Cubs losing streak: How Willie Harris’ baserunning approach can help

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How baserunning, Willie Harris, can help Cubs out of skid originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Cubs third base coach Willie Harris didn’t warn the players that he’d be dropping to the ground on his stomach when he wanted them to slide. Harris, who the Cubs hired this offseason, just did it.

“I love it because you don’t have to guess,” Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward said. “He’s right there with you, giving you that enthusiasm.”

On Saturday, the Cubs showed signs of the same aggressive baserunning that had put them among the top 3 base-stealers in MLB by early May.

In a 3-2 loss at Cincinnati, Rafael Ortega scored the Cubs’ first run with a good read on a ball that got away from Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson. Cubs catcher Willson Contreras turned a hard groundball through the left side of the infield into a double with an assertive turn around first base.

The Cubs, however, went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position. They extended their losing streak to eight games.

“Our team is built to slug,” Harris told NBC Sports Chicago last month, “so how important is base running when we face a guy like Trevor Bauer, we face guys like the (Jacob) deGrom and top pitchers in the league? The slug potentially may not be there that day.

“So, we need to figure out another way to score some runs, whether that's anticipating a ball in the dirt, tagging up on a fly ball when the outfielder is drifting, things like that.”

That was true during a tough June schedule, when the Cubs’ OPS dropped from .765 the month prior to .630. Instead, the Cubs’ baserunning gaffs – avoidable pickoffs, and of course Javy Báez losing track of how many outs there were one inning – drew more attention than any baserunning successes.

What Harris said about picking up extra bases is just as true now, as the Cubs search for a way out of their eight-game skid and freefall from No. 1 to No. 3 in the division standings.

“You can't control a lot of things that happen on this field,” Harris said, “but we can exert pressure, we can try and take advantage of our opponents’ mistakes and their laziness, if they're doing that. If we can catch an outfielder sleeping, expose ‘em, take advantage of ‘em. Give that next guy in the lineup a shot at driving a runner in from seconds with two outs.”

Harris developed his baserunning philosophy – “It really boils down to knowing situations and not being afraid” – during a big-league career that extended over a decade, and then coaching in the minor leagues after that.

Managing Single-A Winston-Salem in 2017, Harris debuted his now famous “slide” signal for now-Giants prospect Luis Alexander Basabe.

“It wasn’t something that I planned,” Harris said of laying on the ground. “I want the player to feel like I’m there with him, so I get down on the ground and let him know, ‘Hey, man, I’m right here with you. Let’s get it done.’”

That’s the move Harris is now known for. It stands out in such stark contrast to the more traditional – and less physically exerting – wave toward the dirt. The Cubs athletic trainers have joked with Harris that someone’s going to have to help him off the ground.

Hitting the deck, however, is far from the only way Harris shows his players from the coach’s box that he’s with them. The next time Contreras hits a home run, watch Harris after Contreras rounds third and heads to the plate. Facing left field, Harris opens his arms, mirroring Contreras’ celebration.

“His style is something that’s new, it’s refreshing, it’s not that old-school type of mentality,” Contreras said through a translator. “As players evolve, there’s new types of players, the coaching also grows with it.”

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