Chicago Cubs

Sloppy Cubs have seen this before: ‘We’re playing like that .500 team that we were in the first half’

Sloppy Cubs have seen this before: ‘We’re playing like that .500 team that we were in the first half’

SAN FRANCISCO – Maybe the buzz from the Jose Quintana trade is beginning to wear off, the Cubs are missing All-Star shortstop Addison Russell, the San Francisco Giants don’t bring out that same edge anymore and a young team will inevitably feel the growing pains and a World Series hangover.

But manager Joe Maddon didn’t try to spin Tuesday night’s 6-3 loss at AT&T Park with the usual positive message and a look ahead to a brighter tomorrow.

“We’re playing like that .500 team that we were in the first half, and I don’t like it,” Maddon said. “We got to get sharper.”

The little things added up: That Javier Baez error on a routine groundball in the first inning and the next batter – Buster Posey – launching a three-run homer over the left-center-field wall and in between two fans trying to catch it. Quintana settling down and then giving up a two-out RBI single to Giants pitcher Ty Blach in the fourth inning. Second baseman Ian Happ not stopping the ball that skipped underneath his glove, allowing an insurance run to score in the eighth inning.

“We just didn’t play well,” Maddon said. “We did not play well out there and it started out from the beginning. I’ve talked about it from Day 1 of spring training: For us to get back to the promised land, we got to catch the ball. Maybe not at the level we did last year, but a lot better than we have to this point.”

Those issues helped create the inconsistent team that was 43-45 at the All-Star break and 5.5 games out of first place at the All-Star break. As confident and as refreshed as the Cubs looked to start the second half, they didn’t bury the rest of the National League Central in the first half and will have to keep fending off the Milwaukee Brewers (1.5 games back) and St. Louis Cardinals (2.5 games back).

“We’ll be ready for it,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “But we got to worry about ourselves. You can’t worry about (that). You can’t control what they’re going to do. Every team plays hard to win. We got to worry about ourselves – and everything else will take care of itself.”

The Cubs (59-53) have the most talent, depth and playoff experience in the division, plus a favorable schedule down the stretch. But this is also a team that: has lost three Quintana starts in a row; is dealing with issues throughout the bullpen; relies on an exceptionally young core of hitters; and will face Madison Bumgarner on Wednesday afternoon in the Bay Area.

“Just come out and play,” Rizzo said. “We lost today. That’s it. We’re not going to ride that rollercoaster that hard this half, so we’ll just stay even-keel.”

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."