Chicago Cubs

Kyle Schwarber damages Wrigley video board as order is restored in Cubs universe

Kyle Schwarber damages Wrigley video board as order is restored in Cubs universe

This is an oversimplification. And sometimes only the loudest voices get heard on social media. But where so many Cubs fans and enough of the Chicago media put blind faith and absolute trust into the rebuilding years, there now seems to be some general skepticism and a when-is-it-time-to-panic countdown.

Don’t mean to spoil the ending of David Ross’ new book, but the Cubs won the World Series.

Last year is over, but the Cubs still have an explosive collection of hitters, a playoff-tested rotation, a significantly better bullpen and money/prospects to spend at the trade deadline.

[CubsTalk Podcast: Jason McLeod on Ian Happ, Dylan Cease and MLB Draft]

The signs even showed up before Wednesday’s 7-5 win over the Cincinnati Reds, when Kyle Schwarber crushed a ball in batting practice and knocked out part of the lighting for the Budweiser script atop a Wrigley Field video board.

“I hope I won’t get the bill,” Schwarber said. “It had some wind behind it, I guess, and got up there, and you could see some wires fall. I apologize in advance.”

Schwarber damaged the first two letters and part of the “d” out in right field, or roughly the same spot where one of his home-run balls landed during the 2015 playoffs. If Schwarber doesn’t have a Budweiser deal yet, “I should,” he joked.

If you needed another reality check and a reminder of the uncertainty the Cubs used to face, Scott Feldman stood 6-foot-6 on the mound in a gray uniform. This is the answer to the trivia question, the sign-and-flip guy traded along with Steve Clevenger to the Baltimore Orioles for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop in the middle of a 96-loss season in 2013.

The Cubs knocked out Feldman in the third inning, pushing their record to one game above .500 and seeing the correction they predicted. Except for Ian Happ, the Cubs don’t have that many other cards left to play in the middle of May. And manager Joe Maddon doesn’t really think about the point where he would start doing things differently.

“It would have to take a lot, honestly, because they’re so young,” Maddon said. “This is our World Series group and this is our future group. So part of it is you have to understand they have to feel confidence and consistency from me and the organization.

“If you just start haphazardly picking names out of a hat or trying to create a different method when it’s really not necessary — that’s what you have to be careful about.

“When you have young guys in this position, the big picture would be that you would not want to influence or dent their confidence in any way or have them lose faith in you.

“There’s a lot of patience from me right now for the whole group. This is our group. And they’re going to keep getting better.”

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After all the noise about whether or not Maddon should stick with Schwarber (.188 average) at the leadoff spot, he ignited the five-run burst off Feldman in the second inning when he smashed a two-out, two-run, bases-loaded single past Reds first baseman Joey Votto.

“It’s really hard for human beings to process a 162-game season and see it in its entirety, see it from 10,000 feet,” team president Theo Epstein said. “The game wouldn’t be as fun if you could do that. I remember right around this time last year we were 25-6 and I was getting asked non-sarcastic questions about how are we going to manage the push for the greatest record of all-time vs. resting our guys for the playoffs. I called BS on that.

“And now I’m getting asked about if we’re going to send everyday guys down to Triple-A. (And) I was asked by someone else if we were going to consider selling and things like that. So I call BS on that, too.”

On an 83-degree night with 24-mph winds gusting, Kyle Hendricks again looked like the guy who impersonated Greg Maddux and led the majors in ERA last season. Hendricks is 2-1 with a 1.82 ERA in his last five starts after limiting the Reds (19-20) to two runs across six innings. The rotation is beginning to trend in the right direction and that is how the Cubs will take off from 20-19.

“Ultimately, you are how you play over the course of a season,” Epstein said. “But you also have to look at the amount of talent on a club and whether you trust their makeup and whether they care and whether you think we’re going to reach our level, because we’re going to work really hard to make adjustments and overcome whatever adversity is presented us.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m blind to what’s gone on or sort of like overly faithful in certain guys. (But) you also have to trust what you believe about players and what you see and understand the season is 162 games for a reason, because it tends to be a meritocracy.”

The Cubs are also getting under people’s skin again. After another stress-free ninth inning ended for Wade Davis (9-for-9 in save chances, zero earned runs in 18 appearances) with an overturned replay call, Reds manager Bryan Price had this to say to reporters:

“Two teams are trying to win that game. As much as it’s ‘Hail to the Cubs’ and they’re the World Series champs and they’re great, we’re trying to win the ballgame, too. Until I see that, I’m going to be more than upset. That's not a way to end a ballgame, unless they can show us something that's definitive. If they can't, shame on them."

Jose Quintana’s ‘career-altering’ game has Cubs planning clinch party in St. Louis

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USA TODAY

Jose Quintana’s ‘career-altering’ game has Cubs planning clinch party in St. Louis

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs are going to destroy Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse. The rivalry has fundamentally shifted to the point where the St. Louis Cardinals are hanging around the National League’s wild-card race in a transition year and it would have been a massive failure if the defending World Series champs didn’t win this division. But there will be some symbolism to popping champagne bottles and spraying beer all over that room.

“We intend to clinch there,” Ben Zobrist said after Jose Quintana’s complete-game masterpiece in Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “And I think for a lot of the guys that have been around here for a long time, it’s going to be very satisfying.”

Quintana has only been a Cub since the Brewers failed to close a deal with the White Sox and team president Theo Epstein swooped in to make a signature trade during the All-Star break. Quintana hasn’t yet pitched in the playoffs, but this is close enough, the Cubs winning back-to-back 10-inning games against the Brewers and shaking off a walk-off loss before the lefty faced off against Chase Anderson in front of a sellout crowd of 42,212.

Quintana gave the Cubs more data points to consider as they prepare for a probable first-round series against the Washington Nationals. The magic number to eliminate both the Brewers and Cardinals is two, with Milwaukee off on Monday and the Cubs playing a rivalry game in St. Louis that night, meaning the party goggles won’t come out until Tuesday at the earliest.

“It’s the playoffs already for this team,” said Zobrist, who again looked like a World Series MVP in the seventh inning of a 1-0 game when he launched Anderson’s first-pitch fastball into the second deck in right field for a two-run, breathing-room homer. “We’re already thinking that way.

“We’re in postseason mode right now. And we intend to continue that for the next month.”

While there are valid concerns about Jon Lester’s nosedive in performance since coming off the disabled list and the state of Jake Arrieta’s right hamstring, the focus should also be on how Quintana (7-3, 3.50 ERA in 13 starts as a Cub) could be an October game-changer for this rotation.

“Once he got over here, he was really jacked up about having a chance to play in the playoffs,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s showing you that right now. Games like that, to me, could be kind of career-altering for a pitcher.

“When you pitch a complete-game shutout on the road under these circumstances, that definitely does something for your interior. It definitely fluffs it up a little bit.”

“It’s exciting to be here,” said Quintana, who allowed only three singles, piled up 10 strikeouts against one walk and hit 93 mph on his 116th and final pitch in the ninth inning. “I just try to help my team and it’s really special when you get that opportunity. It’s about winning and I have a huge opportunity here.”

In all phases of the game – dominant starting pitching, an offense that created different ways to score runs, multiple bullpen contributors and an airtight defense that committed zero errors in 39 innings – Maddon saw what he was looking for: “We reacted in a playoff manner for these four games. Our mental intensity could not be beat.”

That drifting, in-and-out focus had been part of the background when the Cubs shocked the baseball world with the Quintana trade in the middle of July. Concentration won’t be an issue at Busch Stadium. And this hangover will be real.

“It will be nice to do it there, I’ll just say that,” said Zobrist, who understands the Cubs-Cardinals dynamic as someone who grew up in downstate Illinois. “But we got to win the games.

“As John Lackey said it before (this) series: ‘This is not a small series, boys.’ We knew it was a big one here in Milwaukee. And it will be another big one in St. Louis.”

Joe Maddon gives Cubs space during national anthem: ‘Everybody’s got the right to express themselves’

Joe Maddon gives Cubs space during national anthem: ‘Everybody’s got the right to express themselves’

MILWAUKEE – As protests formed at NFL stadiums across the country, sending an anti-Trump message after the president’s inflammatory rhetoric, a group of about 11 Cubs players and coaches stood off the third-base line while a men’s a cappella group sung the national anthem before Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

The night before, Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first Major League Baseball player to follow in Colin Kaepernick’s footsteps and kneel during the national anthem at the Oakland Coliseum, sending a jolt through a conservative industry.  

“Like I’ve always talked about, everybody’s got the right to express themselves in the manner in which they feel,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I’ve always felt that way.”

That’s easer said than done in a team sport that doesn’t have the same outspoken culture as NBA or NFL locker rooms. It will be fascinating to see if this starts a similar movement across baseball. The Cubs are a marquee team that has already visited the White House twice since January and will likely return to Washington in October for a must-watch playoff series against the Nationals.

“I have no idea,” Maddon said. “We’re going to wait and see. And, again, if it does, that’s fine. I have no issues. I’m all into self-expression. And if a player feels that he needs to express himself in that manner, then so be it.”

[RELATED — Joe Maddon feels the heat from White House comments and rethinks Trump vs. sports world]

Maxwell, the son of a U.S. Army veteran who made his big-league debut last year, told Bay Area reporters this decision had been building and rooted in his own childhood in Alabama, where Trump appeared on Friday at a rally for Republican Senate candidate Luther Strange and told the crowd that NFL owners should fire any “son of a b----” kneeling during the national anthem.      

“The point of my kneeling was not to disrespect our military or our constitution or our country,” Maxwell said. “My hand was over my heart because I love this country and I have family members, including my father, who bled for this country, and who continue to serve.

“At the end of the day, this is the best country on the planet. I am and forever will be an American citizen and grateful to be here. But my kneeling is what’s getting the attention, and I’m kneeling for the people who don’t have a voice.

“This goes beyond the black and Hispanic communities because right now we have a racial divide that’s being practiced from the highest power we have in this country saying it’s basically OK to treat people differently. I’m kneeling for a cause, but I’m in no way disrespecting my country or my flag.”

Maddon’s anti-rules philosophy gives the Cubs the space to do whatever they think’s necessary to get ready for the next game. It’s freedom from: dress codes on road trips, guidelines on facial hair and overloaded mandatory batting-practice sessions.

That hands-off approach has worked to the point where the defending World Series champs could clinch a second straight National League Central title as soon as Tuesday at Busch Stadium and celebrate in front of the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s not unusual to see only a small group of players, coaches and staffers standing on the field during the national anthem.

“That’s up to them,” Maddon said. “I’ve never really had a policy regarding being out for the anthem or not. A lot of times guys like to do different things right before the game begins. Sometimes, you’re on the road, you hit later and you get in later and then your time is at a premium. So I’ve never really had a specific theory about coming out for your anthem at all.”