Cubs

Bryce Harper reaches seven times but does little damage, just like Cubs planned

Bryce Harper reaches seven times but does little damage, just like Cubs planned

The Cubs put the reigning National League MVP on base seven times Sunday. But they weren’t going to let him beat them.

Bryce Harper walked an incredible six times during Sunday’s game, three of those intentional passes and two of those loading the bases. But with all the time Harper spent at first base, he touched home plate just once.

So the Cubs’ bold strategy — one that harkened back to the days when teams would do anything to take the bat out of Barry Bonds’ hands — worked like a charm. The Nationals scored just three times during Sunday's 13-inning marathon, a 4-3 Cubs win, a number that would’ve almost certainly been higher had Harper been allowed to put his bat on the ball.

“You know how good he is, and why tempt fate right there?” manager Joe Maddon said. “Now if the other guy gets you, that’s fine, you have no problem with that whatsoever. I know he’s not been as hot as he can be coming into this series, but you don’t want to get him hot. I’ve been part of that in the past. So we did what we thought we had to do today, and it happened to work.”

Harper walked in his first two plate appearances, motoring around from first on Ryan Zimmerman’s double off Kris Bryant’s glove at third base in the third inning. But that was the last time Harper’s incredible skill would hurt the home team.

After Jake Arrieta loaded the bases with two hits and an error to start the fourth, he got two consecutive outs resulting in just one run. But with two runners still in scoring position, the Cubs elected to give Harper first base with four intentional balls. Zimmerman struck out to end the inning in the ensuing at-bat.

After Harper was hit by a pitch in the sixth to reach first for the fourth time — again resulting in no scoreboard damage — and walked harmlessly in the eighth, the Cubs again intentionally walked him to load the bases with two outs in the 10th. Zimmerman flew out to right field to end that inning.

Once more, with two down in the 12th, the Cubs gave Harper an intentional free pass. That one came the closest to biting them, as Zimmerman tapped a grounder to third that required a nice pick and a rocket throw from Javier Baez to barely nab a sliding Zimmerman at first and end the inning. Perhaps the outcome had been different had the Nationals not exhausted their challenges earlier in the game.

But all in all, it was a winning strategy, arguably the difference in a game where any one run would’ve changed the result.

“It’s part of our job. Maybe there’s going to be a guy in their lineup and maybe we don’t like the matchup, we’d rather pitch to the guy that’s on deck,” Arrieta said. “We have faith in all our guys here. It showed today the way they all threw out of the ‘pen, really picked us up.”

Harper walked a ridiculous 13 times in the weekend’s four-game series, a sign of his terrific on-base abilities as much as the Cubs’ decision to take the bat out of his hands. But with all those trots down to first base, Harper didn’t do much damage. He had just one hit, scored three runs and drove in only one.

Considering Harper led the NL with 42 homers and 118 runs scored last season and led all of baseball with a .649 slugging percentage, it looks like the Cubs’ made the right move.

“It’s something we go over before each series, the guys that we’re not going to allow to beat us throughout a series. That’s kind of the situation that came up, and we handled it accordingly,” Arrieta said. “It worked out. 4-0 against them at home is something that we’ll take any day.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion. 

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

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USA TODAY

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.