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Cubs looking in at 'Why not us?' World Series

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Cubs looking in at 'Why not us?' World Series

Monday, Oct. 25, 2010
5:00 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

It sounded like a marketing slogan that could be plastered across the side of a bus, or sold on T-shirts outside Wrigley Field. Mike Quade looked out at the row of cameras in a room full of reporters and said those three words.

Eventually the goodwill Quade has built up with the media will begin to evaporate. All it could take is one long losing streak for someone to say that hes in over his bald head, that theres a reason why he had to wait until the age of 53 to get his first major-league managing job.

And as soon as you hear complaints whispered in the clubhouse, someone will wonder: Why did management ever listen to those player endorsements on such an underachieving team? Until then, a 24-13 finish will be the jumping-off point for 2011.

Im smart enough to know that six weeks doesnt make six months, Quade said. But when I saw the improvement in the kids and the way we pitched it (and) played the last six weeks, (Ill) believe that from Day 1: Why not us?

Well, there is more than a century of losing that has defined the Cubs, and the Prospect High School graduate gets the culture and expectations he will face as the franchises 51st manager.

But when the 106th World Series begins Wednesday night at AT&T Park, the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers will be asking the same thing: Why not us?

Months ago, that question would have seemed like a reach, when the Rangers were in full crisis-management mode, awaiting their fate in bankruptcy court and responding to the news that their manager had tested positive for cocaine.

The Giants spent only 37 days in first place, and lost 515 games of manpower to the disabled list this season, and theyve took on players that seemingly no one else wanted.

Both teams are from baseballs middle class, with their combined Opening Day payroll (153.9 million) nearly matching what the Cubs had committed (146.6 million) for 2010. Heres what the Cubs can learn from each team as they rebuild for Year 103:

Show some faith in the manager. The Giants didnt show real progress until the end of Bruce Bochys three-year deal. Beginning in 2007, their win totals went like this: 71, 72 and 88. They finished last, fourth and third in the National League West before finally winning the division with a pitching staff Bochy handles expertly.

It would have been easy for the Rangers to fire Ron Washington after they learned of his failed drug test last year. What could have torn the clubhouse apart instead brought it together. Everyone has access to the same statistics and will agree on most in-game decisions. But managing is about so much more than numbers. Its building relationships, handling egos and deflecting distractions.

Huge long-term contracts dont have to be crippling. Barry Zito is in the middle of a seven-year, 126 million deal, but hasnt been given a spot on the playoff roster because the Giants have four strong starters drafted and developed by the organization Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner.

The Cubs can afford the decline of Alfonso Soriano who will be owed 18 million annually across the next four seasons if first-round picks Tyler Colvin and Brett Jackson become All-Star-level players in the same outfield.

The market has changed. Zitos deal makes Carlos Zambranos five-year, 91.5 million contract seem reasonable by comparison but both came out of a different economic climate. Aubrey Huff hit free agency and then had to wait until the middle of January to sign a one-year deal that amounted to a 5 million pay cut. For their 3 million, the Giants received 26 home runs and 86 RBI.

San Francisco has been resourceful throughout the season, signing Pat Burrell (18 homers and 51 RBI in 96 games) to a minor-league contract in May and claiming future NLCS MVP Cody Ross off waivers three months later. The Rangers made a similar low-risk, high-reward investment in designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero, getting a return of 29 homers and 115 RBI for roughly 6.5 million.

Talent is everywhere. Kosuke Fukudome will never live up to the 48 million it cost to import him from Japan, but that doesnt mean the outfielder cant be effective with a more limited role in the right situation, or that the Cubs should give up their international scouting efforts.

Colby Lewis pitched in five different organizations before moving abroad and spending two seasons with Hiroshima Carp. This year, Lewis returned to the Rangers the team that originally chose him in the first round of the 1999 draft and gave them 32 starts, 201 innings and two victories that helped eliminate the New York Yankees and win the pennant.

Dont fall in love with your prospects. The Rangers have been sensitive to Josh Hamiltons addictions during celebrations that are typically soaked in beer and champagne. It took almost eight years for the first overall pick in the 1999 amateur draft to control his demons and make his major-league debut.

Hamilton was selected by the Cubs in the 2006 Rule 5 draft, flipped to the Cincinnati Reds the same day and later traded to Texas, where hes made the All-Star team three consecutive years. Projecting what sort of man a high school kid will be is never easy. When a game-changer like Cliff Lee whos now 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA in eight career postseason starts becomes available you cash in your trading chips.

Be creative when assembling the bullpen. Opponents hit .236 against Giants relievers, who posted a 2.99 ERA and inherited the most runners in the league (278) but allowed the lowest percentage to score (23.7). Brian Wilson, their eccentric, bearded closer, fell to the 24th round before the Giants drafted him in 2003. Guillermo Mota was a non-roster invitee to spring training and Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez were acquired at the July 31st deadline. Imagine the impact they could have had on a Cubs team that lost 32 one-run games in 2010 and had more than half of their games decided by two runs or less.

Develop a short memory. Until this month, the Rangers had never won a postseason series. The Giants havent won a World Series since relocating to the Bay Area in 1958. Dusty Baker managed the Giants the last time they made it and within days, he would be introduced as the next Cubs manager, a job he wasnt completely prepared for.

Nobody lets anything go of the past, Baker said last summer at Wrigley Field. Everybodys still counting. I was here four out of the 100 years. Most people act like I was here the whole 100.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Cubs go quietly into winter, their reign as defending champs finally over

Cubs go quietly into winter, their reign as defending champs finally over

The armchair psychology went like this: Force the Los Angeles Dodgers onto the plane, let them think about it during the long flight to the West Coast, get in their heads during Friday’s day off and feel all the momentum and pressure shift in this National League Championship Series.

At least that’s what the Cubs told themselves and the media, whether or not they actually believed it, playing the kind of mind games designed for lesser teams. From Theo Epstein and the top of baseball operations down, the Cubs had enough connections to the 2004 Boston Red Sox to hope they could become only the second team to overcome an 0-3 LCS deficit.

That dream officially ended at 10:15 p.m. on Thursday when Willson Contreras lined Kenley Jansen’s 93.3-mph cutter at backup shortstop Charlie Culberson, another symbol of Dodger Way game-planning and the overall depth to withstand the loss of All-Star Corey Seager as he recovered from a back injury. The mosh pit formed in the middle of Wrigley Field, where it got very quiet except for a few sections of Dodger fans cheering and Gary Pressy playing the organ.

The Cubs are no longer the defending World Series champs after an 11-1 loss that had no drama or suspense and felt more like a getaway day. There will be no Game 6 or Game 7 this weekend at Dodger Stadium.

“I only experienced winning,” said Albert Almora Jr., a rookie outfielder on last year’s forever team. “Jon Jay told me: ‘Look at the expressions on their face when they’re celebrating on your field and let that sink in and learn from that and build from that.’”

You believed Almora, a baseball gym rat, when he stood at his locker and said: “It hurts.” But when the clubhouse doors opened to the media roughly 30 minutes after the final out, you didn’t really feel any tension in the room, more like a collective exhale, a time to sit around and drink a few Presidente beers and realize that the Dodgers deserved to go to the World Series for the first time since 1988.

“They just flat-out beat us,” said Kris Bryant, who got the first hit off Clayton Kershaw, a garbage-time homer in the fourth inning when the Cubs were already down 9-0.

Bryant is everything you could ever want in a franchise player – diligent on the field, polished off the field, even more productive in many ways after his MVP campaign, someone who doesn’t even drink during clinch celebrations – but even he admitted he still felt the World Series hangover that bugged the Cubs.

“I was just looking back at last year,” Bryant said. “I didn’t get home until like November 10 last year with all the festivities after winning and stuff. I think that really caught up to some of us this year. So I don’t know, maybe the extra time to recoup, maybe train a little harder. I am getting older, so I got to watch that.”

The reporters chuckled along with Bryant in a room where the sound system played classic rock like Dire Straits and Tom Petty. The Cubs know they should be good again in 2018 – and for years after that – and didn’t exactly sound devastated.

To be honest, Wednesday’s thrilling Game 4 win felt like the Super Bowl for this team, Jake Arrieta getting a standing ovation and tipping his cap before signing his free-agent megadeal somewhere else, Wade Davis having the guts to finish off a 48-pitch, two-inning save and the Cubs feeling the adrenaline rush of staving off elimination for another night.

When Jon Lester saw the media gathering by his locker, he joked: “What? I didn’t do s---. Why the f--- do you want to talk to me?”

“Obviously, nobody likes to lose, but we’ve been in the NLCS for three years in a row,” said Lester, who raised the bar for expectations when he signed a $155 million contract with a last-place team after the 2014 season. “You know how special that is. I know everybody kind of goes back to the first half of the season and they like to nitpick. But we won the division, made the playoffs and made it to the NLCS.

“Sometimes, you’re not always going to be in the World Series. The Dodgers are a really good team. They’re playing really good baseball right now. This series showed it. Sometimes, it is what it is, and you just kind of move on.”

The Cubs had Lester, a three-time World Series champion, lined up for a Game 6 that is no longer necessary. Jose Quintana – who shined against the Washington Nationals in the last round and battled Kershaw to a draw in Game 1 – didn’t give his team a chance this time.

Quintana, a signature trade-deadline move made with multiple playoff runs in mind, allowed runs in the first and second innings and left the bases loaded in the third for Hector Rondon, who watched Kike Hernandez drive the second of his three home runs into the right-center field basket for a grand slam.

The Cubs were desperate enough that John Lackey, five days before his 39th birthday, pitched two innings in what was likely his last game in a big-league uniform. Lackey kept walking out of the clubhouse and declined to speak with reporters: “No, I’m good, man.”

“It’s not easy to be the best,” outfielder Jason Heyward said, “but that’s what you want. You don’t want easy. You don’t want to expect to be going home every year. You want to be in October. You want to have a chance to win the World Series. And you want to be one of the teams that expects to be there.”

That’s what the Cubs will be next year, when the last day of the season won’t have the same big-picture perspective. It will be either a stinging loss or spraying champagne.

“Seems like a hundred years ago, right?” Lester said about his decision to sign with the Cubs. “It’s one of those Catch-22s. You look at it as it’s a disappointing season for the simple fact that we didn’t make it to the World Series. But you got to look at the positives, too, in that moment whenever you get on a plane to go home.

“We gave ourselves a chance. It just didn’t happen this year. We got beat by a better team. We beat them last year (in the NLCS), and they beat us this year, so you got to tip your hat sometimes, and you move on. We’ll be ready to go in spring training.”

Sluggish offense plus Dodger pitching equaled disaster for Cubs in NLCS

Sluggish offense plus Dodger pitching equaled disaster for Cubs in NLCS

Your National League Championship Series final: Cubs 8, Enrique Hernandez 7.

When the Cubs look back at why they struggled in the NLCS and what they’ll need moving forward, many questions are likely to involve fixing an offense that was dormant for almost all of the postseason.

Thursday night’s 11-1 loss in Game 5 of the NLCS to the Los Angeles Dodgers put an exclamation point on a lopsided series, one in which the Cubs were outscored 28-8. Hernandez nearly matched the Cubs’ entire output in the clincher with three home runs and seven RBIs. While the pitching shares much of the blame, a Cubs offense that produced a .168/.240/.289 slash line and scored 25 runs this postseason is perhaps an even bigger culprit.

“(The Dodgers) pitched very, very well from start to finish,” said utility man Ben Zobrist. “It was tough to overcome that. We are going to get our homers. But as a whole, I felt like they kept us off-balance and they kept us from having good quality at-bats consistently. When we did get something going it wasn’t much. It was one run here or there or a couple runs here or there. But they pitched a great series, kept us from really exploding like they can as an offense.”

The Cubs’ bats have been ice cold for the entire postseason. Aside from a nine-run showing in their Oct. 12 NLDS-clincher over the Washington Nationals, the Cubs never appeared to be as formidable a bunch as they were in 2016.

Their scores by game entering Thursday’s loss were: 3, 3, 2, 0, 9, 2, 1, 1 and 3.

By the time the Dodgers plated two early runs off Jose Quintana, the Cubs looked to be in for an uphill battle against three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. That condition was upgraded to next-to-impossible by the time Hernandez blasted a grand slam off Hector Rodon in the third inning to put the Dodgers up 7-0.

As it were, the Cubs finished with four hits and didn’t score until Kris Bryant homered to make it 9-1 in the fourth inning. It was Bryant’s first round-tripper of the postseason.

The struggles of Bryant and teammate Anthony Rizzo were well-documented. The pair produced a combined .169/.210/.206 slash line with two home runs, nine RBIs, three walks and 28 strikeouts in 81 plate appearances. Bryant thought it had to do with a team that was worn down running into outstanding pitching.

“It’s a little of both,” Bryant said. “It took a lot out of us that first series, some really good pitching with the Nationals. Obviously with the Dodgers, too. I think they had a group of players that really turned it on at the right time and were clicking whereas we didn’t. That was the difference. But a ton of credit to them, they just flat out beat us.”

Bryant and Rizzo weren’t alone in their struggles.

The leadoff position alone went from a force of life in 2016 with Dexter Fowler to virtually no production this postseason. Jon Jay, Albert Almora and Zobrist went a combined 4-for-36 with three hit by pitches from the leadoff spot.

Catcher Willson Contreras (.748) was the only Cubs regular to finish with an OPS above .700. Javier Baez produced a .451 OPS, Zobrist registered a .416 and Jason Heyward finished at .403.

By comparison, the Dodgers have six players with at least 20 plate appearances this postseason with an .800 or better OPS. That doesn’t of course count Hernandez, who made only his fourth start of the postseason and went nuts. He homered off Jose Quintana in the second inning to give Los Angeles a 2-0 lead. His grand slam in the third after Quintana exited put the game out of reach. And Hernandez’s ninth-inning blast off Mike Montgomery to center was icing on the Dodgers’ cake.

Figuring out how to remedy their offensive issues figures to be one of the Cubs’ top priorities this offseason. One way the team could help jumpstart Bryant and Rizzo is by acquiring a better leadoff hitter, something they lost when Fowler departed via free agency last winter. The team saw its production from the leadoff spot drop from an .815 OPS in 2016 to .745 in 2017.

“We did enough to beat Washington and that’s all you need in the postseason,” Rizzo said. “We didn’t do enough to beat the Dodgers. They pitched better than we hit. End of story.

“They’re good. There’s no excuses. You’ve got to play better. But at the end of the day, it is what it is. It’s baseball. You hit the ball at the guy or you don’t.”