SAN FRANCISCO – “You go, we go.”
Those are the last words Cubs’ leadoff man Dexter Fowler usually hears when he leaves the dugout to hit.
“I tell him before every at-bat,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
It’s not just idle smoke blowing from the optimist manager. Fowler has been an unsung key to the Cubs’ surging run production as they’ve accelerated toward their most significant September in at least seven years.
That’s why the organization held its collective breath heading into a six-game West Coast trip during which they’ll face three Cy Young winners and last year’s World Series MVP in the next five days against the Giants and Dodgers.
How the center fielder fares after getting hit on the hand by a pitch in the eighth inning Monday against Cleveland could have a big impact on how the Cubs fare.
“He’s at the top of his game right now,” Maddon said.
Fowler has shaken a first-half slump since the All-Star break, hitting .313 with a .452 on-base percentage and six home runs. His homer leading off Sunday’s win against the Braves helped finish off a four-game sweep and gave him a career-high 14 homers with more than a month to play.
Most significant is this: After drawing 35 walks in 85 first-half games, Fowler has 31 in 35 since the break.
Fowler said he hasn’t changed his approach. And that might be as impressive as anything.
According to a Fangraphs.com analysis at midseason, Fowler was among the top five most victimized hitters in the majors when it came to pitches out of the strike zone called strikes – particularly troublesome for a hitter who relies on working deep counts.
“Taking close pitches is a big part of my game,” he said. “Knowing the strike zone is definitely key.”
Trusting that became a major key to the second-half turnaround.
“I’ve been doing the same thing,” said Fowler, whose frustrating first half reached a boiling point the Friday before the break.
He was called out looking three times against two pitchers in that game against the White Sox – prompting his wife, Aliya, to send out angry tweets, including screen shots of the simulated strike zone showing the bad calls and “#Takingthebatoutofhishand.”
“You stick with the process,” said Fowler, who resisted the temptation to adjust to the calls. “I think it’s adjusted back to me.”
As Fowler has reached base more than 45 percent of the time in the second half, the Cubs have gone on an offensive tear – averaging a full run more per game (4.89) than before the break (3.85).
Not surprisingly, the Cubs are 25-11 (.694) in that stretch.
It’s not just about the strike zone, either, for Fowler. Already producing well from the right side, this season, Fowler has made some adjustments to his left-handed swing and begun driving the ball more against right-handers.
Four of his six homers in the second half are against righties.
Fowler hasn’t been hurt by the fact that rookie sensation Kyle Schwarber was inserted just behind him in the lineup coming out of the All-Star break. But All-Stars Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant alternately hit in that spot much of the first half, and Fowler said he hasn’t seen a big difference in pitchers’ approaches in the second half.
Regardless, Fowler has become the leadoff hitter the Cubs could only imagine when they heeded hitting coach John Mallee’s advice and traded Luis Valbuena to Houston to acquire the center fielder.
They’re 43-19 this season when he scores a run – and have a losing record otherwise (29-32).
So what happens next? Fowler, who makes $9.5 million this year, is a free agent at the end of the season.
“I like it here. I like my teammates. I like the front office, the fans,” said Fowler, who added he hasn’t spent much time yet thinking about next year. “I wouldn’t say that this is not a possibility for me to be here.
“I’m just going to try to get through this season, end on a strong note, hopefully a winning note, and go from there.”