Contagious hitting starts at the top for improving Cubs

Contagious hitting starts at the top for improving Cubs
June 21, 2014, 4:45 pm
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Vinnie Duber

They say hitting is contagious.

And if that’s the case, it’s got to start somewhere.

That task, the one of “getting things going,” falls to a team’s leadoff man. It can be a pretty big responsibility, though it’s one Saturday’s leadoff hitter for the Cubs relishes.

Chris Coghlan batted first in the Cubs’ batting order for the third time since June 11. The Cubs had a pretty good thing going with Emilio Bonifacio hitting leadoff before he strained his right oblique trying to run out of the batter’s box in Pittsburgh. The duties have been divvied up since between Coghlan, Luis Valbuena and Junior Lake.

“I’ve been there plenty of times in my career,” Coghlan said. “You want to set the tone. I think it’s a good responsibility, I enjoy it. And I just try to relish any time I’m up there.”

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And while Coghlan’s season stats might not look too great — he entered Saturday’s game with the Pirates batting .219 — he’s been heating up of late. Yes, everyone on the team has as the Cubs have won 11 games this month, the second most in the National League. But Coghlan’s numbers stand out. He’s batting .282 in June with a 1.007 OPS. That’s after batting .147 in May.

Saturday marks the fifth time since June 11 he’s hit either first or second in the batting order. In the last two games (batting second), he’s 3-for-6 with a double, a triple, a homer and three runs scored.

As mentioned, Coghlan's heating up at the plate coincides with the team’s general better play of late. The Cubs entered Saturday winners of five of their last seven. Coghlan used that contagious line, but he specifically mentioned the guys at the top of the lineup, saying that them starting things off well can be a boon to the guys hitting lower.

“You always feel more confident, always," he said of watching players in front of you in the lineup succeed. "That’s why the responsibility’s so big at the top of the lineup: You have a chance to set the tone. And if you’re getting on base and seeing pitches, guys see that, they watch that. If you’re swinging at balls in the dirt, they’re like, ‘Man that guy’s nasty. You can’t pick him up.’ But if you’re staying on tough pitches and you work a count, get on base or walk, get a hit, they’re like, ‘Man maybe it’ll be a good day.’

“I think really that’s the responsibility of hitting at the top of the lineup. When I’ve been hitting sixth, seventh, you see guys in front of you, and you go, ‘Man we’re going to bang ‘em out today.’ So it definitely comes with the responsibility.”

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Coghlan’s earned his spot at the top with his better approach, according to manager Rick Renteria. That’s not to take anything away from guys like Valbuena. Though when you’re hitting .343 with a .954 OPS since May 13 like Valbuena is, you could see why your manager would want you in a run-producing spot in the order. And that means more time at the top for Coghlan.

“He’s just been having really good at-bats," Renteria said of Coghlan. "You might see (Valbuena) there again at the top. Just today, we’ll give him an opportunity to be there again. He’s been having really good at-bats, he’s been working to get on base. He’s had some good at-bats driving the ball. Yesterday he had that nice solo home run for us, that was actually a big tack-on run. But it allows me to put Val back in there, the five spot a little bit. Again, not to say that I won’t use Val in the No. 1 spot again, but just opened it up for us a little bit.”

Coghlan hitting near the top of the lineup hasn’t happened enough to be the cause of the Cubs’ recent good fortunes, but it certainly hasn’t hurt. As numbers have increased up and down the batting order, the number of wins has increased, too. The energy is changing. You can see it in the box score, and you can hear it in the clubhouse. Like Saturday, when the music was blaring.

“I think you can hear it already with all this music here. It’s better,” Coghlan said. “Winning’s contagious, just like losing is. And when you’re losing, like we were early when we weren’t playing to our capabilities, things weren’t going. A lot of times in games, it’s never won or lost with one pitch or one at-bat or one hit. But there always is one pitch, one at-bat, one defensive play that magnifies it. And we weren’t doing that. It seemed like more offensive, we showed it offensively — our pitching’s been pretty dominant all year. I think right now we’re hitting better as a team. I think we’re passing at-bats along, we’re taking what they give us, and that’s why we’re able to score more and win more games.”

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