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Gerrit Cole getting stronger as wild card game vs. Cubs looms

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Gerrit Cole getting stronger as wild card game vs. Cubs looms

For all the unbridled optimism and positivity surrounding the Cubs, they’ll still have to get through Pittsburgh Pirates ace Gerrit Cole to make their first playoff appearance since 2008 count.

The 25-year-old Pirates right-hander fired seven innings of one-run ball on Friday at Wrigley Field, limiting the Cubs to four hits and two walks with eight strikeouts. As a result, the Cubs’ celebration for clinching a playoff spot — and another time facing Cole in Oct. 7’s wild card game — will have to wait after a 3-2 loss in front of 40,432.

[MORE: Playoff party on hold as Cubs lose to Pirates]

“It’s put up or shut up now,” Cole said. “You gotta get the job done.”

Cole threw 84 fastballs in 109 pitches against the Cubs and averaged 97.6 miles per hour on those heaters, according to BrooksBaseball.net. He’s a fastball-heavy pitcher, throwing it about two in every three pitches with an average velocity of 95.6 miles per hour in his 32 starts before Friday.

That uptick in velocity supports what manager Clint Hurdle said before the game: Cole is getting stronger instead of wilting in the first 200-inning season of his career.

“Nobody has any idea what he does in between (starts),” Hurdle said. “Nobody pays attention. All they do is count innings, most of them. He’s in a very good place right now. I think he’s dealing from a position of strength that’s going to make him better.”

This is Cole’s third year in the major leagues, and he’s handled his first significant innings increase well. Injuries limited him to 138 innings in 2014, but he’s at 201 following his Friday start. He’s lined up to pitch one more time next week, so he’ll enter the wild card game with about a 70-inning increase from his previous high.

Chris Stewart, who caught Cole’s first three outings against the Cubs before Francisco Cervelli started Friday, agreed — Cole hasn’t experienced any drop-off from his All-Star level earlier in the season.

“He’s still going strong, still confident in himself,” Stewart said. “He’s our guy that we’re going to lean on. Strength-wise, everything’s coming out normal, mentality-wise, he’s still as strong mentally as he was at the beginning of the season.”

[MORE: Joe Maddon: No place for retribution in Cubs-Pirates rivalry]

Shutting down his team's likely wild card opponent is nothing new for Cole, who has only allowed one extra-base hit in four starts against the Cubs. He lowed his ERA to 2.13 in 25 1/3 innings and upped his strikeout-to-walk ratio to 32/4 in those games. There’s a reason why Hurdle tweaked his rotation earlier this month to line up Cole to pitch in the wild card game. 

The Cubs will have to find a solution for Cole. They didn’t have one Friday afternoon.

“We knew that facing an ace with that kind of stuff, it's gonna be a grind,” outfielder Chris Coghlan said. “When he misses his pitches, you have to capitalize on it. ... If we play them in the playoffs, we need to do a better job.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: