The Cubs are destroying the hell out of opposing pitchers right now

The Cubs are destroying the hell out of opposing pitchers right now

Let's go live to video of opposing pitchers trying to get Cubs hitters out in the second half:

Following Wednesday's 8-2 thrashing of the Atlanta Braves, the Cubs' offensive numbers through their six-game winning streak are eye-popping:

AVG: .315
OBP: .370
SLG: .609
OPS: .979
R/GM: 7.33
HR: 16
XBH: 33
H: 71
AVG w/RISP: .339
Run differential: +27

The average with runners in scoring position is the big one as the Cubs have collected 21 hits in 62 at-bats in such situations in the second half.

That was the biggest weakness for the Cubs offense as they spent part of the first half ranking dead last in baseball hitting with runners in scoring position.

For the first five games of the second half, it's been Willson Contreras keying the offensive charge. But with "Willy" on the bench Wednesday and Kris Bryant forced to leave in the first inning with an injured finger, it was Javy Baez, Addison Russell and Mike Montgomery — yes, really — driving the offense.

The trio combined for seven hits, six RBI, three runs, three doubles and two homers.

Montgomery's first career homer was an absolute blast:

That shot was 99.9 mph exit velocity and flew 393 feet. It also ensured the Cubs have truly won the trade with the Seattle Mariners from 364 days ago:

Baez has been a monster of late, too, with four straight multi-hit efforts to raise his season average 23 points to .275 with a .797 OPS. He has 10 hits in his last 15 at-bats, including a pair of doubles and two homers.

Baez's three-run blast in the eighth really put it out of reach for the Cubs Wednesday:

In the second half alone, Contreras, Russell and Baez have combined to raise their collective OPS 141 points:

This is more like it.

The Cubs went into this season thinking they had a strong, young offensive nucleus — a group of guys that would hammer the opposition on a nightly basis with an American League-style lineup.

It hasn't played out that way, but maybe things are starting to shift. Contreras, Russell and Baez are huge keys for the rest of the season. We know Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are gonna hit, Kyle Schwarber (.887 OPS in July) also seems to be a different guy at the plate since making his return from Triple-A Iowa.

Now if only Ben Zobrist can truly get going atop the order...

Will Cubs clubhouse come together or completely collapse?

Will Cubs clubhouse come together or completely collapse?

This was hours after the Cubs dumped Miguel Montero for ripping Jake Arrieta, becoming the viral national story during a dead spot on the hot-take calendar with the NFL on hiatus and the NBA in between the draft and the start of free agency.

Roughly half the team skipped an optional trip to the White House, where that afternoon board member Todd Ricketts told Donald Trump the Washington Nationals would “crumble” against the Cubs in October. The Nationals at that point had a 98-percent chance to make the playoffs while the defending World Series champs were stuck around .500 and hadn’t been in first place in three weeks. That’s Cub.

Surrounded by reporters on June 28, star manager Joe Maddon sat on the bench in the visiting dugout at Nationals Park, knowing his team would also be playing shorthanded with a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist), Gold Glove outfielder (Jason Heyward) and Cy Young Award finalist (Kyle Hendricks) already on the disabled list and a World Series legend (Kyle Schwarber) demoted back to Triple-A Iowa the week before.

With his eyes shielded by sunglasses, Maddon listened to the question during his pregame media session: Are you concerned about the clubhouse starting to splinter?

“No,” Maddon said, pausing and leaning in as if he would launch into a filibuster or a philosophical dissertation or some story from his days as a minor-league instructor and instead going silent.

Why not?

“Because there’s no reason to,” Maddon said.

OK then, maybe we’re talking to the wrong guy here, because bench coach Dave Martinez usually runs interference and handles a lot of difficult conversations with players.

Just ask John Lackey, who responded this way after a 6-1 loss on June 12 when a reporter mentioned Maddon’s pregame suggestion that the veteran pitcher might change his approach this time against the New York Mets: “Joe doesn’t have much to do with the pitching. I don’t know what he’s talking about there.”

Lackey — who has a history with Maddon, three World Series rings and a 5.20 ERA that ranks 66th out of 74 qualified big-league pitchers — would later crush a softball question about Jon Jay after the super-sub delivered a pinch-hit, game-tying, three-run homer in a comeback win over the Tampa Bay Rays on July 5: “He’s been everything we needed this year. Honestly, I can’t believe he doesn’t play more.”

It’s hard to believe, but there are times where it feels closer to 108 years than eight-plus months since the Cubs last won the World Series.

For all the talk about this 43-45 team getting hot and having a run in them, the Cubs should also be concerned about the possibility of the bottom falling out and this second half turning ugly.

For all the speculation about Theo Epstein’s front office riding to the rescue at the July 31 trade deadline, this post-All-Star break window could be about making sure the Cubs don’t overreact and give up on the wrong young player and do something that blows up The Foundation for Sustained Success. 

That day in Washington, Maddon circled back to his belief in the clubhouse culture and the positive attitude and hands-off style that’s made him a three-time Manager of the Year and a future Hall of Famer. 

“Primarily, again, there’s a lot of guys missing,” Maddon said. “That’s the biggest thing. You’re not going to find splintering among (Albert) Almora and (Javier) Baez and (Addison) Russell and Willson (Contreras) and (Kris) Bryant, to answer your question specifically.

“It’s not about splintering. It’s about youthful players finding their way to the major-league level. We’re missing a lot of the key components that drove us to the World Series last year, and now we’re building another group of components that are going to take us back there again.”

Russell became the subject of a Major League Baseball investigation last month after a third party leveled an abuse allegation on social media, responding to his wife’s since-deleted Instagram post that accused him of infidelity and foreshadowed her divorce filing.

Baez started all 17 playoff games at second base last year and then starred for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, but Maddon didn’t feel comfortable anointing him as the everyday second baseman. Baez has signed endorsement deals worth $2 million in the last six months, according to USA Today, joining forces with Nike, Toyota, Apple and David sunflower seeds and getting on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s body issue. 

Almora, Contreras and Ian Happ haven’t gone through a full season in the majors yet. Backup catcher Victor Caratini made his big-league debut after the Montero fiasco. 

“Splintering is not it at all,” Maddon said. “For me, it’s a patient, consistent approach with me doing my job as the manager and the coaches doing what they’re supposed to do in regards to bringing the message out there on a daily basis.

“It’s a different path. We’re fortunate we are in this division right now, based on the record and we’re still very solvent. (But) it’s an entirely different group — entirely different. I mean, to try to connect the dots between last year and this year, to me, is impossible.”  

Except it’s impossible to ignore after making history. A player agent once described meeting his client on the road last year and noticing the flocks of Cubs fans gathering and growing bigger and bigger as they walked through a mall near the team hotel. This is life after “Embrace The Target.”  

“That’s where you want to be,” said catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello, who won four World Series rings with the New York Yankees. “You want to be that team. It’s this rock-star aura around this club now with all the young guys. Good players, good-looking guys – men, women, everyone wants to be around the team. It was the same way in New York.”

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Schwarber — who now has the lowest batting average (.178) among all qualified big-league hitters — became part of a Gatorade ad campaign, a face of the New Era hat company and a regular on WMVP-AM 1000. That’s the same station where Anthony Rizzo used his radio gig to either stick up for a teammate or do some of management’s dirty work, burying Montero before the DFA news leaked.

The Twitter account for Rizzo’s charitable foundation — which does admirable work for cancer patients and recently donated $3.5 million to Lurie Children’s Hospital — retweeted Rizzo’s ESPN 1000 comments: “When you point fingers you’re a selfish player. We have another catcher that throws everyone out.” The message above that since-deleted tweet: “Win together, lose together.”

“I think we have a great clubhouse,” Rizzo said. “Guys get along really well. We’re all joking around. We’re all having a good time. We’re just not 25 games over .500. We got to keep playing (and) come together and continue to fight.”

While Bryzzo Souvenir Co. didn’t get the ideal All-Star Game placement, Bryant and Rizzo still combined for 38 homers, 94 RBI and an OPS range between .894 and .928 in the first half. Yet the Cubs are still a stunningly mediocre team with 399 runs scored and 399 runs allowed and 61 errors through 88 games.

The Cubs keep talking about searching for their identity, because that beats the alternative of admitting they’ve already found it.

“It’s a hard thing to define,” Epstein said. “It’s like culture. You can go on and on trying to define it, but it’s like what the Supreme Court said about pornography: You know it when you see it.

“I think our identity last year was all our guys got to the point where they felt like they were part of something bigger than themselves. They felt completely connected with one another. They felt like they were on a mission to win the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

“I think part of their identity was they were keenly aware of how talented they were — and what a special opportunity it was — and how as long as they had each other’s backs, things would work out really well for this group. That meant maybe playing multiple positions or taking less playing time or backing up a teammate rather than playing a leading role.

“Nothing was going to get in the way of the group working together to make history and take advantage of the special opportunities that they had. Every year, the landscape is different. The environment is different. The challenge is different. The circumstances are different. And the group is different.

“Every year, a new identity has to emerge. And I think it just so happens that we’re still in the process of that happening. Again, it’s kind of been a stop-and-start first half of the season for us. We haven’t gotten on any kind of roll.”

Combined, the Cubs are 2-6 against the American League East and 6-11 vs. the Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies, a reality check that means the next 74 games could become more and more about player development, 2018 auditions and planning for the future, even while trying to make up that 5.5-game deficit against the Milwaukee Brewers.

“Guys have been around enough, for the most part, to understand that tomorrow if something happens and I don’t walk in this clubhouse, the game will still be played,” Jon Lester said, the $155 million ace looking back on the churn rate. “Regardless of what moves that Theo and the front office and ownership and management feel we need to make, the game will still be played.

“That’s kind of how you have to look at it. There’s a lot of moving parts. It’s not too often that you have a team that doesn’t make a move through the entire course of a season. Some of them as a player you don’t like, and some of them as a player you agree with or whatever, but that’s not our job. Our job is to go out and play with who’s in this clubhouse and make the best of it. That’s all we can control.”

That starts again Friday night at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, where the Cubs will either begin to finally click or continue this slow-motion collapse. As Lackey said: “Winning makes everything better.”

Lack of 2016 Cubs playing in All-Star Game has Joe Maddon feeling 'awkward'

Lack of 2016 Cubs playing in All-Star Game has Joe Maddon feeling 'awkward'

MIAMI -- You could almost hear Celine Dion crooning “All By Myself” when Joe Maddon discussed the lack of Cubs in the All-Star Game.

The Cubs manager said during Monday’s All-Star Game press conference that he’s in a precarious position. Each league’s All-Star squad is led by the previous year’s pennant-winning manager.

So here’s Maddon at the Midsummer Classic without any of the players that actually helped him and the rest of the Cubs coaching staff get here. Reliever Wade Davis is also in Miami to represent the club in Tuesday’s exhibition, but he was a member of the Kansas City Royals when Maddon and the Cubs ended the franchise’s 108-year World Series title drought. So while Maddon is happy to be here, he noted it’s a little different not to have any of the core Cubs players participating.

“That was the awkward moment (Sunday), talking about it,” Maddon said. “To be presented a jersey on our field in front of all our fans and have none of our players out there was different. It was difficult. I actually talked to (Ben Zobrist) about it before this ever occurred just to let him know how much I respect and appreciate what they had done for us, and how awkward it was for me personally to accept this jersey while they’re all sitting in the dugout.”

The 2016 Cubs were heavily represented in last summer’s All-Star Game in San Diego as the entire infield -- Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant -- was in the starting lineup. It was only the second time in All-Star history where a team’s entire infield started together. In all, the Cubs had five players voted (Dexter Fowler) into the 2016 contest by fans and seven overall (Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester).

[MORE FROM MIAMI: Eloy Jimenez, AKA Robert Redford, on hitting lights twice] 

None of the underachieving 2017 Cubs was voted into the contest by fans and Bryant lost in the National League Final Vote contest when Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner received a contest record 20.8 million votes. The Cubs entered the All-Star break with a 43-45 record and sit 5 1/2 games back in the NL Central.

“It’s a little bit different,” Maddon said. “I guess this really never happened before. I’m really looking forward to our second half. I have a strong belief in our guys. I really do. I’m not just saying that. It’s not lip service. Believe me, yesterday was kind of different, and uncomfortable only because of that.

“We get to represent here because of the efforts of our players, players what they did last year. But I wanted it to be passed along the players how I felt.”