Cubs

Anthony Rizzo channels Rocky Balboa to keep Cubs loose before Game 5 World Series victory

Anthony Rizzo channels Rocky Balboa to keep Cubs loose before Game 5 World Series victory

Anthony Rizzo will spend part of Monday scavenging for trunks and boxing gloves so he can dress up for the Cubs’ Halloween night flight to Cleveland.

But the Cubs first baseman already acted out several of Rocky Balboa’s most significant fights in the home clubhouse on Sunday night prior to a 3-2 Game 5 victory over the Cleveland Indians in front of 41,711 at Wrigley Field.

In an attempt to fire up his teammates, the three-time All-Star played several ‘Rocky’ movies on televisions throughout the clubhouse and shadowboxed with several teammates. The Cubs then extended their heavyweight bout with the Indians at least one more game with the first World Series victory at Wrigley Field since Game 6 of the 1945 Fall Classic. The Indians take a 3-2 series lead into Game 6 when action resumes at 7:08 p.m. CST on Tuesday night.

“Just pulled it all out,” Rizzo said. “Got to put out the inspirational, underdog. We’re saying we’re going to battle, we’ve got to go the distance. There were some speeches in here, some motivational stuff.

“You’ve got to keep it loose.”

Loose was a priority as Rizzo said the nervous energy produced by a Wrigley crowd witnessing its first World Series in 71 years was palpable. Trailing 3-1 in the Series, Rizzo admitted Cubs fans weren’t the only ones with a case of the nerves.

“A lot of nervous energy at some points in the ballpark just like we were feeling,” Rizzo said.

But the Cubs fended off those emotions well enough to turn in an all-around crisp performance. Not only did they receive Herculean pitching efforts from Jon Lester and Aroldis Chapman, the defense ran on all cylinders. And then the middle of the order made its first significant impact since the fifth inning of Game 2.

Kris Bryant fired up his teammates and the crowd with a game-tying solo home run in the bottom of the fourth inning. Rizzo, who changed his walkup music to the theme from Rocky for his first at-bat, lined Trevor Bauer’s next pitch off the right-field fence for a double. When he reached second, ahead of a Ben Zobrist single, Rizzo shadowed boxed in the direction of the Cubs’ dugout.

It was the first time in the 2016 World Series the Cubs have strung together three consecutive hits and Addison Russell followed with an RBI single to drive in Rizzo and give them a 2-1 lead. Three batters later, a sac fly by David Ross gave the Cubs a two-run cushion they wouldn’t relinquish.

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“They kind of put their pitcher on the ropes a little bit,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “We had better at-bats. We got our three runs. Yes, all of that. That's kind of what happened in Los Angeles where all of a sudden we got that one big blow.

“It's incredible when you do that what it does to your team and what it does to the (opposing) pitcher. It's just part of the game. So you have to be able to punch and counter-punch all the time, and we were able to do that tonight.”

After it worked on Sunday, Rizzo joked he might seek out a boxing outfit for the final road trip of the season. Not that teams need a ton of motivation at this point in a season. But every little bit helps as Rizzo found out Sunday.

“We had to get the levels up and we had Rocky on every TV in here before,” Rizzo said. “Imitating the boxing matches, the fight.

“We’ve got to go the distance now and we’ve got to believe in it.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.