Cubs

Cubs clinch NL Central title, taking down Cardinals and building their own empire

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AP

Cubs clinch NL Central title, taking down Cardinals and building their own empire

ST. LOUIS – Once upon a time, the Cubs filed into Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse after a one-run loss to the St. Louis Cardinals and began the rookie hazing for their flight to the West Coast.
 
This was Sept. 25, 2011, the final days of a 91-loss season that promised sweeping changes throughout the organization. With longtime general manager Jim Hendry already fired and manager Mike Quade awaiting the same fate, this felt like a substitute teacher trying to control an unruly classroom.
 
One player fumed while dressing up as a Chinese food takeout box, but it was mostly time to crack open some beers and laugh at the silly costumes, one of Major League Baseball’s stupid rituals. As one coach surveyed the scene, his face turned a color that made it look like steam would come out of his ears, bothered by how quickly these Cubs flushed it away, the day after another Carlos Marmol meltdown had led to a walk-off loss against their rivals.
 
The balance of power would slowly begin to shift within the next 28 days. Chairman Tom Ricketts would meet with Theo Epstein at his family’s New York City residence overlooking Central Park. A rock-star executive would leave his dream job with his hometown Boston Red Sox and give a “Baseball is Better” speech at a Wrigley Field press conference. And a Cardinals team that didn’t sneak into the playoffs until the final day of the regular season would win the franchise’s 11th World Series title in the walk year for St. Louis icons Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols.
 
Now look at the After photo: The Cubs officially clinched their second straight National League Central title at 8:50 p.m. on Wednesday when Leonys Martin caught Randal Grichuk’s flyball in center field, securing a 5-1 win over their archrivals. The Cubs have come so far that the on-field celebration felt a little muted, a mosh pit around All-Star closer Wade Davis and the obligatory pose with the W flag.     
 
Maybe it was more a sense of relief than exhilaration, because this hangover lasted at least until the All-Star break, when the Cubs had sunk to 43-45 and needed the shocking Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox to jolt the clubhouse and boost the energy level. 
 
The 2012 Cardinals had been the last defending World Series champions to make the playoffs the following season. The 2009 Philadelphia Phillies and the 2002 Arizona Diamondbacks had been the only defending World Series champions within the last 15 seasons to win their division the next year. 
 
“The post-World Series effect is real,” Epstein said. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of. But I think there’s always an opportunity to focus and elevate the caliber of play at a really important time. And our guys have absolutely done that.” 
 
Just look at John Lackey – the last pitcher to win a playoff game for the Cardinals in the 2015 series that showed the Cubs would never fear St. Louis again – allowing one run on two hits across six innings in a Big Boy Game that might have been his last one before disappearing into retirement. 
 
Just look at the relentless attack that made the Cubs inscribe “WE NEVER QUIT” on their championship rings. This lineup ambushed Michael Wacha in the seventh inning with five straight hits, Addison Russell launching a 92-mph fastball 383 feet, just inside the left-field foul pole for a three-run homer, a 1-0 deficit quickly turning into a 5-1 lead.
 
This is exactly what manager Joe Maddon envisioned when he used an escape clause in his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays, a small-market team that stood up to the Red Sox and New York Yankees, the superpowers in the American League East.
 
Beginning with that 2015 turnaround season, Maddon played mind games with the Cardinals, comparing them to “The Sopranos,” forcing Busch Stadium staff to bend the rules for Cubs fans wearing “Try Not To Suck” T-shirts and encouraging Russell to bring out a tray of nachos on Monday night and take an in-game selfie with Nacho Man.
 
“My first take when I got here was that had to be done,” Maddon said. “It was no different than in Tampa Bay with the Yankees and the Red Sox. I mean, my God, when people would talk about those teams, I’d understand why they were beating ‘em up. 
 
“You got to feel confidence in yourself. You got to believe that you can do. You got to believe it before you can do it ever. 
 
“You got to take things, man. They’re not ever going to give it up. This team’s a proud, wonderful organization with one of the best histories in all of major league sports. There’s nothing that’s going to come easily when you play against St. Louis, especially here.
 
“But it was something that we had to do in order to ascend.”
 
Another team official noticed the real or imagined slights all the way down to the golf cart decorated with St. Louis playoff decals that used to be parked outside the visiting clubhouse when the Cubs came to town. All the ups and downs – this season and throughout the franchise’s star-crossed history – made the idea of celebrating within that room so sweet. 
 
“That’s for you guys to write about more than us,” said Jon Lester, the big-game pitcher who changed everything when he decided to sign a $155 million megadeal with a last-place team after the 2014 season. “This is nice. But if we did it at home, if we did it in Cincinnati, if we did it in Texas, it doesn’t matter. It all means the same.”
 
This means the Cardinals are dangerously close to missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, something that’s happened to this proud franchise just once since 2000. The Cubs are 13-5 against St. Louis this season and want to build a bigger and better empire. The Cubs are already what the Cardinals used to be, the team that pounces on mistakes, plays the game a certain way and expects to dominate October.
 
“They’re fearless,” Maddon said. “I don’t think we take anything for granted. They’re not afraid of making mistakes. And I think we really do like the bigger moment.

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

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USA TODAY

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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USA TODAY

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.