Cubs

Five breakthroughs that pushed Cubs into playoff showdown against Nationals

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USA TODAY

Five breakthroughs that pushed Cubs into playoff showdown against Nationals

On Opening Night, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred huddled with a small group of reporters on Busch Stadium’s service level, listening to questions about what the Cubs could do for the sport’s profile (think late-1990s New York Yankees), why their personalities connect with fans (like today’s Golden State Warriors) and how Theo Epstein ranked No. 1 on Fortune’s “World’s Greatest Leaders” list (or two spots ahead of Pope Francis).

“Well, listen, I’m a good Catholic,” Manfred said. “I’m not going to comment on that one. It is Lent and all that.”

Manfred projected new-year optimism on April 2, because the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals would be on ESPN that Sunday night, and what he said then remains true now: “An iconic franchise with a great storyline is something special.”

Fast forward to October and the Cubs are still the defending World Series champs, heading into another made-for-TV matchup against the Washington Nationals after winning the National League Central by six games.

But the 2017 season didn’t at all feel like a coronation, the Cubs banging their heads against the .500 wall at 21 different points, suffering injuries up and down the roster and underachieving to a level where Epstein considered selling short-term assets like Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and All-Star closer Wade Davis if the team didn’t immediately respond after the All-Star break.

So while 92 wins and a third straight playoff appearance may have seemed preordained six months ago, the Cubs needed breakthrough moments to get into the best-of-five battle that begins Friday at Nationals Park:

• Shocking the baseball world by pulling off the Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox became as much about stabilizing the 2018, 2019 and 2020 rotations as trying to save this season. But the Cubs accomplished both goals with that blockbuster deal, reenergizing a team that had been 43-45 at the All-Star break and 5.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers.

A low-key personality, Quintana still showed up at Camden Yards and immediately changed the clubhouse dynamics, dazzling the Cubs during his July 16 debut, an 8-0 win that became the exclamation point to a three-game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles. The consistent lefty handled the pennant-race pressure, going 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA in 14 starts after spending parts of six seasons on the South Side.

Quintana has never before pitched in the playoffs – or faced the Nationals – and will be counted on in future Octobers.

“Our guys were fired up about the trade, and they all came back really refreshed from the break,” Epstein said. “You could kind of see it in their eyes. It was just time to get going.”

• Deflecting questions about his diminished velocity, unconventional mechanics, postseason wear and tear and looming free agency, Arrieta rediscovered the kind of zone that made him the NL’s 2015 Cy Young Award winner. Arrieta’s strong July (3-1, 2.25 ERA) and lights-out August (4-1, 1.21 ERA) helped the Cubs enter September with a 3.5-game lead in the division.

Arrieta would always have an outsized influence on this season, because he’s already shown that he can carry a team and swing a playoff series, which makes his Grade 1 right hamstring strain such an X-factor against Washington.

“It’s almost like a new normal he’s trying to pitch with right now until he gets back to his old self,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s a tough injury. It’s one of those things that’s in the back of your mind all the time.

“It’s there because you know how much it hurts if you do it again. There’s that guarded approach to everything you’re doing, so you’re trying to go through your typical patterns. But in the back of your mind: ‘If I go too far, is it going to pull?’

“Nope, it didn’t pull. Then your next pitch, you go through that same mental routine. Until you get beyond it. It’s just one of those things you have to get beyond, so it’s going to take time.”

• Imagine where the Cubs would be if they had let Jorge Soler’s value completely crater and failed to close the Wade Davis trade with the Kansas City Royals at the winter meetings. Davis helped the Cubs stay afloat and find their finishing kick by converting his first 32 save chances, preventing even more negativity from seeping into the clubhouse. By importing veterans like Davis, outfielder Jon Jay and setup guy Koji Uehara, the Cubs stressed World Series experience, a sense of professionalism and never-panic attitudes.

“We have such a great vibe, and such a great culture in our clubhouse, that we’re so careful now on who we bring in, because we want to make sure that we continue that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “When you look at the three major acquisitions this winter, all these guys have been part of championship teams. They understand what it takes to win.”

• Javy Being Javy: The Cubs actually gained ground in the standings while All-Star shortstop Addison Russell slowly recovered from a strained right foot and plantar fasciitis. Javier Baez started 41 of 42 games at shortstop between Aug. 3 and Sept. 16 and hit .282 with eight homers and 27 RBI during that stretch. Not that Baez lacked for confidence – this is someone who got the MLB logo tattooed onto the back of his neck as a teenager – but he is ready to build off last year’s breakout playoff performance.

“Without Javy being here when Addie got hurt, it would not look the same right now,” Maddon said. “I promise you it would not look the same. The ability to plug up the middle of the field the way Javy’s done in the absence of Addison – we would not be in this position right now. That’s it. Very simple.

“It’s so important to have a legitimate shortstop. We have two legitimate shortstops and they’re both (around) the same birth year. It’s very unusual to have that. The depth to us has been so invaluable.

“Give our front office – Theo and Jed – a lot of credit to have all the foresight to plan for those kinds of things. Without Javy, we would not have this many wins.”

• The Cubs were built to withstand the war of attrition across the 162-game schedule and outlast the smaller-market teams within their division.

Kyle Schwarber wound up with 30 home runs in a season marked by a failed leadoff experiment and a demotion to Triple-A Iowa. Ian Happ put up 24 home runs and an .842 OPS during his rookie season. Backup catcher Alex Avila was good enough to be a frontline guy for the Detroit Tigers teams that won four straight division titles between 2011 and 2014. Lefty swingman Mike Montgomery (7-8, 3.38 ERA in 130-plus innings) saved the bullpen and the rotation while lefty reliever Brian Duensing (2.74 ERA in 68 appearances) will also be in Maddon’s playoff circle of trust.

But beyond depth, there will be more than enough Bryzzo, big-game experience and premium talent on this playoff roster to beat a Nationals team that still has so much to prove in October.

“I think this year there have been long stretches where kind of everybody was pulling their hair out or searching a little bit,” Epstein said. “We’ve dealt with some things this year, but answered a lot of questions. There’s always a question: ‘Can you raise your level of play when it matters most?’ And I think our guys are proving that they can.”

Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

MESA, Ariz. — For years, Chris Bosio was credited as part of the reason for the Cubs’ recent string of pitching success. He helped turn Jake Arrieta into a Cy Young winner and oversaw pitching staffs that led the Cubs to three consecutive NLCS appearances and that curse-smashing World Series win in 2016.

But now it’s 2018, and Bosio is out. Jim Hickey is in.

The Cubs’ new pitching coach arrives with high expectations and has been tasked with shepherding a group of arms that saw a few too many bumps in the road last season. Jon Lester had his worst season in a long time, Jose Quintana’s numbers weren’t as good as they had been during his time with the White Sox, Tyler Chatwood led the National League in losses last season, and Yu Darvish got roughed up in a pair of World Series starts. And that’s before even mentioning the bullpen.

Still, even with all that said, the Cubs look to have, on paper, one of the best starting rotations in the game. And the upgrades in the bullpen have tempered some of the rage over the relief corps’ repeated postseason implosions. Theo Epstein’s front office had a mission this offseason to improve the pitching staff, and Hickey is a very large part of trying to accomplish that mission.

“What really was the slam dunk in my decision to come to Chicago or at least the finishing touches on it was getting to meet Theo, getting to meet Jed (Hoyer), going physically to Chicago, go to the offices there, seeing the physical building, meeting the people inside, just getting that vibe. Everybody was on the same page, and that page was winning,” Hickey said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. “And also built not just to win here for two or three years but for a sustained period of time, and that was what was very, very attractive.”

Hickey’s ties to the Cubs are obvious. He worked as Joe Maddon’s pitching coach in Tampa Bay for eight seasons before Maddon left to take over managing duties on the North Side. The two coached some phenomenal pitchers with the Rays, guys like James Shields, David Price, Scott Kazmir and Chris Archer and won an American League pennant in 2008. Prior to that, Hickey coached for the Houston Astros and oversaw a staff that included Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt en route to the 2005 World Series.

How does the Cubs’ rotation of Lester, Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Quintana and Chatwood compare to those great rotations from Hickey’s past?

“That’s a really tough question. But I think one through five, it may be as deep as any staff that I’ve had,” he said. “Really tough to say. I’ll give you a better idea after the season’s over, but one through five, it’s really, really good. Had some very, very good staffs, obviously, in years past. But these five guys, we talk about it all the time, the starters pitching innings and not falling into this pattern of starters being used less and less and the bullpen being used more and more.

“If you were to give me a staff of five guys, or give anybody a staff of five guys, that threw between 185 and 200 innings, you would probably have a championship-caliber club. And that’s what my expectations are out of this staff, and I think they will be a championship-caliber club.”

Hickey’s toughest task, though, likely won’t be working with all those veteran starters but instead working with a  bullpen that struggled under the bright lights of the postseason last October. While Cubs relievers had the sixth-lowest ERA in baseball during the regular season (3.80), the playoffs were a different story, with the bullpen rocked to the tune of a 6.21 ERA. Cubs relievers walked a postseason-high 27 batters while striking out only 35 in 37.2 innings.

The front office tried to fix that strike-throwing problem by bringing in new closer Brandon Morrow, who shone with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, and Steve Cishek, who has closing experience from his time with the Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners, plus he worked with Hickey last season in Tampa Bay.

But Hickey is the bigger key to fixing that problem, and it’s one of his biggest objectives to not just bring the walks down but make the Cubs one of the best staffs in baseball when it comes to issuing free passes.

“I really think that walks, especially out of the bullpen, are a little bit more of a mindset than they are anything physically or mechanically wrong,” he said. “You come into a situation where maybe you give up a base hit and maybe it changes the game, so you’re a little bit reluctant to throw the ball over the plate.

“So I think it’s more of a mindset, and once the group gets the mindset of ‘attack, attack, attack,’ it’ll be contagious. And I think it is contagious. I think last year it was probably contagious in that there was more walks than you would like, and I think as you turn the corner and head the other direction, that would be contagious, as well.

“I have very few outcome goals in a season. I don’t sit there and say, ‘I want to lead the league in earned-run average’ or ‘I want to lead the league in strikeouts.’ … But that one thing, that one outcome goal that I always have for a staff is to have the least amount of walks in the league. And I think at the end of the day, especially with the talent that’s out there, if that is the case, it’s going to be an extremely successful season.”

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”