Chicago Cubs

Koji Uehara's injury is another question mark for Cubs bullpen

Koji Uehara's injury is another question mark for Cubs bullpen

SAN FRANCISCO — Koji Uehara walked off the field with an athletic trainer in the middle of the seventh inning on Tuesday night at AT&T Park, leaving the Cubs with another question about their bullpen and who they can trust in October.

The Cubs rebuilt and reshaped a deep, versatile bullpen to get back to the playoffs and avoid the kind of meltdown the San Francisco Giants experienced in last year’s National League Division Series. After a sloppy 6-3 loss, the Cubs were still evaluating the stiffness that Uehara has been feeling on the right side/lower part of his neck for several days now.

“No, not at all,” Uehara said through a translator when asked if he’s concerned.

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Uehara — who notched the final out in the 2013 World Series for the Boston Red Sox — has been a different pitcher during his age-42 season before the All-Star break (2.73 ERA in 33 appearances) and after (5.40 ERA in nine appearances).

The Cubs already held back Hector Rondon (stiff back) against the Giants and hope the right-hander will be ready to go for Wednesday afternoon’s series finale. Justin Wilson also hasn’t distinguished himself yet since coming over from the Detroit Tigers in a trade-deadline deal, giving up six hits and three walks to the first 22 batters he’s faced in a Cubs uniform.

Carl Edwards Jr. had just seen his ERA spike from 2.51 to 3.83 after three rough outings against playoff contenders before cleaning up Uehara’s runners-on-the-corners, no-outs mess by getting a strikeout and two groundballs. Uehara walked Kelby Tomlinson on five pitches and then gave up a line-drive single to Pablo Sandoval, setting off alarm bells in the visiting dugout.

“From his very first pitch, I knew something was wrong,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He just looked awkward, the way he walked that first hitter. He never does that. He never misses by that much. Sent out ‘Boz’ (pitching coach Chris Bosio) to talk to him, he said he was fine. And then I could see on the next pitch it was not fine.”

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."