Cubs

CubsTalk Podcast: Clinch parties and playoff rotations

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AP

CubsTalk Podcast: Clinch parties and playoff rotations

Insider Patrick Mooney and producers Jeff Nelson and Scott Changnon to describe their unique experiences to watching the Cubs clinch the 2017 National League Central Wednesday night while taking a look at how far the Cubs have come over the last few years in the rivalry with the St. Louis Cardinals.

And with attention now focused on the postseason, who will the Cubs insert into their playoff rotation and in what order? Was this John Lackey’s last appearance in a Cubs uniform? And how will the bullpen shake out in October?

Check out the entire podcast here:

Closing the book on 2017: 5 things we learned from this Cubs postseason

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USA TODAY

Closing the book on 2017: 5 things we learned from this Cubs postseason

Hey, there's always last year.

The Cubs' 2017 season is now over, by virtue of an 11-1 drubbing at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers Thursday night at a shell-shocked Wrigley Field.

The Cubs are not going to enter their name into the history books (for any good reason, anyways. Their postseason batting average on the other hand...)

Wednesday's nail-biting win over the Dodgers was something of a last tribute to the ever-loyal fanbase and not actually the beginning of a comeback from down 0-3 in the NLCS.

There will be plenty of time — all winter, actually — to digest this Cubs season, but here are five quick takeaways entering the offseason:

The bullpen is the No. 1 area of need.

That's obvious to anybody who's watched any Cubs game this postseason.

The only reliever Maddon truly trusted all October was Wade Davis, and he even he finished with a 4.26 ERA and 1.72 WHIP.

Pedro Strop and Brian Duensing flew under the radar with an overall solid body of work this postseason. Strop will be back next year, but Duensing is a free agent and was one of the best bargains in baseball at a $2 million salary for 2017.

Davis is also a free agent and Carl Edwards Jr. certainly doesn't look to be ascending into that closer's role anytime soon. The Cubs thought they were getting a guy who could close in 2018 when they acquired Justin Wilson at the trade deadline, but the lefty wasn't even active for the NLCS.

Shoring up the bullpen will be the primary concern for Theo Epstein's front office this winter, especially with how important relievers have become in October the last few falls.

Hangovers are real.

The Cubs have shown signs of having a World Series hangover the entirety of 2017 — mentally, physically, emotionally.

The first half of the season proved that, but the Cubs have not been the same team with a relentless lineup this entire postseason. They topped three runs in only one of 10 postseason games, and in that one (Game 5), they took advantage more of Washington's mistakes rather than hitting the crap out of the ball.

The Cubs just looked out of gas in the NLCS, which is understandable. They've played more baseball than any other team (by a sizable margin) the last three seasons, playing into November last year. Throw in all the national TV appearances and street dedications and all that jazz and the winter was amazingly short for Joe Maddon and Co.

But even looking just at this fall, the Cubs never quite recovered from the hangover of that epic Game 5 in the NLDS. They left so much on that field in Washington D.C. and never found their rhythm again after.

The Cubs have an amazing library of resiliency to draw confidence from.

As if Game 7 and the 2016 postseason run wasn't enough, this Cubs core found so many more reasons for confidence this October.

So they were being no-hit by a Cy Young finalist in the latter innings of a game. They could still pull off a victory, which they did twice in the NLDS.

So they had their backs against the wall in both the NLDS and NLCS. They responded with wins in their first two elimination games of the postseason.

That NLDS finale alone will be something they can draw on for the rest of their careers, much like Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.

The Cubs' lineup needs more.

Epstein's front office has invested so much in young hitting over the last few years, but this was not a banner month for those guys.

Bryzzo Souvenir Co. had a particularly rough showing, with Kris Bryant's only postseason homer coming when his team was already down 9-0 in an elimination game against the Dodgers.

Anthony Rizzo yelled "RESPECT ME!" after a bloop basehit against the Nationals in Game 3 of the NLDS and went hitless in his next 16 at-bats right after that.

And when Bryzzo doesn't hit, this lineup looks a whole lot different. That same thing can be said about any team in baseball if you take the two best hitters out of the equation, but given the youth of the Cubs offense, they needed their MVP candidates.

But this October also proved how necessary a leadoff hitter is for the team, shining even more light on the absence of Dexter Fowler.

Ben Zobrist had a forgettable 2017 season from start to finish and wound up hitless in the NLCS and with just a .160 batting average this postseason. This is a guy who spent all of last October protecting Bryzzo in the lineup and winning World Series MVP honors.

The Cubs struck out 105 times in 10 postseason games while hitting just nine homers (most of which were of the solo variety). 

The offense's undoing also put more pressure on the pitching staff — and bullpen in general — all postseason.

The Cubs lineup may look a bit different in 2018 with guys like Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ possibly playing more.

But Zobrist is still under contract and will be 37. Jason Heyward (and his .108 postseason batting average in a Cubs uniform) hasn't provided the offensive production in October the Cubs hoped for when they inked him to a $184 million deal (though he gives one hell of a speech and is a great presence in the clubhouse and in the outfield).

It'll be interesting to see what the Cubs do to address the leadoff position this winter, but other than that, almost the entire crew will be back.

And keep in mind: This is a small sample size that just so happened to come at the wrong time for the Cubs. There's also the fact they went up against elite pitcher after elite pitcher this October, but such is life in the postseason.

Last fall was filled with clutch, timely hits from guys like Addison Russell, Javy Baez and Willson Contreras and all three of those guys didn't have the same impact this year.

This truly is the golden era of Cubs baseball.

Len Kasper summed up this season perfectly as the calendar flipped to October:

It really is a great time to be a Cubs fan, even if they aren't getting a shot to take home a second straight championship.

All the postseason statistical leaders in franchise history play on this team right now.

Consider: 

—The top five spots on the most RBI in Cubs postseason history are Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber.

—Jake Arrieta has the most wins (5) in Cubs postseason history.

—Arrieta, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks are 1-2-3 in Cubs postseason strikeout history.

—Bryant and Rizzo lead the franchise in postseason hits while Baez is tied for fourth.

After so many years of losing, this team not only ended the 108-year title drought but also made it to the NLCS for three straight seasons. That's a remarkable stretch of success that doesn't figure to end anytime soon with how much of the core is back for 2018 and beyond.

If you told Cubs fans five years ago they would be one of the last four teams left alive in Major League Baseball for three straight seasons and have a World Series championship in that span, every single fan would sell their soul for that chance.

Regardless of how it ended, the 2017 Cubs season was an overwhelming, smashing success.

Theo Epstein: Joe Maddon has taken enough heat, don’t blame NLCS on Cubs manager

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein: Joe Maddon has taken enough heat, don’t blame NLCS on Cubs manager

The second-guessing of Joe Maddon jumped the shark when someone questioned why the manager didn’t pinch-hit for Kyle Hendricks – with two outs in the fourth inning of a 2-1 game the Cubs would lose by five runs to a Los Angeles Dodgers team at 110 wins and counting this year.

Maddon makes himself a target when he shows up to a Dodger Stadium press conference in a hipster jean jacket, gets ejected from two of the first four National League Championship Series games, likens the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax, lectures the media about the dangers of dry-humping and threatens to “come running out of the clubhouse in my jockstrap” if Curtis Granderson hits a disputed home run instead of swinging at strike four.

You won’t have Maddon to kick around anymore, because Thursday night’s ugly 11-1 Game 5 loss ended the 2017 season and turned out the lights at Wrigley Field, the Dodgers advancing to their first World Series since 1988 and looking a lot like the 2016 Cubs.

“It’s not Joe Maddon against Dave Roberts,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “It’s the Cubs against the Dodgers. And the Dodgers have played extraordinarily well this postseason. We’ve played with a ton of heart and character, but we haven’t played our best baseball.”

Why would a manager even need a jockstrap, anyway? “That was just hyperbole on my part,” Maddon said. “Everybody’s so literal. It’s baseball prose.”

The game is now dissected 140 characters at a time on Twitter, where there isn’t enough room and attention bandwidth to explain how: the Dodgers have merged their great tradition of scouting and player development with cutting-edge analytics and $200 million payrolls; beating the Washington Nationals in an epic elimination game drained the defending champs physically and emotionally; this lineup isn’t nearly as good as the one that won last year’s World Series; and trade-deadline nonfactor Justin Wilson created a huge hole in a Cubs bullpen without many good options right now.

“It’s not manager against manager,” Epstein said. “That stuff just gets under the microscope so much this time of year. It’s players performing. And when you get a lead in the series – and when you’ve got a bunch of relievers throwing well – you can make tactically aggressive decisions. Your strategies tend to work.

“When you’re in a tough spot late in the game – and you’re searching for consistency in the ‘pen – it just puts all managers in tough spots.”

Even Epstein has admitted that Maddon opened himself up to second-guessing for how he handled Aroldis Chapman and managed last year’s World Series Game 7.

We’ll never know what would have happened if Maddon summoned Wade Davis for the ninth inning in Game 2 instead of letting John Lackey face Justin Turner and then watching that three-run, walk-off homer at Dodger Stadium. We’re not quite sure if the All-Star closer really was close to full strength or just getting by with guts and intelligence. But it’s pretty obvious the better team won this NLCS.

Epstein definitely felt frustrated with the way Maddon’s team sleepwalked through a 43-45 first half. That could be a much bigger issue than any lineup choice or bullpen decision moving forward: Making sure Maddon’s positive message doesn’t get tuned out in the clubhouse and having the safeguards in place so that hands-off approach doesn’t waste a season for this extremely talented young core.

But Maddon has guided this franchise into the playoffs for three straight years – something no one else had done since Frank Chance in 1906-08 – and at a certain point all he can do is watch along with the rest of us.

“It’s not about front offices or managers,” Epstein said. “It’s about the players.”