Cubs

Cubs want another shot at Nationals in October after playoff preview lives up to hype

Cubs want another shot at Nationals in October after playoff preview lives up to hype

WASHINGTON — Imagine the anxiety, the drama, the TV ratings if Bryce Harper, Dusty Baker, Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals stood in between the Cubs and their first trip to the World Series since the year World War II ended.

All the national media, Wrigleyville bar owners and Major League Baseball can do is dream about that October matchup after Wednesday night’s back-and-forth game finally ended in the 12th inning when Jayson Werth’s walk-off single banged off the center-field wall at Nationals Park for a 5-4 victory.

“Holy s---!” Werth told MASN on-field reporter Dan Kolko during the postgame interview that echoed throughout the stadium. Werth — who looks like a caveman with that long hair and thick beard — also had a message for anyone who doubted how much he had left at the age of 37: “Those people can kiss my ass!”

It sounded like Washington’s clubhouse leader spoke for his entire team after an intense game that lasted four hours and 17 minutes. The Nationals got payback after last month’s four-game sweep at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs walked Harper 13 times and got inside Washington’s head.

The Nationals (41-25) aren’t going to crown the Cubs, something Baker reminded the media this week, almost sounding like Dennis Green talking about the Bears. The Cubs (44-20) won the season series (5-2), but the Nationals exposed slight cracks in the foundation. And neither team will necessarily be the same after the trade deadline, much less four months from now.

“Maybe an October preview,” said Jason Hammel, who allowed one run and matched the undefeated Strasburg through the first seven innings. “These are the best teams in baseball going at it, exchanging punches.

“It was exciting. We had our chances to do it, and they answered back. That’s what you’re going to get out of two teams that know how (to) create something that’s not there.”

Like Washington pinch-hitter Stephen Drew lining setup guy Pedro Strop’s 94-mph fastball over the right-field wall for an eighth-inning home run that momentarily put the Nationals up 2-1.

Or Anthony Rizzo responding in the ninth inning by destroying a 79-mph pitch from lefty reliever Oliver Perez, the ball slamming off the small scoreboard above the right-field bullpen for a go-ahead two-run homer.

“I guess I will say it — it kind of had that playoff feel (where) you can’t take anything for granted,” Rizzo said. “That was a fun game. It was a crazy game. And the type of games you see in October.”

And then Harper burned Cubs closer Hector Rondon with a leadoff walk in the ninth inning, scoring from second base on Wilson Ramos’ two-out line-drive single into left field. Rondon got five outs and the win in Tuesday night’s 4-3 victory, but that’s now back-to-back blown saves against the Nationals.

“Our bullpen, we feel a little down, but we know that happens at some point in the season,” Rondon said. “It felt like a playoff game, so it’s good for us to get that mentality. We know when we’re there later in the season that we have to figure out how to win against those guys.”

Baker — who once managed the Cubs to within five outs of the National League pennant in 2003 — navigated through 12 innings without injured closer Jonathan Papelbon. But this isn’t just about old history or only 2016, either, because in some ways these are model organizations bursting with young, blue-chip talent that could make this a heated rivalry.

Albert Almora Jr. (age 22) and Addison Russell (age 22) manufactured a run against Washington’s Yusmeiro Petit in the 12th inning, again showing their sense of calm, love for the bright lights and baseball IQ. Almora led off with a single, hustled to second base on a wild pitch and scored on Russell’s clutch single up the middle, putting the Cubs up 4-3.

But Trevor Cahill and Adam Warren, the fifth and sixth relievers out of Joe Maddon’s bullpen, couldn’t get the final three outs, leaving the manager to put a positive spin on it.

“There’s nothing to cry about,” Maddon said. “They beat us. That happens sometimes. And you can’t try to dissect it any further than that. They won.”

After this three-city road trip, the Cubs flew back to Chicago, where they will face the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals, the two teams they eliminated from last year’s playoffs, looking to build double-digit leads on their division rivals during a six-game homestand that begins Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field.

But the Cubs aren’t going to lose sight of the Nationals.

“They know they’re good,” Rondon said. “We’re almost the same kind of team. Hopefully we see those guys next time in the playoffs.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”