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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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Sources — Yanks’ German won’t pitch again in ’19

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Right-hander Domingo German will not pitch for New York Yankees again in 2019 following his placement on administrative leave under the joint MLB-MLBPA domestic violence policy, sources told ESPN’s Buster Olney on Friday.

German had been placed on administrative leave Thursday following an incident that Major League Baseball learned about Tuesday morning, sources previously told ESPN’s Jeff Passan. Despite the lack of a police report detailing the incident, MLB and the players’ union agreed the allegations against German warranted placing him on leave amid an investigation, sources said.

Under the joint domestic violence policy, a player can be put on administrative leave for up to seven days, barring a mutually agreed-upon extension between the league and union.

While the case is not settled administratively, sources told Olney that German will miss both the rest of the regular season and the postseason, as the Yankees clinched the American League East with a victory over the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday night.

German, who is 18-4 with a 4.03 ERA and 153 strikeouts, had been by far the Yankees’ most reliable starter and had helped mitigate the struggles of veterans in the rotation.

Manager Aaron Boone recently said he expected German to be a big part of the team’s postseason plans, but Boone said Thursday that the team needs to prepare for the postseason like German won’t be available.

“This is something that, baseball aside, this is a bigger issue, obviously,” Boone said. “When you hear the words domestic violence, it’s one of those things that stops you in your tracks. I give Major League Baseball and the players’ association credit for doing their part in, several years ago, trying to be ahead of this and putting disciplinary action in place, hopefully being part of the solution to what is a problem in our society.”

Information from ESPN’s Jeff Passan and Marly Rivera and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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Blockbuster matchups will rock the playoff races

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There are only 10 days left in MLB’s regular season, but five playoff spots are still up for grabs. As the hunt for October comes down to a few huge late-season series, we’re about to find out who’s in and who’s out.

Here’s what we’ll be watching this weekend:

There’s still a lot to be decided in the NL playoff chase, with Cardinals-Cubs the big matchup, and Pirates-Brewers and Nats-Marlins also impactful series. Among the four teams fighting for three spots (NL Central, two wild cards), what single factor will have the biggest role in determining who’s in and who’s out?

Eddie Matz: Washington’s schedule. The Cards, Cubs and Brewers all play six games during the final week of the season. Meanwhile, thanks to having no off day and playing a makeup doubleheader, the Nationals are slated for eight games over the final seven days. That’d be tough sledding for any club, but especially so for the Nats, whose bullpen has about as much depth as a kiddie pool. It doesn’t help that Washington’s competition next week (the Phillies and Indians) is the toughest among this quartet of contenders. If the Nats manage to hang on and make it to the wild-card game, they certainly will have earned it. (But I don’t think they’re going to earn it.)

Sam Miller: The Brewers’ bullpen. The other three teams in the race all have relatively traditional workhorse rotations — each has four starters who will qualify for the ERA title, and the Brewers have none. Rather, like last year, their September success has come with the congealment of the bullpen, pieces picked up throughout the year, or shuffled into new roles, or simply peaking at the right time. This month has been the Milwaukee bullpen’s finest, with season-best walk and strikeout rates and a season-best ERA. That’s crucial: The Brewers’ rotation is built to go four or five innings per start — only two starters have gone deeper than that this month, only two have thrown as many as 90 pitches, and none has gone seven or thrown 100. Milwaukee showed us last year what a hot bullpen can do in short, urgent bursts, and they’re trying to do it again, with an almost all-new cast (plus Josh Hader).

David Schoenfield: I’m going with the Cubs’ offense — the one currently playing without Javier Baez and that just got Anthony Rizzo back after that sprained ankle — improbably he was on a scooter Wednesday and started Thursday. I mean, how far can Nico Hoerner carry this team on his back? The Cardinals and Nationals also have a little more margin for error, and the Brewers have the easiest schedule, so the Cubs have their backs up against the wall. They will also end the season with six games on the road — where they are a miserable 31-44 this season. They will also be reminded of how the offense tired down the stretch last year. Good luck, boys.

In the AL, the series to watch are Red Sox-Rays, Rangers-A’s and the interleague Phillies-Indians matchup (Sunday Night Baseball, 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), with Tampa Bay, Oakland and Cleveland in the running for the two wild-card spots. Same question as above: What is the most important factor in the AL playoff race?

Matz: Healed hurlers. The A’s have welcomed back stud left-hander Sean Manaea and top prospect Jesus Luzardo. Reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell and early season breakout star Tyler Glasnow have returned to the Rays. Meanwhile, the Indians haven’t been quite as fortunate, as ace Corey Kluber remains sidelined and fellow right-hander Carlos Carrasco has been limited to six outs or fewer since coming back earlier this month. For a Cleveland team currently on the outside looking in, that’s suboptimal.

Miller: Caveat: Sometimes really good teams rest their players as they gear up for their playoff assignment, and sometimes really bad teams are, by September, hot or filled with great call-ups. But the schedule gap between the A’s and the Rays is about as wide as Oakland could hope for: The Rangers, Mariners and Angels have a combined winning percentage of .441, and half of their good players are out for the year. Meanwhile, the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays are a combined .535. (Cleveland’s opponents: .483.) Again, that’s not destiny. But baseball games are zero-sum affairs, and every ounce of quality your opponents have is as significant as whatever ounces you, yourself have. It makes it really unlikely the A’s could lose this by any method other than total collapse.

Schoenfield: The A’s lead the wild-card race and have that easy schedule, so I think they’re in. So I’m looking at the Rays and Indians and point to the Tampa Bay rotation … bullpen. As Eddie said, Snell and Glasnow just returned, but Snell went only two innings and Glasnow has gone two and three. That means Kevin Cash has to get a lot of work from his relievers in games those two start. It’s remarkable, really: Charlie Morton has been the only constant in the rotation all season. In the bullpen, keep an eye on Nick Anderson. Since he came over from the Marlins, he has pitched 18 innings, given up nine hits, struck out 35 and issued zero unintentional walks.

The Year of the Home Run continues unabated, with the Twins and Yankees on the verge of reaching 300 each. In five words (no more, no less), sum up your feelings on this season’s long-ball binge.

Matz: Triples are way more exciting.

Miller: Eras, not players, break records.

Schoenfield: It was fun at first.


PICK ‘EM TIME

Setting aside Thursday’s opener to the four-game Cardinals-Cubs series, which team will take two of three (or three of three) this weekend at Wrigley?

Matz: The Russell-less, Baez-less and Rizzo-less Cubs have been able to get by recently against mediocre competition. The Cards are far from mediocre these days. Therefore, I’ll take them.

Miller: Somebody should mention that the Cubs have been invincible at home this year, though I don’t really believe that’s likely to persist. Still, even regular, non-invincible home-field advantage is significant, and the Cubs are now past Jack Flaherty in this series and get to skip the resurgent Adam Wainwright. So I’ll take them against the three worst FIPs in the Cardinals’ rotation, without much conviction.

Schoenfield: The Cubs dig down and take two of three weekend games. Because Nico Hoerner. And because we want a four-way tie between the NL Central teams and the Nationals.

Among the players on the seven teams fighting for a playoff spot (Rays, A’s, Indians, Nationals, Cardinals, Cubs and Brewers), who will have the most total bases this weekend?

Matz: Drawing the Pirates for the final stretch of a pennant chase/MVP race is like getting the million-dollar question on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” when you have all your lifelines left. And your uncle is a writer on the show. And he just had dinner at your house and told you what the million-dollar question (and answer) was going to be for your upcoming episode. Sadly, Christian Yelich is not an option. So I’ll take Keston Hiura.

Miller: Baseball is weird and anything can happen, but drawing the Marlins for the final stretch of a pennant chase/MVP race is like getting a Final Jeopardy category on which you did your doctoral research. I’ll take Anthony Rendon.

Schoenfield: Funny thing, Nicholas Castellanos is playing these days like the baseball version of Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer. And speaking of the Daily Double, that’s what Castellanos hits every day. He’s only four doubles shy of becoming the first player since 1936 to reach 60 doubles.


TWO TRUE OUTCOMES

Home run hitters

Matz: Yordan Alvarez

Miller: Eugenio Suarez

Schoenfield: Jorge Soler

Strikeout pitchers

Matz: Yu Darvish

Miller: Shane Bieber

Schoenfield: Lance Lynn for the title

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Yankees clinch AL East for first time since 2012

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The resilient New York Yankees powered their way to the club’s first American League East title since 2012, routing the Los Angeles Angels 9-1 on Thursday night behind three RBIs each from old mainstay Brett Gardner and newcomer DJ LeMahieu.

A day after wasting a chance to clinch first place, the homer-happy Yankees went ahead when LeMahieu hit a three-run drive in the second inning and breezed to their 100th win.

Gardner, one of just two holdovers from New York’s most recent World Series championship team in 2009, added a solo shot in the fourth and hit a two-run double in the sixth. Cameron Maybin and Clint Frazier homered for good measure in the eighth, and Aroldis Chapman struck out Albert Pujols to end it as fans’ cellphones flashed to record the moment.

Players lined up for handshakes and hugs, more exuberantly than usual, but there was no wild celebration on the field.

“We got a lot bigger fish to fry, but this is the first step along the way,” manager Aaron Boone said. “Nothing has got in their way. Whatever has come adversity-wise, they faced it and powered right through it.”

Despite putting 30 players on the injured list this season, New York (100-54) wrapped up first place with eight games to spare and made Boone the first manager to win 100 games in each of his first two major league seasons.

The Yankees open the playoffs on Oct. 4, likely against the Minnesota Twins, which leads the AL Central, or the wild-card winner.

Masahiro Tanaka (11-8), in line to start the playoff opener, allowed Kole Calhoun‘s homer leading off the fourth. The Angels had just four hits in seven innings off Tanaka, who struck out six and walked none.

The win came hours after Domingo German, their top-winning pitcher at 18-4, was placed on administrative leave under Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy. His status for the postseason is uncertain.

New York’s 19th AL East title was its first following a run of 13 in 17 years that started in Derek Jeter’s rookie season. The Yankees, led by young stars Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Gleyber Torres, will be making their 21st postseason appearance in 25 years and 55th overall — 22 more than any other team.

And they will head to October following their 21st 100-win season, their first in back-to-back years since 2002-04.

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The Yankees battled through injuries all season long and now bring that next-man-up mentality for a run at the World Series.

New York moved into sole possession of the AL East lead for good on June 15 with the start of an eight-game winning streak, beginning a spurt of 13 victories in 14 games that ended the month. The Yankees led by 6½ games at the All-Star Game, won seven of their first nine after the break and have led by seven to 11½ games since. And they achieved their success despite so many players landing on the injured list, the most in the major leagues since at least 2004.

“Everybody’s done a great job of stepping up when they’re needed,” Gardner said.

After Wednesday’s 3-2 loss, the Yankees waited in their clubhouse for three hours until just before 1 a.m., hoping second-place Tampa Bay would lose to the Los Angeles Dodgers and ensure the division title for New York. But the Rays rallied in the ninth and defeated the Dodgers in 11 innings.

“It was probably actually a good little team building, bonding, one of those times you enjoy being together,” Boone said.

Protective plastic wrapping the six large-screen televisions in the Yankees’ clubhouse remained overnight, a sign that the bubbly and beer celebration was not far off. Moments after the final out, the spraying started.

A few minutes later, many players headed back to the field for team pictures.

LeMahieu’s homer, which followed a rare infield hit by slow-legged catcher Austin Romine with two outs, landed about three rows over the scoreboard in right-center, giving him career bests of 25 homers and 97 RBIs in his first season with the Yankees. Gardner also set career highs for homers (26) and RBIs (69), and New York extended its team record with 292 long balls.

LeMahieu was the fourth Yankee to reach the 25-homer mark this season, joining Gardner, Torres (38) and Sanchez (34). It’s the fifth season in franchise history, and second straight, that at least four players hit 25.

In his second game back from an injury layoff of nearly three months, Giancarlo Stanton was 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts as the designated hitter.

Andrew Heaney (4-6) gave up six runs and five hits in five-plus innings pitched for the Angels.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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