Cubs Settle Into Comfort of Wrigley at Home

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By Richard Kagan

Last year everything came up roses for the Chicago Cubs.

They went on a hot streak in the summer and ran away from the pack and practically lapped the St. Louis Cardinals in winning the NL Central. Three game losing streaks?  Rare.  And, when that happened in the playoffs when they couldn’t get a hit off the LA Dodgers, they got off the heap and started hitting. Against Cleveland, The Cubs were in a big hole, but came back and won three straight to win the World Series.

This team is different. It looked like the Cubs came out of the season’s long hangover in early July to win 14 of 17 games. Their season long flirtation with getting to .500 had come to an end.  Now, after last night’s 15-5 win over the Reds, in which Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Baez homered, the Cubs (62-55) are seven games over .500. They play the Reds three more times and then welcome Toronto to Wrigley. In beating the Diamondbacks on Sunday, the team finally won a series, and then they flew to Chicago for a night game on Monday and came out smokin’, knocking out 17 hits.

I heard a sportswriter in Chicago talk about getting separation, to break away from the middling pack in the Division. It’s time to win two games in a row. Then try for three. That is how you do it. Take it one game at a time, one at-bat at a time. Or, one pitch at a time. Yesterday, starter Jose Quintana didn’t pitch that well. But he did pick up the win against a rookie Cincy pitcher and Drew Storen, who may be on his last legs as a reliever.

Manager Joe Maddon had instituted American Legion Week as another wrinkle at Wrigley. Designed to take pressure off the players in the dog-days of August, he wants the attitude of the club to be “let’s get to the park, a few hours before the game, put on the uniform, and play some ball.” That’s what they do in American Legion ball. He wants the players to feel more casual, to play “baseball as it was meant to be played.” Maybe some players experienced that. Now, some guys are walking conglomerates. It may work and it may not, as long as the Cubs can fashion a win.  I am sure the Cubs are glad to be home, in the comfort of the friendly confines in front of their partisan fans.

Now, they just have to try for two.

Cubs Open vs Reds at Wrigley Field

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by Richard Kagan

The Chicago Cubs return to Wrigley Field for a four game series against the Cincinnati Reds.  The Cubs (61-55) are clinging to a one game lead over their rival, the St. Louis Cardinals.

It was an eventful road trip.  Willson Contreras was injured running to first base in a game against the San Francisco Giants in Frisco, and he pulled a hamstring muscle. He had to be helped off the field he was in so much discomfort.  Contreras has been the backbone of the Cubs offense, especially in July, and he has hit 21 HR’s, and has driven in 70RBI’s.  He is having a breakout season and then this injury happened and it appears he will miss from 4-6 weeks while he recovers.  That means he won’t be back in the lineup until September.  The Cubs certainly hope those games will be meaningful.

Alex Avila and Victor Caratini will handle catching duties until Contreras is fit to play.  The Cubs acquired Avila for this very reason. As a veteran backup in case Contreras got hurt.  Avila has played with some good teams on Detroit and last year caught Jose Quintana, when heplayed for the White Sox.

The Cubs finished up a 3-3 road trip with an important win last night vs. the Arizona Diamondbacks.  The Cubs used the long-ball and a good game from Jake Arrieta to get the W. Javy Baez hit a long blast that plated three runs and broke up a tense 2-1 game. Ian Happ hit a homer right after Baez.  Now the Cubs had a 6-1 lead.  Kris Bryant hit his 21st home run of the season in the top of the ninth and Wade Davis closed out the game.  KB had three hits in the game. Kyle Schwarber had three of the Cubs 12 strikeouts.

Arrieta (12-8) pitched six good innings giving up just one run.  His ERA now dipping to 3.73.  The Cubs had a stretch where it lost 7 of 10 games after a hot July.  The Cubs have been holding onto first place in the weak Central Division.  St. Louis, which had won 8 games in a row, is just one game off the pace. The Brewers are two games behind the Cubs.

The Cubs play teams with a below .500 record for a while. It doesn’t matter what the other team’s record is, it matters if the Cubs can play a consistent well played game. I believe they are capable of that. But for how long?

Now, the Cubs are back at Wrigley and the familiar organ music. And, the flashing W cards after a win. Let’s hope we see more of those.

 

 

 

 

Cubs Beat Diamonbacks 7-2, Hold Onto 1st

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By Richard Kagan

Chicago Cubs fans can breathe a sigh of relief — for a day.  The Cubs beat Arizona on the road 7-2, and won a series in what seemed like a long time. The Cubs had lost seven out of the last ten games, and almost gave back the great start it had, coming out of the All-Star break.

Chicago (61-55) leads the suddenly hot St. Louis Cardinals by a game.  Milwaukee trails by two games.  It’s looking like a sprint to the finish.

Jake Arrieta won his 12th game by pitching a quality start. He only gave up one run on a handful of hits. He looked like the old Jake in some innings. His stuff is better than good. When he is on, he is a darn good pitcher.  He ERA dropped to 3.73 and that has been the pattern in his recent starts. At this moment, he is the ace of the pitching staff.

Chicago was leading 2-1 when Javy Baez hit a big three-run homer in the 8th inning to give the Cubs a 5-1 lead. Ian Happ then connected for a long drive for another home run. Kris Bryant added a home run in the 9th inning to give the Cubs a 7-1 lead to take some drama from what’s been a draining road trip.  It’s a trip that saw catcher Willson Contreras go out with a strained hamstring while running to first base vs. San Francisco.  He had to be helped off the field. It looks like he may miss 4-6 weeks of play. He had become the backbone of the offense, and was having a great season. He will return in September in what may be a pennant race.

Jake Arrieta earlier spoke to the media and said he thought the team was ready to separate itself from other teams and that it had what it took to win the Division. That was when the team was on fire back in July.  August is another story.  Instead of moving on —and widening the gap, the Cubs have played lackluster baseball, while maintaining the slimmest of leads. This team is on a roller-coaster, and where it stops, no one knows for sure.

Jose Quintana has to right himself.  He had looked rather ordinary in his recent starts.  The Cubs got him in hopes to stabilizing the starting rotation.  He hasn’t done that yet. There are a lot of questions marks to this team, who last year, ran away with the Division.  Can Alex Avila and Victor Caratini hold down the catcher’s spot until Contreras returns?  How does Quintana start to win again?  When is Rizzo going to start hitting? Can Javier Baez restrain himself from swinging at that low, outside pitch?

The answers to these questions will come as the games continue.  The Cubs have some very good players. There’s still more baseball to be played.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contreras’ Bat Leads Cubs Lately

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By Richard Kagan

The All-Star Game has come and gone.  Since then, in the past 20 games, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras has played like an All-Star.  He wasn’t named to the squad, but the if the game were held this week, he would be on the team.

Simply put, Contreras has been the main cog in the Cubs offense in recent weeks.  Sometimes it has sputtered, sometimes it has been great, looking back at the game when the Cubs scored 16 runs and had 17 hits.  Since the All-Star break, Contreras has hit .346 with 10 HR’s, and 29 RBI’s. He’s hit five home runs in the last four games of the Cubs latest home stand, where the team was 2-4 against playoff caliber competition.  In the Cubs loss to Washington this past Sunday, Contreras hit two home runs to make it 21 for the season.

The other day, Cubs manager Joe Maddon started newcomer Alex Avila as catcher. Avila came over from Detroit.  Contreras got the nod to start in left field. Maddon said, he wanted Contreras in the game because his bat was generating hits.

The Cubs lost to the Nationals 9-4 on Sunday due to a rare meltdown by the bull pen.  The Cubs had a 4-1 lead and coughed it up when Washington scored 5 times in the 8th inning to put the game on ice.

The Cubs have been leading the Division by 2.5 games but now the lead has shrunk to a half-game.  Now, the team flies out to San Francisco, the scene of last years’ dramatic win in the first round of the playoffs.  The Giants are last in their Division and look like a different team now. Wins are hard to come by. Historically, the Cubs have not fared that well in the city by the Bay. But it needs to fare well in this series.

Jake Arrieta starts for Cubs and leads the team with ten wins. Lately, he has showed signs of his amazing run back in 2015 when he won the NL Cy Young  Award.  Arrieta is a free-agent at the end of the season and he is pitching like he has something to prove.  That he didn’t just have a season to remember for Chicago a few years ago. He can still bring it.

Jake, the Cubs need you to come through.

Cubs Beat Brewers, 4-2; Trade Deadline Looms

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by Richard Kagan

Not long ago, the Cubs were a .500 team, scuffling to get untracked.

Then the All-Star break came, and news of a big trade with the White Sox who got some great prospects in return for starting pitcher Jose Quintana.  Since that trade, the Cubs have gone 13-3 and catapulted out of mediocrity to lead the NL Central Division by 2.5 games over the Milwaukee Brewers.  The Cubs are now eight games over .500 and things are looking decidedly brighter for the Northsiders.

It’s been the starting pitching that has lead the Cubs. Everyone has been pitching great. It’s as if Quintana gave the staff a jolt, a wake-up call. And, people had heard the call.

Now, the July 31st trade deadline approaches and Theo Epstein and company are rumored to be working on a deal that sends some Cubs prospects, including Jeimer Candeleria to Detroit for lefty Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila. It looks like this trade may happen. If it does, it provides manager Joe Maddon with a reserve catcher to back up Willson Contreras, who has played so well in the month of July.  If he had played this way before the All-Star game, he might have been named.

The mood in the clubhouse is upbeat. Anthony Rizzo said the over all feeling is one of confidence and the players have confidence in the front office to make moves that will help the club.

In yesterday’s game in Milwaukee, Victor Caratini, the rookie catcher, launched his first home run of the season to break a 2-2 tie in the seventh inning and gave the Cubs a 3-2 lead.  Kris Bryant hit a long drive to left that hit the foul pole and was declared a HR, it was Bryant’s 20th of the season, giving the Cubbies a 4-2 lead in this taut series.  John Lackey went 6 innings, allowing 2 runs, seven strikouts, and five hits. He gave up another home run to Domingo Santana, a two run shot that tied the game in the 6th.

But Caratini saved his bacon. Usually a rookie hits a home run and it is almost an after-thought. It usually does not become the difference maker in such an important game for teams vying for the top spot in the Division. But the home run stood and Bryant hit another one to make Caratini’s really count.

The Cubs are playing well. The need to hit with more alacrity.  Pound the ball. They have players that can connect.  Their averages are slowly beginning to climb. Javy Baez does strike out a lot. But he hits for power too. Kyle Schwarber had a great game the other day, hitting two home runs and a triple. Willson Contreras practically carried the team in July with his torrid hitting.  Ben Zobrist has been hitting the ball more.

They need to keep it up. August is coming and that’s when baseball gets a bit more serious –and fun to watch.

 

 

 

Reflections on Attending Cubs Game at Wrigley Field

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By Richard Kagan

Last weekend, I went to see the Cubs play the Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs won the game 5-3. Jose Quintana made his first start at the “Friendly Confines” and pitched well enough to get the win. He struck out seven hitters but he gave up a few home runs and was hit hard. But he had enough to get through the 6th inning and the Cubs came through in the bottom of the 6th on a Willson Contreras two run home run to take the lead, 5-3.

There were so many people at the game, over 41,000 fans. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Cubs game with that many people.  As I got closer to the ball park, the crush of people became greater and it was just about navigating to get to a gate to get in. My Step-Dad and I passed the statue of Ron Santo, one of my favorite players.

I noticed a great many fans wearing Cubs jersey’s with names like Rizzo, Dawson, Bryant, and Zobrist. People were wearing the Cubs colors with pride. After all, the Cubs won the World Series last season.  There was a buzz to the crowd, as if it was expecting something exciting to happen. The Cubs were hot –winning a bunch of games to edge just behind the Brewers prior to the game.  By winning the game, the Cubs took a slight lead in percentage points over Milwaukee leading up to their upcoming series.

The ball park looked different. There were huge scoreboards in left and right fields. The scoreboard in left had all the stats you would want about the pitcher or batter. It was a modern-day scoreboard in old Wrigley. Before the game, they played a brief sound bite from the late Pat Pieper, the long-time public address announcer. I remembered him standing on the field announcing the lineups as a boy.  In the seventh inning, the Cubs played a video of Harry Caray, singing ‘Take Me Out to The Ballgame.”  Everyone in the park sang along.  It was loud and joyful.

When the game was over, the Cubs played ‘Go Cubs Go!”, the unofficial anthem of the team, and the whole park knew every word and sang with gusto.  I sang along and felt part of Cubs nation in that moment.  I’ve seen many games were there was little singing, and a lot of groaning.  But this was a celebration.  And, I don’t think it gets tired at all. Hundreds of signs with the blue W popped up almost in unison. It was a win and it certainly beats a loss by a mile.

After the game, fans filed out into the night, some talking about a particular play or moment.  Others with just a smile on their face.   A few walked by and asked me, “How did I like the game?” Or, remarked “The Cubs are in first place!”

Yes they were. I hope they stay there.

 

 

 

Cubs Beats Cards 5-3, pass Brewers to 1st Place

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By Richard Kagan

The Chicago Cubs rode Willson Contreras’ two run home run to break a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the 6th inning and Cubs beat St. Louis 5-3 before 41,000 + fans and a national TV audience last night.

Catcher Contreras’ drive off Michael Wacha of the Cards, just cleared the left-field wall. But it was enough to give the Cubs a 2 run lead which the Bull pen held up in some tense late innings.  Wade Davis got his 20th save in 20 save chances this year. Chicago has now won eight of nine games after the All-Star break and they lead the slumping Brewers by mere percentage points in the NL Central.

Jose Quintana made his Cubs home debut and admitted after the game that he was feeling a lot of emotions. He’s happy to be with a contending team. He’s give the Cubs a needed shot in the arm. Quintana pitched six innings, struck out seven hitters, and gave up 2 home runs.  He reached 100 pitches in the 6th inning and was less impressive than his debut versus the Orioles last week. But he made pitches when he had to, and pitched well, holding the opposing team to just three runs. The Cubs just had 5 hits in this game, but two were home runs, one by  OF Kyle Schwarber that looked like a moon-shot as it came off his bat. He hit one deep to right field that disappeared as fast as it came off his bat. It was his 15th blast of the season. He is not hitting for average –yet. Just .181 for the year. He is struggling at the plate. His swing is powerful. And when ball connects with bat, the ball can go far. One hopes that he starts to use the entire field, and be content just getting on base. He doesn’t have to swing for the fences. Let Kris Bryant do that. Last night, he hit a drive to deep center that if hit 15 feet to the left, would have left the park.

Willson Contreras hit the big blow to give the Cubs a 5-3 lead, which the BP held up well.   His hit cleared the left-field wall and fell into the waiting glove of a young boy.  Contreras has been hitting ball very well in the last six of seven games. He has 15th home runs for the season and passed his career-high a few games ago.

Contreras made an excellent defensive play too,  as he fielded a bunt and threw to second base to get the out. Javy Baez made a great play in applying the tag to the runner. He then threw to first base to complete the double-play. It’s plays like this that good teams make and the Cubs are making these plays more frequently.

Chicago had made up 5.5 games in less in two weeks. And, now there is a pennant race in the NL Central.