New vibe from old guys pushes Cubs to strong start

SHARE New vibe from old guys pushes Cubs to strong start

First-month big-leaguers Kris Bryant and Addison Russell delivered again with big hits. And 20-something lefty Travis Wood looked for another seven innings Tuesday like he might be back to 2013 All-Star form.

But it’s a lot of the most grizzled guys on this new-look Cubs team that might be even more responsible for the Cubs’ April surge that has them off to their best start in seven years and riding their first four-game winning streak of the season into the final game of April, says first-year manager Joe Maddon.

“It’s almost like it was drawn up,” Maddon said of the early season dynamic, “where you bring in different fellas, even though you know they may not play every day but still provide that kind of leadership role within the group.”

Never mind so-called leadership. It might be the most misunderstood, if not misused term in sports.

What guys like backup catcher David Ross, relief pitchers Phil Coke and Jason Motte, and starter Jon Lester bring are rings and credibility to a group of players that have suddenly spent 10 more days with a winning record this month alone than the organization experienced in the previous five years combined.

“You’d be surprised some of the comments that you hear,” Ross said, “some of these young guys, saying, `I’ve never been a part of this or that’ or `I’ve never been a part of a win like that.’

“It’s just funny. I tell them to get used to it. That’s what winning teams do. And we’re a good, winning team.”

Nobody can argue with the results so far.

When Wood beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-2 on Tuesday, the Cubs improved to five games over .500 for the first time since finishing 2009 at that level.

They’re doing it playing three rookies in the everyday lineup – including Russell, whose two-out double in the second drove in the first run of the game, and Bryant, whose two-out single in the fourth gave him 10 RBIs in 11 big-league games.

They’re doing it with guys like Wood (2-1, 3.04) and Monday’s winner, Jason Hammel (2-1, 3.55), outperforming winless $155 million free agent Lester (6.23, 1.569 WHIP).

And they’re doing it with abandon. Five more stolen bases Tuesday – including a pair of double steals in the fourth inning – put the Cubs atop the National League with 25 steals.

Anthony Rizzo, who was on the back end of the first double steal, already has matched his career high with six. “I’m confident I’m going to break my career high,” he said, smiling.

Fowler, on the front end of that double swipe, is more than halfway to last season’s total (11), matching Rizzo for the team lead at six.

The last time the Cubs led the National League in steals was 1928 when they tied the Cincinnati Reds with 83.

But don’t expect the Cubs to suddenly look like Lou Brock’s or Vince Coleman’s Cardinals. The early surge in steals has more to do with an overall aggressive base-running plan that is likely to result in stolen bases only when pitcher and catcher matchups make it work.

Against the Pirates, for instance. If there were a team named “Pirates Opponents,” that team would lead the NL with 26 steals.

Either way, “We’re playing at a really high level mentally right now,” Maddon said. “A lot of energy, trying to make things happen.”

When Wood was asked about the awareness level and energy in the dugout he said: “Ross has a lot to do with that. He keeps us on point on the bench.”

Whatever it is, it’s a new, welcome feeling for guys who have suffered through any of the last three years of tanked seasons.

“Everyone’s more upbeat,” Rizzo said. “We’re not 10 games under .500 going into May.”

And, said Hammel: “We know what we have in this clubhouse.”

Along with that, veterans like the 38-year-old Ross know how to help point it in the right direction.

“The most important thing is that it’s one thing to have expectations that you’re going to be good, but another thing to go out and prove that you’re good, to yourself, from a last-place team who hasn’t won in a long time,” Ross said. “There’s going to be some points that we’re going to stink. But, yeah, it’s important to get off to a good start. The most important thing is the guys are starting to believe in themselves.”

NOTE: One day after being recalled from AAA Iowa, Junior Lake started in left and doubled home a run during a 2-for-4 game. Veteran platoon left-fielder Chris Denorfia could be confined to a bench role for at least a few more days because of lingering hamstring soreness.

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