Cubs

Anthony Rizzo: 'Scary' good Cubs could still catch Cardinals

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Anthony Rizzo: 'Scary' good Cubs could still catch Cardinals

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs don’t need to make a statement in early September when the computers give them a 90-something percent chance to make the playoffs.

The balance of power won’t shift overnight when the St. Louis Cardinals have 11 World Series flags flying here at Busch Stadium.

But the Cubs are playing with so much confidence right now — scoring the first 17 runs in this series and rolling to an 8-5 victory on Tuesday night — that Anthony Rizzo won’t concede the National League Central.

Can the Cubs still catch the Cardinals?

“I don’t see why not,” Rizzo said after blasting his 100th career homer, a two-run shot off Michael Wacha that set the tone in the first inning.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs GM Jed Hoyer hopes momentum translates into payroll boost]

This probably won’t go viral the way Rizzo’s winning-the-division guarantee created so much buzz leading into Cubs Convention in January, when no one knew how all these new pieces would fit together.

But no one will be laughing at the All-Star baseman’s predictions now. The Cubs have cut the deficit to 6 1/2 games in the division and trail the Pittsburgh Pirates by two games for home-field advantage in the wild-card game.

“Obviously, the Pirates feel the same way,” Rizzo said. “We just got to keep playing baseball. We really can’t worry about what anyone else is doing. We just got to keep winning ballgames.”

The Cubs now hold a 9 1/2-game lead over the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants for the second wild card and expect to be in this playoff conversation for years to come.

A deep and versatile lineup knocked out Wacha — an All-Star this year and the 2013 NLCS MVP — after four innings, and the Cubs have so many possible combinations for mad-scientist manager Joe Maddon.

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon's Wrigley problem with next year's schedule]

Javier Baez notched two hits and showed off his elite defensive skills at third base. Kyle Schwarber pinch-hit in the eighth inning and should be in Wednesday’s lineup (assuming no more setbacks after straining his rib cage last week).

A quality start from Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.59 ERA) eased some concerns about the back of the rotation (an eight-run lead helps). Neil Ramirez (abdominal soreness) came off the disabled list, adding a potential weapon for the bullpen.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Rizzo said. “Every day, we’re just getting more confident and more confident. The group we have up — that could be really scary.”

The Cubs have so much young talent that they can essentially turn Starlin Castro — who made three All-Star teams before his 25th birthday — into a part-time player.

Castro hit a three-run homer off Wacha that traveled 410 feet in the second inning and later added an RBI double. This isn’t how Castro envisioned the Cubs becoming relevant again — while losing his job to new franchise shortstop Addison Russell — but in his last 34 games he’s hitting .323 and playing with more of an edge.

[MORE CUBS: MLB Power Rankings: NL playoff picture coming into focus]

“That’s the game,” Castro said. “I’ve been here for a long time. I don’t enjoy (sitting). I know I can play. But the team’s playing pretty good. And whatever is good for the team, I’ll be here. (The rest) doesn’t matter.

“Just try to keep focused and concentrate. Whatever happens, I’ll try to be (here for the team).”

Winning the division is a long shot, but the Cubs (80-57) still have four games left against the Cardinals and will be looking for the sweep on Wednesday with Jon Lester, their $155 million pitcher.

“They do it year in, year out,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “That’s the point we have to get to. I like the fact that our guys want to play down here. They want the challenge that represents.

“But to really match these guys and to take it to their place means year in, year out. Not any one year, one series, one half-season, whatever.

“Our goal is to get to the place where we can look at these guys across the field and know that year in, year out we can go toe-to-toe.”

Closing the gap in this rivalry would always be a long, slow process, imperceptible at times. But this at least feels different for the Cubs — not drowning in a sea of red at Busch Stadium.

“We always came in here and we lost,” Castro said. “But now we come in here every day to compete and try to win games.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”