gotten more than 90 percent of his plate appearances between the leadoff and sixth spots in the lineup and delivered 21 homers.

Russell didn’t make the leap to superstardom he hoped for after a 21-homer, 95-RBI season, and the Cubs have to be prepared for the possibility that he might not come back this year as he deals with plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

Javier Baez has proven that he can be an excellent big-league shortstop who can hit for power (21 homers) and average (.282 since the All-Star break). But a scout tracking the Cubs also made this observation: “He’s going back to that Hail Mary swing now.”

“It’s just working the good at-bat, going up there and getting into the count if you can,” Maddon said. “It’s about squaring up more baseballs. It’s about hitting the ball hard more consistently.

“Beyond that, when you get chances to score runs with outs — when the runner needs to be moved — move him. When you have a chance to score a run with a runner on third and less than two outs, score that run somehow. (Against) good pitchers, you have to take advantage of all those different moments. And on the other side, you have to pitch better than good pitching to beat them.”

The good news for the Cubs is that the New York Mets look nothing like the team that swept them out of the 2015 NL Championship Series with their power pitching and precise game plans. Instead of Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, the Cubs will face Robert Gsellman, a decimated Matt Harvey and Seth Lugo in a three-game series that begins Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.

Maybe Anthony Rizzo — who now has three straight seasons with more than 30 homers and 100-plus RBIs — is right when he says: “It’s kind of the flow of the season, the ups and downs.”

But no one would have predicted Jon Jay having to be such an important part of this offense, or Tommy La Stella starting this often in a pennant race after taking his New Jersey sabbatical last year and going 1-for-3 in playoff rosters, or the Cubs being this inconsistent when Kris Bryant’s OPS (.924) is not far from where he finished his MVP campaign (.939).

“I’ve always said with each player here: ‘You are who you are,’” Bryant said. “And I think at the end of the year, that’s how things will turn up. I believe that as a team, too. I think we’re a winning team. We’re a playoff team. And I think at the end of the year, that’s where we’ll be.”

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

MILWAUKEE – Teammates swarmed Kris Bryant in Miller Park’s visiting dugout late Thursday night, flinging sunflower seeds and forming a mosh pit around the National League’s reigning MVP.

Are you not entertained? The Cubs haven’t always played with this urgency or made it easy while nursing a World Series hangover. But they can feel it now, how close they are to October and how much they learned last year while making history.

It’s too early to pop champagne bottles, but the Cubs won a huge swing game in the NL Central race, beating the Milwaukee Brewers in the 10th inning when Bryant blasted Oliver Drake’s 92-mph fastball off a beam underneath the gigantic video board.

The Cubs watched it ricochet back onto the right-center field grass for a go-ahead two-run homer, bumping up the division lead to 4.5 games while cutting the magic number to clinch the division down to six.

After a head-spinning 5-3 victory that lasted 3 hours and 57 minutes and ended at 11:08 p.m., Bryant didn’t sound surprised or overexcited, the same way he didn’t overreact when the Cubs struggled to gain traction before the All-Star break and the Brewers swept the defending World Series champs two weekends ago at Wrigley Field.       

“We’ve done that so many times,” Bryant said. “We’ve had a nice run with that. I guess it is experience. The heartbeats aren’t going too fast when the game’s on the line there. It kind of plays to our advantage.”

So did the Brewers pushing their bullpen so hard this week trying to catch up that Cubs manager Joe Maddon would have to admit “their A-listers were not available,” meaning Corey Knebel, Anthony Swarzak and Josh Hader. Classic response from Bryant, who has 28 homers and likes to think of pitchers as nameless, faceless opponents: “I didn’t find out their top three guys were down until after the game was over.”

Maybe that changes the ninth-inning rally against Jeremy Jeffress where Ian Happ sprinted for a “Respect 90” single and scored the game-tying run when Javier Baez delivered a two-out, two-strike single up the middle. But the Cubs are in their element now, playing games that matter, not what-if.

“I just think we like loud,” Maddon said. “I think we’re a little bit like adrenaline junkies with the fact we’re used to 40,000 people a night.”

Just look at the stone face Wade Davis made in the ninth inning, escaping a bases-loaded jam by striking out Domingo Santana swinging at an elevated 95-mph fastball and forcing Orlando Arcia to chop a 3-2 pitch back to the mound. The All-Star closer who’s 32-for-32 in save chances went back out for the 10th inning and struck out the side to notch the win. That is a five-out playbook Maddon can use in October.

“You definitely feel it,” Davis said of the playoff atmosphere in a road stadium filled with Cubs fans. “It’s a lot easier to get up for the moment itself instead of having to create it yourself. You feel that.”

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

MILWAUKEE – This was the type of game Jake Arrieta visualizes, a loud atmosphere with 35,114 fans on their feet and an opponent that really doesn’t like the Cubs at all.

This one would ultimately be out of his hands, lasting 10 innings and almost 4 hours on Thursday night at Miller Park, but Arrieta looked like a Game 1 starter as the Cubs roared back for a 5-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Those playoff plans are coming into focus, the magic number to win the National League Central title down to six and Arrieta managing the Grade 1 right hamstring strain that has been one of the biggest question marks hanging over the defending World Series champs.

“It’s just good to be back out there,” Arrieta said. “These are big games, and I want to be a part of as many as I can, especially to try and clinch the division as quick as possible and then kind of line things up for us in October. But we got to get there first.”

Arrieta threw his first real pitch in 18 days at 7:16 p.m., firing a 92-mph fastball toward Brewers leadoff guy Eric Sogard and giving the Cubs a shot of adrenaline. That always wears off, but the Cubs are a different team when Arrieta sticks his chest out and triggers his perfect posture into a crossfire delivery.

Arrieta looked sharp in his first real action since Labor Day, even as his five-inning, 71-pitch limit exposed how fragile this pitching staff might be right now. If it’s not Jon Lester laboring at the top of the rotation, it’s the softer spots in the middle of the bullpen, or questions about how much wear and tear the Cubs can take after a deep playoff run in 2015 and last year’s World Series madness stretched into early November. 

But Arrieta basically picked up where he left off as the NL pitcher of the month for August, realigning his unique mechanics and generating enough power from his right leg, restarting the momentum in a second half where he’s shown the flashes of dominance you saw during his 2015 Cy Young Award season. 

Arrieta exited this game with a 2-1 lead – before it spun out of control – and passed one test by hustling to cover first base to complete an inning-ending 3-6-1 double play in the fifth. He walked just one of the 20 hitters he faced and could really only regret one pitch in the fourth inning, the 92-mph fastball Domingo Santana drilled off the batter’s eye in center field.

“I felt OK,” Arrieta said. “I can tell that something happened. I think it’s just the residual feeling of something like a hamstring strain. But no pain, really no discomfort. That’s a good sign.

“Tomorrow is the biggest indicator moving forward of how we’ll be able to approach this. I don’t see any reason that I won’t feel good tomorrow.”

Arrieta is scheduled to make two more regular-season starts, but this dramatic comeback means the Cubs might be able to treat those as controlled experiments instead of must-win situations.

“Just an incredible baseball game,” Arrieta said. “This is a really awesome time to be in an organization like this, in a division like the NL Central, where there’s a couple teams that have playoff aspirations in mind. If we take care of business here over the next few days, we get a couple steps closer.”