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Castro helps Cubs walk off vs. Padres: A trend in the making?

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Castro helps Cubs walk off vs. Padres: A trend in the making?

After blowing a four-run lead in the top of the ninth, it was understandable if some fans asked themselves, “These are the new Cubs?”

The bullpen debacle in Saturday’s game against the visiting San Diego Padres was all too reminiscent of Cubs teams past.

But that wasn’t the end of things. No, the Cubs recovered and got a walk-off single from Starlin Castro in the bottom of the 11th to send them to win No. 6 on the season, a 7-6, extra-inning victory at Wrigley Field.

It’s the kind of win that might just end up defining the “new Cubs.”

“It’s really good. That’s one of the games that makes us feel better,” Castro said after his heroics. “Last year or the year before, we’d lose a lot of games like that. We played a lot of extra-inning games, and we’d lose them. We continued to fight nine innings. If we play more than nine, we keep fighting. We’re going to try to win the game.”

[MORE CUBS: After strong debut at third, where do Cubs see Bryant long term?]

All Castro needed to do was find the outfield grass, as the bases were full of Cubs with just one out and the Padres infield playing in. Anthony Rizzo walked with one out, and Kris Bryant followed by hustling out an infield single. David Ross walked on four pitches ahead of Castro’s game-winner off Padres closer Craig Kimbrel. Game over.

It’s not the first time these Cubs have won in dramatic fashion, either.

There was Dexter Fowler’s eighth-inning go-ahead homer in Colorado. There was Jorge Soler’s game-tying homer in the eighth inning to open this homestead against the Reds, a game later won on Arismendy Alcantara’s walk-off single in the 10th.

Winning games late. It might just be a trend in the making for the Cubs.

“(It’s good for the) confidence level,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “When you do that a few times, everybody feels comfortable that you’re going to come back and win the ballgame. Never panic, that’s what a winning team does. You’ve got to create that momentum, and you’ve got to believe that it can happen. When it happens a few times, you know it can happen. It’s not going to happen all the time, obviously, but you can believe that it can happen any time. And that’s what we’re doing right now. We know we can come back, we know we can win the game. You just never give up, and we battle all the way.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs, Kris Bryant say there’s no bad blood after service-time issue]

Of course, the game wouldn’t have even needed rescuing from Castro if not for the bullpen’s ninth-inning blunder. San Diego opened the ninth with four straight hits off relievers Phil Coke and Hector Rondon, two of those scoring runs. An RBI groundout made it a one-run game, and with the Padres down to their last strike, pinch hitter Yangervis Solarte pushed a hit into right field to tie the game at 6.

It was the second straight day of trouble for a bullpen that’s been very reliable early on. Brian Schlitter gave up a game-winning three-run homer to Wil Myers in Friday’s game.

But the Cubs didn’t wither after that devastating blow. Credit the new manager for keeping the Cubs alive.

“I normally just keep going up and down the dugout, just yelling crazy stuff. I’m just that guy,” Maddon said. “I used to play quarterback, and I was a catcher. And I’ve been around some really insane coaches. The biggest thing you’ve got to get across at that point is: ‘It’s over with, we got out of it, now let’s move forward and let’s win this thing.’ And that can be an even bigger morale booster. And we did it.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get a Kris Bryant jersey right here]

Maddon likes this late-game trend, too, realizing the benefits it can have down the line.

“Whenever you win late and then you know you can win late, that matters a lot. When teams don’t quit, when they play nine innings hard every night, that matters,” he said. “We played nine innings hard yesterday, we almost had a chance to get something done late again. We got something done late in Colorado. We’ve gotten something done late often to this point. That to me is very pertinent in regards to us having a successful season, and to establish it early is very good.”

Before the nightmare ninth, the Cubs had put together eight pretty great innings of baseball. After starter Kyle Hendricks yielded a two-run homer in the first, he set down 17 of the last 18 hitters he faced over six innings of work. That allowed a Cubs comeback. Bryant bounced back from his 0-for-4, three-strikeout debut with a 2-for-3, three-walk day, including his first major league hit: a broken-bat bloop single to center that tied the game at 2 in the fifth. Montero blasted a pair of homers, one to put the Cubs ahead in the sixth and another to grow that lead to four in the seventh.

But the biggest play, at the end of the day, was Castro’s single, the one that delivered a victory and exemplified what kind of team this could be this season.

“It’s really good, it’s really good. We tried to win that game. We tried to make it a 1-1 series, and we can win tomorrow and we can win the series,” Castro said. “They tied the game in the ninth, but we keep fighting to try to get it. And in the end, we did.”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

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.