Cubs

Cardinals or Pirates? Cubs wild card opponent still uncertain

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Cardinals or Pirates? Cubs wild card opponent still uncertain

For weeks, it’s been seemingly inevitable that the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates would play Oct. 7 in the National League wild card game.

But what if the Pirates catch the St. Louis Cardinals and knock the three-time defending NL Central champions down to the glorified one-game playoff?

“The one thing I am amused about is everybody takes for granted that (we’re going to play) a one-game playoff for the wild card,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “That still tickles me.”

Pittsburgh’s 4-0 loss to the Cubs Sunday means they’ll welcome the Cardinals to PNC Park Monday night with a three-game deficit in the division. In all likelihood, the Pirates will have to sweep the three-game series to have any chance of winning their first division crown since Barry Bonds left town in 1992.

[MORE: Jake Arrieta ready for do-or-die wild card game]

The Pirates finish the season with three games at home against the Cincinnati Reds, while St. Louis travels south for three against the bottom-feeding Atlanta Braves. It’d take a major push for the 95-win Pirates, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility they catch St. Louis over the season’s final week.

“We’re not satisfied with the wild card,” right-hander A.J. Burnett said. “We want to see what we can do, we want to go for the division. It’s not over yet.”

The Cardinals stumbled to a 13-12 record in September so far. Closer Trevor Rosenthal uncharacteristically imploded Sunday, combining with right-hander Seth Maness to allow seven runs in the ninth inning of an 8-4 loss to the lowly Milwaukee Brewers. Right-hander Carlos Martinez was shut down for the season with a shoulder strain last week, while catcher Yadier Molina hasn’t played since Sept. 20 after spraining his thumb against the Cubs.

Only three teams (Detroit, Philadelphia and Atlanta) have scored fewer runs this month than St. Louis. The Cubs went 8-11 against the Cardinals in the regular season but won four of six games in September against them. 

[MORE: The Cubs are Anthony Rizzo’s playoff team now]

A handful of Pirates players peeled their attention away from Sunday’s NFL games in Wrigley Field’s cramped visitor’s clubhouse to watch the Cardinals’ ninth-inning collapse against Milwaukee. A few hours later, Pittsburgh ran into the Jake Arrieta buzzsaw, which served as a reminder of how important it is to win the division and avoid that treacherous win-or-go-home wild card game.

“I don’t think anybody would like to play in that,” third baseman Aramis Ramirez said. “That has to be the last option as a player, as a team, because you can run into a guy like Arrieta in the one game.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: