Cubs

Cubs beat Aroldis Chapman: ‘That is about as crazy as crazy gets’

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Cubs beat Aroldis Chapman: ‘That is about as crazy as crazy gets’

CINCINNATI – The Cubs are a flawed but entertaining team, filled with so many good/bad/ugly moments that can make you go: Did you just see that? That identity is probably not going to change anytime soon.

No one could have predicted a guy called up Triple-A Iowa on the Fourth of July beating the Cincinnati Reds and their All-Star closer/flamethrower in the ninth inning.

But there was pinch-hitter Taylor Teagarden lining Aroldis Chapman’s 101 mph fastball back up the middle for the go-ahead, two-out RBI single. That became the exclamation point to a 6-5 Game 2 victory that salvaged a split from Wednesday’s day/night doubleheader at Great American Ball Park.

“That is about as crazy as crazy gets,” manager Joe Maddon said afterward. “You talk about a moment that’s great for esprit de corps. That’s it. Almost everybody was involved in that win.

“You’re always looking for those seminal moments. You’re always looking for those moments that they’re going to apply to the video at the end of the season when everything turns out well. Pretty good night for that.”

The Cubs (51-43) now hold a half-game lead over the San Francisco Giants for the second wild card, with the New York Mets now trailing them by 2.5 games, in a race that should go down to the wire.

[MORE: Cubs have big plans for Kyle Schwarber]

Teagarden’s clutch hit came immediately after the Reds intentionally walked Jorge Soler (and moments after Dexter Fowler looked for the sign from coach Gary Jones and hesitated rounding third base, getting thrown out at home plate).

“I know he’s coming right after me in that situation,” said Teagarden, the third catcher on the depth chart. “He throws 100 miles an hour. I’m not looking for any kind of offspeed. I’m just looking for something to catch the plate. Hopefully, I can put the barrel on it.”

Maddon went right after the Reds (42-51) in the third inning, sensing an opportunity and the urgency of the situation, helping the Cubs claw back into the game.    

In a season already filled with head-scratching decisions – and an epic 77-F-bomb blame-the-media rant – Reds manager Bryan Price elected to intentionally walk David Ross (.171 average) to load the bases and get to pitcher Dallas Beeler.

But Beeler is a spot starter from Iowa who burned through 48 pitches in two innings. And Maddon had his slumping All-Star slugger getting a physical/mental break on the bench and Thursday’s off-day to reset his bullpen. Maddon went for it and Kris Bryant delivered a hard-hit, game-tying, two-run single into left field.

“I had a batter to warm up,” said Bryant, whose average had dropped to .257 by this point. “It’s funny how it works out in that situation. You come through when you’re not even ready.”

Of course, the Cubs probably wouldn’t have been in that 5-0 hole if Starlin Castro had simply fielded a routine groundball in the second inning and turned the double play. Then again, the enigmatic shortstop came through with an RBI double during that rally.

And there’s no explanation for how the Cubs kept it a tie game in the eighth inning. With Hector Rondon in a jam, Maddon decided to intentionally walk former National League MVP Joey Votto to load the bases for Todd Frazier, this year’s Home Run Derby champ.

Frazier blasted a line drive that ricocheted off Rondon directly to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who threw home for the second out, like a crazy move in a video game.  

“We play FIFA all the time in the clubhouse,” Rizzo said. “We’re teammates and I always tell him to pass and he never passes. So he finally passed the ball. It’s a good bounce for us. It’s a huge bounce for us.”

“Yeah, I did call (it),” Maddon joked. “What do you do there? I thought there was a better chance of getting the ball on the ground versus Frazier as opposed Votto, even though my numbers indicated differently.

“Listen, man, flip a coin sometimes. A lot of it’s based (on) the ‘Blink’ moment. It’s about your experience. I’ve been through those moments before, chose to do that and it worked.”

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But Malcolm Gladwell, Simon the Magician and the Geek Department haven’t been able to prevent the Cubs from playing up or down to their level of competition.

Now the Cubs get 10 straight games against last-place teams – the Philadelphia Phillies, Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee Brewers – which takes them through the July 31 trade deadline and the first weekend of August.

“We know it’s a big stretch coming up,” Rizzo said. “We got to be prepared every day to bring it, no matter who we’re playing. We tend to come for the bigger games, but every game is big from here on out.”

“Be careful what you wish for with Schwarbs,” Maddon said. “If we just wear his butt out by the end of the season, that bat will go away, I promise you.

“Let him play at his own pace. We’re going to work with him in the outfield, absolutely. I have ideas (and) we’ll just see how it goes. For right now, everybody’s euphoric about the game last night. We all are. And it was wonderful. But he’s a young man (who’s) still learning his craft.

“That’s what’s going to benefit us in September/October – not wearing people out right now, mentally and physically.”

Schwarber doesn’t want to look too far ahead, but he wants to stay at catcher and knows he can always play the outfield.

“Whatever happens, happens,” Schwarber said. “I’m going to keep working my butt off to get better defensively, and keep getting better offensively, too. My goal is to stay up here, so whatever it takes, I’m going to try to do it.”

 

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.