Chemistry matters for Cubs team taking the playoffs by storm


Chemistry matters for Cubs team taking the playoffs by storm

Surrounded by reporters, Theo Epstein stopped the interview for a moment to jump up and down to “Ando En La Versace,” Starlin Castro’s walk-up song that gets the 40,000-plus at Wrigley Field rhythmically clapping in unison. 

Now soaked in champagne, the Cubs had just eliminated the hated St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday night, advancing to the National League championship series a year after losing 89 games (which actually felt like real progress). 

Cubs fans have a love/hate relationship with Castro, who signed with the organization nine years ago as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic, getting a $45,000 bonus and rocketing through the system, never spending a full season on the Double-A level and playing zero Triple-A games.

Castro is the three-time All-Star shortstop who had been a lightning rod for five fifth-place teams, lost his job to Addison Russell in early August and then reinvented himself as an offensive/defensive force at second base. 

The Wrigleyville crowd is more Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen than Omega, but here comes the Cubs, clapping along to the beat.  

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“There’s a real joy to what they’re doing,” Epstein said, getting back in character as the Cubs president of baseball operations. “The biggest thing, I thought, in ’04 was we came back because the guys in our clubhouse cared more about the other 24 guys than their own interest.” 

Of course, 2004 would be the Boston Red Sox team that had been down 0-3 against the great Mariano Rivera and stormed back to beat the New York Yankees in the ALCS and win the franchise’s first World Series in 86 years, making Epstein a forever legend throughout New England.

Epstein can be ruthless. Just ask Rick Renteria, who had been assured he would be back for the 2015 season, until Joe Maddon became a free agent and Epstein fired the manager. There’s little doubt Castro would have been traded at the July 31 deadline if the Cubs had gotten a decent offer.

But Epstein is also a great storyteller with an eye for details, a sentimental side and a sense of history. He graduated from Yale University and then learned the scouting side of the business. Remember, this is his 24th season in Major League Baseball. He can be an old-school guy, too.

“Not to get corny,” Epstein said, “but the human spirit – you can do more for other people than you can necessarily do for yourself. And that’s how you overcome adversity. Maybe that’s how a real young team wins 97 games – 101 now.” 

If those Red Sox will be remembered as a “Band of Idiots,” then this team likes to “Play Stupid,” as Jon Lester put it.   

How else to explain this? Look, the Cubs have real talent. Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez and Russell are all recent first-round picks drafted between No. 2 and 11th overall. 

The Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers were among the big-market teams chasing after Jorge Soler before he got $30 million guaranteed as an unproven Cuban outfielder.

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Jake Arrieta and Lester can match up with the top of any rotation, whether it’s facing the Dodgers or New York Mets in the next round that begins Saturday on the road.

But after seeing the clubhouse torn apart by all those trade-deadline deals, the Cubs also needed glue guys like backup catcher David Ross and reserve outfielder Chris Denorfia to help create a cohesive work environment.   

“Everybody wants a number on everything,” Maddon said. “This is human-being stuff. And we have really good guys in that clubhouse that relate well to others and keep them in line.”

Maddon absorbs information from the “The Geek Department,” but he also does things by feel, whether it’s bringing in Simon the Magician, petting zoo animals or dressing up in a “Top Gun” pajama suit for an overnight flight home after Arrieta’s no-hitter at Dodger Stadium: “I Feel the Need – The Need for Sleep.”

It helps that Maddon is now a trusted brand with the authority that comes with a five-year, $25 million contract. And not the obscure bench coach who took over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and lost 101 games in 2006. 

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“It’s somewhat easier to get my point across now,” Maddon admitted. “I’m sure they were questioning me a lot more behind my back then than maybe they do now. Although that’s still part of what a manager has to go through. 

“When players form those little groups with meetings after meetings – or at the water cooler or in the food room – there’s that group that’s always going to try to find another guy that supports his theory of being kind of screwed.”

The Cubs used 150 batting orders, creating so much depth that Maddon can treat the postseason like it’s the Stanley Cup playoffs or March Madness, rolling out different lines or substituting offense for defense in late possessions.  

The Cubs used 22 different relief pitchers during the regular season, including Ross and Denorfia, essentially rebuilding their bullpen from baseball’s DFA scrap heap with midseason moves for Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill and Fernando Rodney.  

“That’s the beautiful part about it when you get a tightly-knit group,” Maddon said. “The guy that’s messing things up – looking for allies – is not going to find it.  

[MLB POSTSEASON: Maddon has built a Cubs bullpen ready for October]

“If the fans are looking for a definition as to why I always talk about letting the players handle it, why the clubhouse is so important, why you have to have leadership within the clubhouse, it’s because when you do, then these little pockets where they’re looking for allies in a negative sense – they get blown up immediately.

“I’m pretty certain we have that here right now where that negative component cannot prosper because the guys in the clubhouse get it.”

Travis Wood turned down the chance to sign a long-term deal after his All-Star season in 2013, lost his spot in the rotation and emerged as a trusted lefty out of the bullpen.

Miguel Montero didn’t love the idea of three-catcher rotations and wanted to be in the lineup every day as a two-time All-Star. But instead of blasting the organization on Twitter, he spontaneously created the #WeAreGood hashtag, responding to the inherent pessimism in Chicago. 

Anthony Rizzo matured into a leader, predicting the Cubs will win the division, producing like an MVP-level first baseman and becoming a ringleader for the postgame dance parties.

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“We don’t get to pick our friends in this job,” Rizzo said. “We’re stuck with who we have. So to be able to come in every day and be an enjoyable group is a lot of fun. It’s a big reason why we win a lot of games.”

The Cubs didn’t have a losing month or a losing streak that went longer than five games, winning 34 one-run games and 13 in extra innings, showing mental toughness and playing with exceptional confidence. 

Hawk Harrelson won’t be Epstein’s next special assistant, but the Cubs have “The Will to Win.” 

“It’s unbelievable how resilient this team is,” Cahill said. “They’re just young and dumb, I guess.”

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


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: