MILWAUKEE — The atmosphere at Miller Park for Chicago’s first-place showdown with the Brewers prompted Cubs manager Joe Maddon to coin a new month: “JuAugust” … because it doesn’t quite feel like a July series.
Both teams are bringing some pennant-race intensity. Perhaps “JOctober” would be more fitting, as back-to-back one-run games have felt very much like playoff contests.
The Brewers took Game 1 on Friday, but Jason Heyward‘s 11th-inning blast Saturday secured the top spot in the National League Central for the Cubs for at least a few more days, as they’re 1½ games up on Milwaukee with the rubber game of the series coming Sunday.
The Cubs won ugly Saturday, striking out 17 times for the second time this week, yet they managed to win both those games. It’s the second time in 100 seasons that they have come out on top twice in one season while striking out so much.
“I am disappointed in that,” Maddon said after Saturday’s 2-1 victory. “The lack of contact. The lack of adjustments. We have to get better at that, or we’re not going anywhere offensively.
“There are a couple guys that walk up there, and I know that their thought process is good in advance. Others are just up there swinging to get hits. We have to go up there trying not to make an out, too.”
That last sentiment seemed directed at a couple players in particular. Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez were the biggest culprits in swinging at pitches that were nowhere near the strike zone Saturday, as they combined for six of Chicago’s 17 strikeouts. It was only a few days ago that Baez struck out five times in a game, as his fortunes have gone south after a hot start to the second half (though he did homer Friday).
“We were making adjustments coming out of the [All-Star] break,” Maddon said. “Now we’re not. I think a lot of times young hitters are confused. It’s not just about getting hits. A lot of times it’s about not making an out — keeping the conga line moving.”
According to ESPN Stats Information, the Cubs chased at a 33 percent rate Saturday, up from their season average of 28 percent. Baez was the biggest offender, as he swung at no fewer than five pitches outside the strike zone, but he wasn’t the only one. Even the 11th-inning hero whiffed twice before hitting his go-ahead homer. But that’s actually one thing Maddon is impressed with, and it’s a reason he thinks the Cubs were able to win two games in five days in which they struck out a total of 34 times.
“I watch these guys in the dugout,” he said. “If something doesn’t go right, they’re still fine. They might get upset for a minute, but then they get right back in it.”
That particularly includes Heyward, who is known as the consummate pro. His leaping catch at the wall saved a home run Friday, then his bat hit one for the Cubs on Saturday. It’s another example that a game isn’t over, for any player, even if he experiences some trying moments.
“You have to keep playing defense,” Maddon said. “You have to keep playing.”
The Cubs did just that: They kept playing while striking out over and over. Thanks to their bullpen and some perseverance, they came out on top in an intense 2-1 affair after they dropped one the night before by the same score. It didn’t hurt that a pro-Cubs crowd made the trip from Chicago, taking over Miller Park and bringing the intensity to Maddon’s new month.
“It’s JuAugust,” Maddon said. “It’s already here. There’s no getting around it. I love it. I think our players do. The fans were absolutely energized tonight.”
Even at the swing-and-misses.