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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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Joc Pederson, Ross Stripling face awkward return at Dodgers camp

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Joc Pederson was back in a familiar clubhouse. He had the same dressing stall and many of the same teammates.

Not much had changed, except for him.

He felt awkward — and with good reason.

Pederson put his Dodgers uniform back on at Camelback Ranch over the weekend for the start of spring training. Just a week earlier, it looked like he would be performing these February rituals across town in Tempe.

For five days, Pederson appeared to be headed to the Los Angeles Angels along with pitcher Ross Stripling as part of several multi-player trades surrounding Mookie Betts‘ move to the Dodgers. The Angels-Dodgers trade was eventually scrapped, but only after an uncomfortable amount of uncertainty for the players involved.

“I thought for sure I was going to the Angels,” Pederson said. “It seemed pretty official. I was talking with my wife about what we were going to do living-wise, spring training-wise, talking about changing my cleats, everything.”

Stripling thought the same thing. For a few days, he made plans to move on.

“I’m thinking I’m leaving all my friends and teammates,” Stripling said. “The Dodgers are all I know.”

Both Pederson and Stripling have only played for the Dodgers in their big league careers. But just as they began to pack, they learned the trade was off.

Although nobody has spoken in depth about the reasons for the decision, the Angels and Dodgers decided not to make the deal that would have sent Pederson and Stripling to Orange County for Halos infielder Luis Rengifo and a prospect.

Pederson said he got the news from the Dodgers front office at about the same time the team’s blockbuster deal with Boston for outfielder Betts and pitcher David Price was finalized.

“It was kind of up in the air the whole time, I guess,” Pederson said. “There were different options or different avenues they could go, until that happened. It’s a little awkward coming back. But I’m excited to be here, ready to win a World Series.”

Pederson can’t be sure that the Dodgers still won’t trade him, particularly with their outfield looking stacked already. Pederson likely could have been the Angels’ everyday right fielder as he prepares to hit free agency in a year.

Manager Dave Roberts said he plans to rotate Pederson and A.J. Pollock in left field. Betts will be in center and Cody Bellinger in right.

Although Stripling likely would have been able to secure a spot in the Angels’ rotation after bouncing in and out of the Dodgers’ starting group, he still reacted to news of the scrapped trade with a celebratory GIF on his Twitter account. Stripling said he doesn’t think about whether the Dodgers still plan to trade him.

“You can look at it that way,” he said. “But I think you have to trust the relationships you’ve made with coaches and management. They say, `We respect you and we really love having you here.’ I choose to believe them. I understand the business side of it. I mean, we had a chance to get Mookie Betts and David Price. If that means getting rid of Ross Stripling, then that’s part of it. But I don’t choose to take it personally.”

For Pederson, a roller-coaster ride of a week was further complicated by salary arbitration: He lost his case with the Dodgers, leaving him to make $7.75 million instead of his requested $9.5 million for the upcoming season.

He said his agents asked to delay the hearing because it was unclear where he would play, but a postponement was not granted.

“That definitely added to everything,” Pederson said. “The part between the Dodgers and me, that’s what the case was for. They won. There’s no hard feelings about that.”

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Reds’ Trevor Bauer says reaction to playoff plan criticism ‘mostly positive’

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer says he has gotten positive response to his criticism of a plan being considered by Major League Baseball to expand the playoffs, one that includes an extended break for top seeds and some teams choosing who they will play.

Bauer directed his ire toward Commissioner Rob Manfred in a tweet last week: “Your proposal is absurd for too many reasons to type on twitter and proves you have absolutely no clue about baseball. You’re a joke.”

Deep into a lengthy with ESPN aired Sunday about the Houston Astros‘ sign-stealing scandal, Manfred was asked specifically about his reaction to Bauer’s tweet that characterized the commissioner as a joke.

“Well, I think if you look back on the questions we’ve already gone through, I’m pretty good about accepting people’s views and criticisms,” Manfred told ESPN. “I don’t have to agree with them, and I’ll say this about that particular comment. No matter how much, how completely I disagreed with what a player thought about something, there’s no way I would speak about a major league player like that.”

After working out in Arizona, the All-Star pitcher said he hadn’t heard the commissioner’s response and didn’t want to specifically respond to that. He said he had not spoken to the commissioner about the tweet or a lengthy video that Bauer also posted.

“Generally when I say stuff, people take it one way or the other,” Bauer said Sunday about the general response to his criticism. “It’s been mostly positive. I think when people speak and they come from a place of sincerity and like caring about the situation, you know, it’s easy for people to identify that, and to hear that in the genuine nature of it.”

Bauer was passionate with his thoughts in the video that was nearly seven minutes long and posted after the tweet. He said near the end of that video that he was open to speaking with the commissioner.

Comedian/actor and baseball fan Jerry Seinfeld sent a tweet Friday with Bauer’s video attached to it, and wrote, “Trevor Bauer to the rescue! Love this guy.”

Under a plan being considered by MLB, the playoffs would be expanded to nearly half the 30 teams, growing from 10 to 14 with higher-seeded wild-card teams allowed to choose opponents. The top seeds in each league would get byes, creating extended layoffs between games.

Bauer has also had strong reactions to the Astros scandal, including some comments after Houston owner Jim Crane was widely criticized for an apology that rang hollow to many.

“I’m not going to let them forget the fact that they are hypocrites, they are cheaters,” Bauer told reporters Friday.

“They mocked everything about everyone who said they were doing something under the table or illegal or whatever,” Bauer said, tossing a few expletives while adding, “Now you’re lying about your apology.”

Bauer took a bit of a different tone Sunday, saying it was “time for everyone to just move on” from that situation.

Asked how that could happen, he said, “It starts by people like me that have had opinions stopping talking about it.”

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Ex-Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish — Astros should be stripped of title

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MESA, Ariz. — Add Chicago Cubs righty Yu Darvish to the list of those that believe the Houston Astros should be stripped of their 2017 World Series title.

“It’s like the Olympics,” Darvish said from Cubs camp on Sunday. “When a player cheats, you can’t have a gold medal, right? But they still have a World Series title. It [feels] weird.”

Pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers in that World Series, Darvish previously said he doubted himself after getting rocked in Games 3 and 7. At first, he was told he was the one tipping his pitches but now wonders if the Astros stole the signs.

“Was I tipping, or were they stealing?” Darvish asked last month.

On Sunday, he said he wasn’t angry but that he felt for opposing pitchers who lost their jobs because of the Astros scandal, while telling Houston players it might be better to be quiet right now.

“So they cheat, I think they shouldn’t talk right now,” Darvish said referencing Carlos Correa‘s comments about Cody Bellinger. “Some people lost their job. They have to show more apology. I don’t feel anything from those guys.”

Darvish compiled a 21.60 ERA over his two games pitched just before going to free agency after the 2017 season. He ended up signing a six-year, $126 million contract with the Cubs who admitted they may have taken advantage of other teams being scared off after his World Series performance.

“I know they were stealing signs, but at the same time, I was not good during the World Series,” Darvish said. “I’m better for what I went through. But, yeah, everyone is wondering about [their numbers] pitching against them.”

Darvish is just the latest in a long line of players to criticize the Astros after it was revealed they were stealing signs electronically in 2017. No players were punished in the scandal, and Houston’s apologies have been widely criticized as well.

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