Cubs' supporting cast picking up slumping stars

MIAMI -- So how did the Chicago Cubs right their ship with a series sweep of the Miami Marlins this week despite stars Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo going 2-for-23 over the course of three games?

It starts with pitching -- 22 scoreless innings to finish the series helps -- but that doesn't explain 17 runs scored without one being driven in by either of the team's two biggest sluggers. For that, you would have to dig deep -- as in way down the lineup. The Cubs boast the highest batting average in baseball (.310) from their 5-8 hitters.

"Daniel [Descalso] has been awesome," manager Joe Maddon said after their latest win on Wednesday. "[Willson] Contreras also has been really, really good. Jason Heyward has been very, very good. [David] Bote has stepped in there and done a nice job. We've gotten some good at-bats out of [Mark] Zagunis."

Those aren't household names, but Descalso is one of those guys who leaves his mark no matter what team he's on. Nearly forgotten during the winter of no spending by the Cubs, Descalso was the lone addition to the position player base. He was slowed in the spring by a sore shoulder -- further putting him in the shadows in the public's eyes -- but once the calendar turned to April, Descalso woke up. He's hitting .571 with two outs and runners in scoring position, having driven in nine runs overall in limited playing time. That has helped make up for the slow starts of Bryant and Rizzo.

"I felt good once the regular season started, the games mattered and things were for real again," Descalso said.

Descalso is another version of Ben Zobrist, a professional off the field and in the batter's box. But those guys are limited in ability. If the Cubs are going to shoot past .500 -- they're one game under after the sweep -- the real thunder has to come from Bryant, Rizzo and Javy Baez. Baez is more than doing his part, picking up where he left off after his near-MVP season of 2018. But Nos. 2 and 3 in the Cubs' batting order have started slowly.

"We need to get Bryzzo going," Maddon said. "Once we get KB and Rizz working in the right direction ... and of course there's Javy."

Baez hit two home runs among his eight hits in the series against the Marlins. He's nearly the lone run producer right now among the first four hitters in the lineup, who have totaled 10 home runs this season. Meanwhile, batters hitting fifth through eighth in the order have 16 homers. Bryant, in particular, has been in the crosshairs of some fans. He's slashing just .219/.324/.344.

"You'd love to have balls fall in, but I'm happy with my swings," Bryant said before Wednesday's game. "There's just not hits. It's frustrating. That's what this game is all about. Hits."

Bryant is Pete Rose compared to Anthony Rizzo, who is batting just .159. Rizzo traditionally is a slow starter, but he's not coming off an injury like his good friend Bryant. For whatever reason, Bryant has been under the microscope more. Maddon has taken notice.

"All I want from him is I want him to stop attempting to please everybody, including the game, and please himself," the manager said. "That's my push with him right now. ... Go enjoy yourself and go do things for yourself right now. He's a wonderful team player, but I just want him to do this for himself."

Bryant thinks he's close to breaking out, which would ultimately take pressure off the bottom of the lineup and potentially propel the team. Bryant's superstar track was derailed by injury last season but the whole year still lingers -- at least for now.

"I realize it might be slow getting back to wherever I want to be, game-wise," he stated. "There are no concerns about the shoulder or any of that. It's just a matter of getting in there every day, getting at-bats every day and continuing to battle it out with the guy on the mound."

As Bryant and Rizzo continue to work through their struggles, the team is inching toward .500, thanks in part to those complimentary parts. That's step one in the Cubs putting their bad start in the rearview mirror.

"We're almost there, but you have to get there," Maddon said of his 8-9 team. "It's a weird game that we play and you don't take anything for granted."

Sweeping the rebuilding Marlins probably doesn't sound like a big deal -- many teams will do the same thing this year -- but the Cubs lost the NL Central by a single game last season. They'd love not to leave any stone unturned -- or win on the table. And after their bad start, any sweep, no matter the opponent, was going to be a confidence-building moment.

Descalso was asked if the team's 1-6 start was ancient history. His answer was both humorous and perhaps telling.

"It's definitely in the past," he said. "It happened a couple weeks ago."