Cubs

Cubs aren’t sweating loss to Mets or NLCS flashbacks: ‘Big-boy games are totally different'

Cubs aren’t sweating loss to Mets or NLCS flashbacks: ‘Big-boy games are totally different'

NEW YORK – The Cubs didn’t overreact to getting swept in last year’s National League Championship Series, but the New York Mets did expose some underlying issues while a deep playoff run created a sense of urgency in Wrigleyville.

The Cubs spent like crazy on the free-agent market (almost $290 million) and wore T-shirts around spring training that literally put targets on their chests, knowing the look would go viral on social media and spark love/hate responses.

Making a statement? Sending a message? That’s so last year, when the Cubs were a team still trying to find an identity and learn how to win. The Mets are now the ones feeling the season-on-the-brink anxiety, desperate for offense and crossing their fingers that all those talented young pitchers stay healthy.

Maybe this becomes a turning point for the defending NL champs, beating the Cubs 4-3 on Thursday night at Citi Field to kick off a marquee four-game series in front of 40,122 and a national TV audience. Not that John Lackey – the playoff-tested veteran the Cubs signed to lengthen their rotation for October – felt any added significance in facing the Mets.

“None,” Lackey said. “It’s June, who cares? Big-boy games are totally different.”

Yes, Lackey was “pretty surprised” and a little miffed that manager Joe Maddon pulled him with a runner on and one out in the seventh inning and the Cubs holding a 3-1 lead. Joel Peralta failed this bullpen audition, walking Alejandro De Aza (.158 average) and giving up an RBI single to just-promoted-from-Triple-A Las Vegas rookie Brandon Nimmo.

Neil Walker put the pressure on highlight-reel defender Javier Baez, who fielded a chopper at second base, didn’t have a play at home plate and made the split-second decision to throw toward backpedaling third baseman Kris Bryant. The Mets showed last October that little things matter in big-boy games, and the throwing error from a Gold Glove-caliber player suddenly gave them a 4-3 lead.  

“Getting beat’s one thing,” Lackey said. “But when you feel like you kind of gave one away – or let one go – that’s a different kind of loss.”

The Mets (41-37) might not have must-win games in July, but they needed some good news in “Panic City.” Steven Matz, who set off alarm bells this week with the disclosure he’s been pitching with a bone spur in his left elbow, managed to work into the sixth inning and throw 104 pitches, giving up homers to Bryant and Baez but limiting the damage to only three runs.

Yoenis Cespedes, who revived a lifeless lineup after last summer’s trade-deadline blockbuster, energized the Mets again with a big swing in the sixth inning, drilling a Lackey pitch 441 feet out to left field and onto the third deck, creating a 110-mph exit velocity with his 19th home run.

“New year, different team, different circumstances,” said Jake Arrieta, who lost Game 2 here last October, watching Daniel Murphy reach so far down for a curveball that his left knee almost scraped the dirt, driving it out for a momentum-shifting, first-inning, two-run homer. “We’ll probably relive some memories that weren’t very exciting.

“You never want to lose one step from a World Series. But, again, we had a team that was very young with a lot of rookies contributing. We gained a lot of valuable experience from those games, regardless of the outcome. And we’re obviously better for it this season with some new pieces. We look forward to ending in a little different fashion this year.”

The Cubs (51-27) still don’t have the answer for Mets closer Jeurys Familia, who finished off all four NLCS wins last October and is now 27-for-27 in save chances this season. Miguel Montero led off the ninth inning with a pinch-hit walk and Ben Zobrist followed with a double into right field before those all-or-nothing contact issues resurfaced.

Familia responded by striking out Bryant swinging – all six pitches were marked as sinkers clocked between 97 and 98 mph – and intentionally walking Anthony Rizzo to load the bases. Maybe this exposure will pay off in the playoffs, but Familia struck out Willson Contreras swinging and got Javier Baez to pop out to end the game. The Citi Field sound system started playing Ace Frehley’s “(I’m Back, Back in the) New York Groove.” Not that the Cubs were having flashbacks.

“We know the feeling of getting eliminated, getting swept, but I think we’re onto bigger and better things,” Bryant said. “We’re ready for it. Different year, different players here, different attitude.”

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”

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.”