Baseball’s toughest division ever made Cubs better faster


Baseball’s toughest division ever made Cubs better faster

Major League Baseball had never seen a division like the National League Central in 2015. It’s officially the best ever, and it helped make the Cubs who they are now.

Since the wild-card era began, no division has seen a third-place team finish with more than 93 wins. The 2002 American League West had the Oakland A's with 103 wins, followed by the Los Angeles Angels at 99 and the Seattle Mariners with 93 victories.

The St. Louis Cardinals finished this year with 100 wins and the Pittsburgh Pirates came in at 98 victories, meaning the Cubs and their 97 wins got stuck in third place.

[RELATED - Ready for Pittsburgh: Cubs storm into playoffs with 97 wins]

Since divisional play began in 1969, these Cubs and the 1977 Boston Red Sox are tied with the most wins for a third-place team in baseball history.

The Cubs earned the third-best record in the majors and were rewarded with a one-game playoff against Gerrit Cole and the Pirates on Wednesday night at PNC Park.

"I think it's actually good for us long-term," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "I'd be lying if I said there aren't times where you're frustrated looking at other divisions and you think to yourself that we'd be leading that division and guaranteed a five-game playoff series. But I think it's going to make us a lot better."

Hoyer worked with Theo Epstein when the Red Sox front office had to take down the New York Yankees’ "Evil Empire" in the AL East.

"The Yankees made us a ton better in Boston," Hoyer said. "Having to go up against them, there was no shortcut, no years of backing into winning a division.

"We know the [Pirates and Cardinals] are going to be good for a long time. And we're going to be good. I think we're going to go at each other for a long time. It's going to make all three teams better. We have to realize that.

"You can look at it as a negative, but also I know that if we advance a long way in the playoffs, it's environments like [playing them at Wrigley Field in late September] and environments like we've had in St. Louis and Pittsburgh that made our guys a lot tougher."

Joe Maddon has been making that point at least since spring training, remembering his first last-place season with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2006.

[MORE: Why Cubs believe Jake Arrieta could be unstoppable in October]

“That was common fodder when I got there: The fact that they had to get out of this division in order to become successful,” Maddon said. “Otherwise, we can’t compete with the Yankees and Red Sox. And that’s all I heard.

“No, no, no, that’s wrong. We’re only going to get good this way. (And) I’ve said that from the beginning, man. You had to win in Boston at Fenway. You get to play there nine (or) 10 times a year. Good.

“Same thing with Yankee Stadium. You had to feel good about walking in that door, and then you could beat them there. And once you do that, then you could win anywhere. Not to go Frank Sinatra right there.”

After losing 96 games in 2007, the Rays won 97 the next year and made it to the World Series.

“It was exciting to play in that division, man,” Maddon said. “It was hot. It was really hot. It was pretty firm. And I think that’s why we got good fast, playing in those venues. Adversarial, tough fans, good teams, you better show up.”

The Cubs weren't expected to contend so soon, not after five straight seasons of fifth-place finishes and a roster packed with young, inexperienced players.

But with an everyday lineup that could feature four rookies, Maddon guided a team that improved 24 games on its 2014 record (73-89).

[SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

"I love playing in what is perceived to be the best division in baseball," Maddon said. "It's about the end of the season - the last game of the season - and getting to that particular moment. Sometimes, it takes a different route to get there.

"But I really respect what both [the Cardinals and Pirates] have done. I like to believe we've pushed them a bit, too, in this particular season. There was no let-up for anybody.

"That's kinda cool. It's great for baseball. It's great for us. And it really has aided us in getting better."

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


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.”