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Do the maddeningly inconsistent Cubs have a September hot streak in them?

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MILWAUKEE — One series, they look like world-beaters, then in the next they can’t get out of their own way. So it goes for the Chicago Cubs this season as they trudge along to a dramatic finish — one way or another. Either they’ll enter October as a dangerous underdog, featuring elite starting pitching, or they’ll bow out quietly, just as they did a season ago.

Last year, it was the Milwaukee Brewers who caught them, thanks to a 41-24 second half. This year, the St. Louis Cardinals have been scorching hot since the All-Star break, producing a 34-17 mark. Many have been waiting for the Cubs to go on such a streak of their own. The starts and stops to the season have been maddening, especially for a fan base that expects more. As the Cubs begin a four-game series with the Brewers on Thursday, the question still stands: Where is their streak?

“It’s tough to say because I look at our lineups versus their lineups, our pitching staff versus their pitching staff and I feel like we outmatch 90 percent of the teams we play,” reliever Steve Cishek said this week. “Hopefully we put it together soon though.”

That’s something you hear often around baseball. The names the Cubs employ — at least on paper — scream elite, or close to it. But when it comes time to play, they haven’t produced on any consistent level. Look no further than their home and road splits: 47-24 at home, 28-39 on the road.

“Runs happen when guys start to play better,” starter Cole Hamels said with a nod to how obvious that sounds. “It’s guys feeling healthy and getting the job done. To do that, everyone has to play their part. You don’t have to be perfect, but we have to pick each other up.”

The spurts have been even more dramatic, and upside down, of late. After going three months without a road series win, the Cubs have won their past two series away from Wrigley Field and five straight road games overall. In between, they dropped two home series, including getting swept by the Washington Nationals and getting shut out in back-to-back games by the Brewers. Then came a get-well two-game sweep of the Seattle Mariners earlier this week. Back and forth they go, essentially treading water with little movement toward catching the Cardinals — at least not yet.

“You have to minimize how long it goes the other way,” Kyle Schwarber said of losing streaks. “We’ve done an all right job of that, but we need to execute to go on that run.

“I don’t like to say it’s going to turn because you have to make it happen. We’re not sitting around waiting for it to happen, we’re trying to make it happen.”

As Schwarber indicated, at least the Cubs have avoided the really bad skids while struggling to put together a really good one. In what seems like a very telling note to the season, the Cubs’ longest winning and losing streaks both came months ago. They lost six in a row in the first week of the season, then won seven straight in late April. Since then, it’s been back and forth, which has made for nightly hot takes on social media and an overall feeling that the Cubs’ 50-49 record over their past 99 games is exactly who they are. That’s right, since a 23-7 stretch that established them as a contender, the Cubs have played .500 baseball.

“We’re good, but the competition has gotten better over the years,” Cishek said. “We all beat up on each other.”

That may be true, but to this point, the Cardinals have beaten up on teams just a little bit more than the Cubs have, holding on to a 2½-game lead with a few weeks to go in the regular season. But let’s go back to that 23-7 stretch because it’s the kind of run the Cubs could use again. A .760 winning percentage in the final 24 games of the season will likely get them where they want to go. So what went right for them then? And can it be repeated?

According to ESPN Stats & Information, over the course of those 30 games from April 8 to May 14, the Cubs pitched better than any team in baseball — and it wasn’t even close. They compiled a 2.29 ERA, nearly a full run lower than the next-best team.

On offense, they were good, but not out-of-this-world good. The Cubs ranked ninth in OPS during that stretch of games, but one offensive statistic may have some meaning: They led the majors in opposite-field hitting. You can bake that into what their manager believes will be the difference down the stretch.

“I cannot be more specific, just the organization of our strike zone,” Joe Maddon said. “That’s it. … We pitched well enough, we caught the ball well enough. … We just have to make it more difficult, to get us out in the strike zone.”

If Maddon has said it once, he’s said it a thousand times this season: If the Cubs want to be elite, their hitters have to lead the way — and not just for a few games, like they did recently in New York. There’s no better indicator of the Cubs’ wacky season than when they beat Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom on back-to-back nights only to come home and get shut out on back-to-back days by the struggling Brewers pitching staff. Maddon was asked why Cubs hitters seem to lock in for a few games, then get away from the approach he wants.

“Sometimes you forget or do something you don’t want to do,” he said. “But we’re getting to the point where we have to do what we want to do.”

Another factor that has kept the Cubs from being able to gather momentum for a hot streak — and die-hard fans won’t be surprised by this — Chicago’s hitters don’t hit the poorer starters in the league much better than they do top arms. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cubs have a .261 batting average and .814 OPS against starting pitchers who entered the game against them with a 4.00 ERA or higher. Against sub-4.00 ERA hurlers? It’s not that different: .258 batting average and .794 OPS. Maddening indeed.

That brings us back to Maddon’s notion that the key to their success is not chasing pitches out of the strike zone. The run for him starts there.

“The secret to success now and in the playoffs is going to lie in that box,” Maddon said. “Stay in your lane, bro.”

But is it really the key? Remember, during the best run the Cubs had this season, they pitched lights out. They have the ability to do so again. As for chasing pitches out of the strike zone, during that 23-7 stretch, the Cubs ranked 20th in baseball, chasing 29% of the time. That number and ranking are only slightly worse since that 30-game stretch, as they’ve chased at a rate of 30%, which ranks 24th. Neither figure is great, but perhaps the keys to the Cubs’ success are on the mound, not at the plate.

Whatever needs to happen, it has to happen fast. Time is running out for the Cubs to avoid a road wild-card game, which is a tough path to a championship. But do they have that elusive stretch of consistent winning in them? Like any playoff contender at this time of year, the Cubs aren’t giving up hope.

“Honestly, I don’t know why not,” Cishek said. “There is nothing that can stop us from having that type of run. We’re putting in the work. It just has to show up now.”

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Playing for October, Cubs preach ‘next guy jumps in’ mantra with Rizzo, Baez out

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CHICAGO — As if the Chicago Cubs weren’t fighting an uphill battle already, the heart and soul of the team, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, is out indefinitely with an ankle sprain — and it couldn’t come at a worse time of the season. With the Cubs in a dogfight to make the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year, Rizzo’s presence will be missed in all facets of the team.

“It’s going to be tough to be without Anthony for a while here,” team president Theo Epstein said on Monday afternoon. “He’s so important to everything we do, on the field and off the field.”

Shortstop Javier Baez has been out with a thumb injury, but Rizzo might be the bigger loss. He’s integral to everything Cubs, from leading off, to two-strike hitting, to the bunt defense they incorporate — that’s where he got hurt — to simply being the face that meets the media before and after games. For comparison, Baez hasn’t even commented on his injury since being diagnosed with a hairline fracture, whereas Rizzo was at his locker to discuss the bad news on Monday.

“It’s throbbing but I keep my mind in better spirits and try to be in as good a mood as I can,” he said. “Every year isn’t going to be 2016. You have ups and downs. Everyone in this locker room is fully capable of carrying a heavy load at all times.”

As much as the team is hopeful for a quick recovery, the history of moderate ankle sprains doesn’t scream “a few days,” or even a couple of weeks.

“In the meantime you just have to plan that he’s not going to be there,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You have to get the guys ready and get them indoctrinated in these positions. I really believe our guys will rally around this moment. We have different options to play over there.”

It’s true. The team has better defensive options at first base than one might think, but Rizzo was the best leadoff hitter on the team this season. Chicago was terrible from that spot in the order — until he took over recently. So where do the Cubs turn, at first base and leadoff, to help keep their playoff streak alive?

Replacing Rizzo

A little-known, switch-hitting, backup catcher has emerged as the best candidate to replace Rizzo at first base, at least on the days he’s not behind the plate. Victor Caratini is actually beginning to make a name for himself, both as Yu Darvish‘s personal catcher and as a decent hitter. It’s not just his OPS+ of 113 that’s impressive, it’s actually his batting average. Sometimes, that statistic tells a story. Hitting .282 entering play on Monday, Caratini has become a more complete hitter. And don’t forget his two home runs that won a game off New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom last month. That was a defining moment for Caratini.

“He’s not chasing as much out of the zone,” Maddon said. “And he’s using left-center a lot more consistently. He’s not hitting that rollover ground ball, left-handed. He’s staying through the ball. Left-center has become his buddy. And the right side has gotten better.”

According to ESPN Stats & Information, 33 percent of Caratini’s balls in play have been to the opposite field; that’s up 10 points from a year ago.

“Caratini has showed time and again he’s good enough to be an everyday player,” outfielder Nicholas Castellanos said. “The fact that he’s getting an opportunity, I’m happy for him.”

Ben Zobrist added: “You don’t make that up with one player. You have to make it up with a couple players. That’s how you try to fill that hole.”

On Tuesday night, in the second game of their series against the Cincinnati Reds, Caratini will be behind the plate for Darvish; the hurler has a 3.17 ERA this season with Caratini catching. It means Maddon will need another first baseman and Ian Happ is his best bet. Like Caratini, he has flashed some decent leather filling in for Rizzo at times, but his offensive game isn’t quite like that of the Cubs’ regular first baseman.

Rizzo has a strikeout rate of 13.9, while Happ is at 25.6 percent after spending four months in the minor leagues. And that percentage is actually down from last year. Meanwhile, Rizzo plays against all types of pitchers, while Happ’s starts are limited to the good matchups. The drop-off is considerable.

“Next man up,” Zobrist said. “Rizz and Javy are a big part of this but no one is bigger than the team.”

It’s the same attitude the Milwaukee Brewers must be embracing as they continue to play good baseball even after losing MVP Christian Yelich to a knee injury. The loss of stars can be overcome for a period of time in baseball. When a very productive player is out several months, that’s when it usually catches up to a team. That’s not the time frame the Cubs are looking at. They can survive — for a bit.

“That’s our expectation,” Maddon said. “Of course it is … It is the next man up kind of a theory. And I do believe there are galvanizing moments when you do lose key people in key situations. I do expect a good result.”

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Reds vs. Cubs – Game Recap – September 16, 2019

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CHICAGO — Kyle Schwarber hit a three-run homer and made a diving catch in left field, helping the Chicago Cubs beat the Cincinnati Reds 8-2 on Monday night for their fifth straight victory.

Nicholas Castellanos added a two-run double in the eighth inning as Chicago moved a season-high 14 games above .500. Castellanos is the third right-handed hitter in MLB history to record at least 55 doubles and 25 homers in a season, joining Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg (1934) and Joe Medwick (1937).

Chicago has outscored its opponents 59-18 during its win streak.

The Cubs (82-68) pulled within a half-game of Washington for the top spot in the wild-card standings and stayed two games back of NL Central-leading St. Louis, which held off the Nationals for a 4-2 win.

Steve Cishek, Alec Mills (1-0), Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and David Phelps combined for 5 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of an ineffective Cole Hamels. It was Mills’ first major league win in his 17th big league appearance.

It was Chicago’s first game since Anthony Rizzo had an MRI that showed the big first baseman had a moderate lateral right ankle sprain sustained during Sunday’s 16-6 victory over Pittsburgh.

Rizzo will wear a walking boot for five to seven days, casting doubt on his availability for the rest of the season.

“We’re not shutting any doors, but we’re realistic that this is a legitimate injury that under ideal circumstances would take some time to heal,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said.

Cincinnati (70-81) had won three of four, but it went 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position and left 11 runners on base.

Kevin Gausman (3-9) pitched two innings for the Reds in his first start since he was claimed off waivers from the Braves last month. The right-hander has been a starter for most of his career, and manager David Bell wanted to give him another look in that spot while giving the rest of his rotation an extra day of rest.

Gausman got into trouble in the first when Chicago put runners on first and second with one out. Schwarber then connected for the second straight day, driving a 2-2 pitch deep to center.

It was No. 37 for Schwarber, the highest total for a lefty batter for the Cubs since Hall of Famer Billy Williams hit 37 in 1972.

Schwarber also robbed pinch hitter Derek Dietrich with a stellar grab on his liner to left in the fourth. Phillip Ervin‘s sacrifice fly cut Chicago’s lead to 3-2, but Cishek struck out Eugenio Suarez looking to end the inning.

IN-GAME CHANGE

Reds infielder Josh VanMeter left in the fourth inning because of a family medical issue. He started at first base after Joey Votto was scratched with an illness.

HE’S HERE

The Reds promoted infielder Christian Colon from Triple-A Louisville. Colon was hit by a pitch while batting for Gausman in the third and scored on Curt Casali‘s bases-loaded walk. It was Colon’s first major league appearance since June 20, 2017, for Miami against Washington.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Reds: SS Jose Iglesias (sore back) was out of the starting lineup. Bell said Iglesias likely will start Tuesday. … SS Freddy Galvis missed his second straight game with left knee soreness. Bell said Galvis doesn’t have meniscus or ligament damage and won’t be out long-term.

Cubs: Closer Craig Kimbrel (right elbow inflammation) is scheduled to throw a simulated game Tuesday and could return this weekend. … SS Addison Russell (concussion protocol) hit off a tee before the game.

UP NEXT

RHP Sonny Gray (10-7, 2.80 ERA) faces RHP Yu Darvish (6-6, 3.97 ERA) on Tuesday night in a matchup of two of baseball’s best pitchers since the All-Star break. Gray is 4-1 with a 1.29 ERA in his last eight starts for Cincinnati. Darvish struck out 14 while pitching six scoreless innings in Chicago’s 4-1 victory at San Diego on Thursday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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White Sox shut down RHP Giolito with lat strain

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The Chicago White Sox are shutting down right-hander Lucas Giolito for the rest of the season with a mild lat strain.

The team said there are no long-term concerns.

“For me, it just sucks because I wanted to finish what I started. But at the same time, it is what it is,” Giolito told reporters. “It just was kind of a random thing that happened. That’s it.”

Giolito, who was slated to pitch against the Twins on Tuesday, ends his bounce-back 2019 season with 14 wins, 228 strikeouts, two shutouts and a 3.41 ERA.

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