Cubs ready to challenge Bryce Harper and take on Nationals in potential playoff preview


Cubs ready to challenge Bryce Harper and take on Nationals in potential playoff preview

Joe Maddon can’t play the same mind games with Bryce Harper that he did early last season – when the Cubs walked the Washington Nationals superstar 13 times during a four-game sweep at Wrigley Field – because Dusty Baker eventually moved Daniel Murphy up in the lineup for protection and Ryan Zimmerman is now having an All-Star year.

But the Cubs may have found another way to try to contain Harper and Murphy – Mr. October when the New York Mets swept them out of the 2015 National League Championship Series – and slow down the Los Angeles Dodgers if they meet again in October.

That will become the backdrop this weekend in Wrigleyville – likely first-round playoff preview – even if the Nationals don’t start Max Scherzer (neck spasms) and Stephen Strasburg (nerve impingement, right elbow). 

To get that dominating left-handed presence, the Cubs aimed high and tried to acquire All-Star closer Zach Britton before the July 31 trade deadline, but worried about the Baltimore Orioles stringing them along and how the chain of command and medical-review process works inside that organization.

The Cubs ultimately decided to strike a deal with the Detroit Tigers that would fill two needs at once – lefty reliever Justin Wilson and veteran catcher Alex Avila – and primarily cost a Triple-A prospect (Jeimer Candelario) who struggled during cameo appearances in the big leagues and would be blocked by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo anyway.    

“Our guys went after what we perceive to be the best fit,” Maddon said Thursday. “But the discussion wasn’t necessarily about getting another lefty because of these other teams.”       

Consider it a bonus, like Wilson coming with an extra year of club control and the potential to be the 2018 closer. A full-strength rotation already moved lefty swingman Mike Montgomery back into the bullpen, where left-hander Brian Duensing (2.45 ERA, 49 strikeouts/10 walks in 44 innings) has emerged as an underappreciated/overlooked asset.

[MORE: Joe Maddon getting Cubs into playoff mode: ‘You cannot be thin-skinned right now and win’

“The boys are just going after a good arm,” Maddon said. “There were some right-handed guys involved possibly, too. For me, if you look at (Wilson), he throws really well against both sides, so he is a strong neutral guy.”

Harper came into that marquee series in early May 2016 with a 1.021 OPS that dropped to .950 by the end of that month to .891 at the All-Star break to .814 at season’s end. Whatever contributed to that relative down year, Harper is back playing at an MVP level, hitting .324 with 27 homers and 80 RBI.   

But pick your poison when Murphy and Zimmerman are both hitting above .300 with 41 homers and 149 RBI combined and OPS totals north of .925.

“At that time, I didn’t know exactly where we were bullpen-wise,” Maddon said. “Zimmerman was hitting behind (Harper) and not having the season that he’s having right now. So I think the dynamic is more about the guys hitting behind him, for me, as opposed to who’s in our bullpen.

“We have three really solid left-handers. But last year, I did all that stuff based on Ryan was just struggling at that time. That was it. If Murphy was hitting behind him, I probably would not have done it.”

Harper enjoys the Wrigley Field stage and appreciates the sense of history here. During the four-game series the Cubs split at Nationals Park in late June, Harper went 5-for-16 with zero homers, two doubles, three walks and five strikeouts, driving in two runs and scoring two more.

At that point, the Cubs had a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist), a Gold Glove outfielder (Jason Heyward) and a Cy Young Award finalist (Kyle Hendricks) on the disabled list.

Of course, one way for the Cubs to handle Harper – and troll the Nationals and counteract the Dodgers – would be signing him as a free agent after the 2018 season and reuniting him with Bryant, the friendly rival he grew up playing with and against in Las Vegas.

But that is a discussion for another day. The Cubs are healthy after that wave of injuries, confident from their post-All-Star break surge and improved by those trade-deadline additions. The Dodgers are playing .700 baseball, but the Cubs aren’t going to concede home-field advantage to the Nationals in the first round of the playoffs.      

“It’s going to be interesting to see how we match up against them now,” Maddon said. “The way this is trending right now, I’m looking at (it like) of course the Dodgers are out of reach, but I think everybody else is in play.” 

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

For the second straight week, Kyle Schwarber halted his postgame media scrum to get something off his chest.

Standing at his locker — the same spot he stood exactly a week prior — the Cubs slugger got about as forceful as he's ever been with the cameras rolling.

Are the Cubs drained right now?

"Never. Nope. Not at all," Schwarber said. "I'll shut you down right there — we're not running out of gas at all."


You gotta admire Schwarber's grit. He's got that linebacker/football mentality still locked and loaded in mid-October after a brutal first three games of the NLCS.

But...come on. The Cubs aren't drained? They're not tired or weary or mentally fatigued?

Schwarber says no, but it doesn't look that way on the field. They look like the high point of the season was that epic Game 5 in D.C. It was one of the craziest baseball games ever played, very reminsicent of Game 7 in last year's World Series.

Only one thing: Game 7 was the ultimate last game. They left it all on the field and that was cool because there was no more season left. Last week's wacky contest wasn't the final game of the season. It was just the final game of the FIRST series of the postseason.

So if the Cubs aren't feeling any weariness — emotional, physical, mental or otherwise — they must be superhuman.

Yet Anthony Rizzo — the face of the franchise — backed Schwarber's sentiment.

"I'm 28 years old right now," Rizzo said. "I could run laps around this place right now. I've got a great job for a living to play baseball.

"We have a beautiful life playing baseball. You gotta keep that in perspective. So if you wanna try to get mentally tired, realize what we're doing."

Rizzo talked that talk, but his performance on the field has hit a wall. After his "Respect Me!" moment in Game 3 of the NLDS, Rizzo went hitless in his next 16 at-bats before a harmless single Tuesday night. He then struck out in his final trip to the plate.

Bryzzo's other half — Kris Bryant — actually took the opposite stance of his teammates.

"Yeah, [that Washington series] was pretty draining, I think," Bryant admitted. "Some good games there that I think were pretty taxing for our bullpen and pitchers, too. 

"Kinda expect that around this time of year. The games mean a lot."

It's not surprising to hear those words from Bryant. In fact, it wouldn't even be mildly shocking to hear every player in the clubhouse share the same point of view.

The Cubs played all the way past Halloween last fall, then hit the town, having epic celebrations, going on TV shows, having streets named after them, etc. 

Then, before you know it, there's Cubs Convention again. And shortly after that, pitchers and catchers report. 

From there, the "title defense" season began, featuring a lackluster first half and a second half that took a tremendous amount of energy just to stave off the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central and get into the postseason.

Oh yeah, and then that series with the Nationals where the Cubs squeaked out a trio of victories by the slimest of margins.

These Cubs have never really had anything resembling a break. 

However, they're now just one game away from getting that rest they so badly need (and deserve).

Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear


Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear

Ben Zobrist didn’t look for any deeper meaning in Kyle Schwarber’s first-inning homer off Yu Darvish on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, or hope that one swing could change the entire momentum of this National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Zobrist knows what it takes to win in October, the Cubs identifying him as the missing piece to their lineup after he helped transform the 2015 Kansas City Royals into a championship team, and then getting a World Series MVP return on their $56 million investment.

That “Schwarbomb” turned out to be fool’s gold, the only run the Cubs would score in front of a quiet, low-energy crowd of 41,871, the defending champs one more loss away from golfing/hunting/fishing/signing autographs at memorabilia shows.

“That was great to get a homer, but I’d rather see some hits strung together,” Zobrist said after a sloppy 6-1 loss, standing at his locker for almost 10 minutes, answering questions in the underground clubhouse. “I’d like to see a couple doubles together, a few singles, three or four hits in an inning. We just haven’t done that.

“That’s what makes rallies. They’ve stayed away from those kinds of innings. That’s why they’re ahead right now.”

Darvish – Jake Arrieta’s replacement in the 2018 rotation? – canceled out the two singles he allowed in the first inning by getting two of his seven strikeouts and answering some of the questions about how he would respond to all the pressure in October.

Darvish – a trade-deadline acquisition that had echoes of Theo Epstein’s “If not now, when?” explanation for last year’s Aroldis Chapman trade – walked one of the 25 batters he faced and pitched into the seventh inning before handing the game over to a lights-out bullpen.

“There’s nothing that we didn’t see beforehand on video,” Zobrist said. “It’s just a matter of we need him to make more mistakes, and we got to take advantage of those mistakes when he makes them.

“When he got to 3-2 counts, he wasn’t throwing a heater. He was throwing the cutter, and it’s a tough pitch to hit. You have to sit on it, and even then it’s got good movement to it. He kept us off-balance.”

Forward-thinking manager Dave Roberts is at the controls of a Los Angeles bullpen that can match up against right- and left-handed hitters, target locations, unleash upper-90s velocity, execute the elevated fastball that messes with eye levels and lean on All-Star closer Kenley Jansen for multiple innings.

The Dodger relievers essentially put together a no-hitter that lasted nine-plus innings across Games 1, 2 and 3. Together, they have pitched 10.2 scoreless innings, facing 36 batters and allowing two hits and a walk and hitting Anthony Rizzo with a pitch.

“They kept the ball on the edges and kept us off-balance,” Zobrist said. “They’re not throwing the pitch in the middle of the plate when we need them to. They’re keeping it on the edges and those are hard (to hit). When you got guys with good stuff on the mound, you need them to make some mistakes for you, or at least start walking some guys.

“When they’ve gotten in those situations with a three-ball count, they’re still making the pitch when they need to. They’re not walking many guys – and we are.

“That’s why they’re up 3-nothing.”

Zobrist (4-for-23 this postseason) is now more of a part-time player/defensive replacement, no longer the switch-hitting force who dropped the bunt at Dodger Stadium that helped end the 21-inning scoreless streak during last year’s NLCS.

Zobrist insisted the Cubs are still all there mentally, not checked out after a grueling first round against the Washington Nationals and a brutal walk-off loss in Game 2 at Dodger Stadium. He owns two World Series rings and one has the Cubs logo and this inscription: “We Never Quit.”

“We keep it loose all the time,” Zobrist said. “We know what’s at stake. And we don’t shy away from it. We look forward to the challenge ahead. It would be a great story for us to be able to come back in this series and win this series.

“We make adjustments, we take advantage of mistakes and we come out with a victory tomorrow. That’s what we have to do.”