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Cubs molding identity on the base paths: ‘They’re hungry’

LOS ANGELES – Cubs rookie Christopher Morel placed the bunt perfectly, pushing it past the pitcher’s mound and into a gap on the right side of the field as the Dodgers scrambled to unwind their defensive shift.

“It created a big inning for us,” Cubs manager David Ross said Friday night, “so really nice job by him.”

Of course, that inning wasn’t enough to claim the win Friday, in a 4-3 10-inning loss to the Dodgers, as right fielder Seiya Suzuki’s error on a fly ball cost the Cubs a run and closer David Robertson’s command issues helped the Dodgers force extra innings. But it was an example of how this young team is establishing its identity and how small ball and aggressive base running fit into that approach.

“For me, it’s more fun having younger guys like this,” Cubs third base coach Willie Harris told the Sun-Times, “because they buy into what you’re bringing them. They’re hungry, they want to listen, they want to learn, they want to stay around here for a long time.”

Cubs hitting coach Greg Brown emphasizes the need for a multifaceted offense. But as the Cubs’ lineup has evolved over the past couple years to include more contact-oriented hitters, pushing the envelope on the base paths has become more important.

Including Morel’s push bunt, there are three plays on this road trip that stand out, each highlighting a different element of the Cubs’ plan of attack on the base paths.

Take Seiya Suzuki’s inside-the-park home run on Monday in Milwaukee as an example of taking the extra base. And there is no more satisfying extra base to take than home plate.

“When he hit the ball, I looked at him,” Harris said the next day. “He’s going to let me know right away. If he’s jogging, I can’t send him, right? Seiya was running from the very beginning. Then, when I saw the ball kick away from the outfielder, I’m like, … we’ve got a chance right here.”

In addition to Suzuki’s speed out of the batter’s box, Harris was weighing the likelihood of scoring again against the opposing pitcher – in this case, Brewers closer Josh Hader.

“I thought it was a great opportunity to take a chance,” Harris said, “because that guy’s been shutting everybody down all year.”

The risk paid off.

On the other end of the spectrum from reading and reacting are designed plays. Picture the double steal the Cubs pulled off against the Brewers on Tuesday.

“Some teams throw through, some don’t,” Ross said after the game. “When it works, I like insurance runs. Every run counts.”

The first-and-third play started with Ian Happ stealing second and drawing a throw from Brewers catcher Victor Caratini, which gave Rafael Ortega the chance to swipe home.

“Rafi’s so good at that,” Happ said. “When he gets that jump and does such a good job reading the catcher – it’s not an easy play at third base.”

In that case, the Cubs’ base runners tested the opponent’s defense. In other situations, picking apart holes in the defense falls on the hitter. Cue Morel’s colorful Friday.

David Bote, who led off the inning with a single, was standing on first. And Dodgers second baseman Max Muncy was shifted behind second base against right-handed Morel. So, the rookie squared around late and pushed the bunt halfway between first and second.

By the time Muncy made it there, both runners were safe, with no one manning second base. After Bote and Morel advanced on a wild pitch, Happ drove them both in with a double up the left-field line.

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