Split decision: Your first-place Cubs?

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Split decision: Your first-place Cubs?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Posted: 9:15 p.m. Updated: 10:55 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

At the end of a 13-hour shift, Mike Quade collapsed into a chair in the interview room. What was left to say?

The manager had just watched 20 innings of baseball. He had promised that his team would grind it out and play the game the right way. Really, he couldnt complain after the Cubs split Wednesdays doubleheader against the San Diego Padres.

The Cubs can sleep in Thursday and wake up tied for first place, the first time theyve been there since Aug. 6, 2009.

Im a race-track guy they dont pay anybody at the 16th pole, Quade said after a 5-4 loss to the San Diego Padres. Weve got to work some things out. We still have to get better. But Im just so pleased with the effort.

Were doing enough good things that I am still very optimistic for down the road.

At these prices, you should still expect more.

And if momentum is the next days starting pitcher, the 9-9 Cubs will keep stalling like this: Theyve hit the .500 mark nine different times already. Its the first time in franchise history theyve started the season that way.

First pitch for Game 1 was at 1:21 p.m. It ended at 5:20. Game 2 began at 6:07. Thats 47 minutes of turnaround time.

The buzz from a walk-off win faded almost immediately. Ryan Ludwick drove James Russells 73 mph curveball into the left-field bleachers for a two-run homer in the second inning.

Russell could be a nice situational reliever for this team, as he was last year, but the 25-year-old left-hander is miscast in the rotation.

It doesnt matter, he said. Whatever they want to use me as, Im here for it."

The Cubs never sold this as anything more than two spot starts. Quade has been upfront: In my heart of hearts, hes a bullpen guy. Russell needs to improve his changeup and could use more experience to matchup better against right-handed hitters.

The damage from Russells two starts, both losses: nine runs on 14 hits across 5 23 innings. It looks like the Cubs still need to identify a fifth starter until Randy Wells andor Andrew Cashner get healthy. Will Russell get another shot next week?

Thats a great question, Quade said. Right now Im so baseball-ed out. I honest to God havent even had a chance to think about it.

Whoever gets this opportunity will need more run support, because the Cubs wont win every one-run game. Reed Johnson ended Game 1 with a walk-off homer and went 3-for-4 in Game 2.

But afterward he was being asked about getting thrown out at third on his RBI double in the fifth. If there were no outs or two outs, or if it was later in the game, he wouldnt have gone. It interrupted the flow and then the Cubs starting hitting. They came away with only two runs that inning.

If I had a crystal ball and I knew that three guys behind me were going to get base hits, Johnson said, I would have just held up. But I got around second and knew I was in trouble.

Teammates love Johnson, the image of the entire front of his uniform covered in dirt after that slide. He remembers how it was in 2008, when that 97-win team turned every home game into a Wrigleyville block party.

The Cubs announced Wednesdays combined attendance as 70,639. That figure doesnt come close to the number of actual bodies in the seats, or the seagulls fighting over pizza crust one bird dropped onto the field in the middle of Game 1. (Umpire Phil Cuzzi picked it up and tossed it into the Cubs dugout.)

Fans in Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee can also say theyre rooting for first-place teams. The last time the Cubs won the division, they went 55-26 at Wrigley Field. Eventually theyll have to start closing out series to gain separation. But theres no doubt theyve earned Thursdays off-day.

Its like the old-school National League West, Johnson said. It used to be a .500 team was leading the division, but thats not going to be the case. There are too many good teams in the division.

Were going to have to capitalize on opportunities and hopefully when we get a team down 2-0 we can get some sweeps. Thatll be huge for us, especially at home. (In 2008) we werent really all that good of a road team either. But we just won so many games at home that we were able to make that cushion for ourselves.

Box Score

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

MIAMI – Kyle Schwarber’s offensive spiral had gone on for so long and gotten so deep that the shock value of sending a potential franchise player to Triple-A quickly wore off once the news broke on Twitter.

The Cubs sent their message directly to Schwarber. Even if the bosses wanted to, the Cubs couldn’t put the rest of the clubhouse on edge by demoting a .171 hitter with 260-plus plate appearances in late June. 

The Cubs are in survival mode, not a position to play mind tricks, beginning an 11-games-in-11-days road trip with World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (sore left wrist), Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward (cut left hand) and Cy Young Award finalist Kyle Hendricks (right hand tendinitis) all on the disabled list.   

The Cubs didn’t rebook Schwarber to Iowa so he can be converted into a pitcher. An aging, stressed rotation remains a much bigger concern than the boom-and-bust periods with a young offense. 

All these circumstances made a vintage Jake Arrieta performance during Thursday night’s 11-1 win at Marlins Park so important. Whether or not the Cubs make a blockbuster trade for a pitcher, there are still five-plus weeks left until buyers and sellers will feel the urgency of a deadline.   

“If something presents itself that makes sense, we’ll certainly jump on it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But to us, the answers are in that clubhouse. We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut. The answers are in there, and we believe in those guys. 

“Will we be active? No question. But that’s not going to happen for a while and there’s a lot of games to be played between now and July 31.”

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On a night where he felt “low energy,” rocked a new buzz cut and covered his right thumb with Dermabond to treat a cut/blister issue that can be traced back to spring training, Arrieta needed only 82 pitches to get through seven innings, completely shutting down a strong Miami lineup except for a Marcell Ozuna home run.

Arrieta’s inconsistencies (7-5, 4.36 ERA) have mirrored a 37-35 team, but he didn’t hesitate when asked where he is at now in a season that has so far not lived up to his Cy Young/All-Star expectations.  

“I’m close,” Arrieta said. “I’m really close.”

The Cubs are still the defending champs. Kris Bryant unleashed an MVP swing when he launched a three-run homer into the left-center field patio deck. Blocking out a messy personal situation, All-Star shortstop Addison Russell almost hit for the cycle (no triple) the day after getting questions about his divorce and a Major League Baseball investigation. This year’s Schwarber – rookie Ian Happ – also went 4-for-5 and gave the team another jolt.  

“It’s tough to see Schwarber go down,” Arrieta said. “We know that he’s going to be one of our mainstays in the lineup eventually. He’s hit a rough patch and it happens to the best of us. 

“I’ve been there. I talked to him yesterday a little bit about just keeping his head down and going to work and getting his at-bats and trying to find that comfort level. He’ll be back soon. He’s a tremendous hitter who’s going through some struggles and he’s going to right the ship. There’s no doubt about that. He’s too good of a hitter.

“A night like tonight where we pitch well and we score 11 runs, it looks easy. But it’s about consistency and trying to build off of a night like tonight. We’ve got the guys necessary to do so. We’re very capable of doing that.”

Especially if Arrieta gets hot again and shows how he can lift an entire team. 

“To get Jake pitching that kind of quality game again is going to be a big boon to us,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

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The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”