Cubs

Heading to Triple-A Iowa, Dillon Maples could be X-factor for Cubs

Heading to Triple-A Iowa, Dillon Maples could be X-factor for Cubs

Whether or not the Cubs add a high-octane reliever before the July 31 trade deadline, Dillon Maples is lurking as an X-factor in the second half for the defending World Series champs.

The Cubs are planning to promote Maples to Triple-A Iowa, sources said Monday, after the right-hander blew away hitters at Double-A Tennessee, pitching backwards and unleashing a wipeout slider to notch 28 strikeouts in 13.2 innings.  

Maples had never pitched above the A-ball level until this season, putting up a 5.33 career ERA and staying far off the radar after getting a $2.5 million bonus as a 14th-round pick in the 2011 draft, the last one overseen by former general manager Jim Hendry.

That’s when chairman Tom Ricketts wisely authorized a spending spree before a new collective bargaining agreement would radically change the spending limits on amateur talent. Ricketts fired Hendry in a secret meeting that summer, but asked him to stay on and close a draft class headlined by Javier Baez.

Maples – Gatorade’s North Carolina high school player of the year – had options as a punter/kicker with a football scholarship to the University of North Carolina. While that athleticism hasn’t translated into the frontline starter the Cubs once envisioned – Maples has dealt with injuries and thrown only 182.1 innings across the last five seasons combined – something clicked out of the bullpen this year.

The Cubs see Maples as having an 80 slider on the 20-80 scouting scale and encouraged him to use that as his primary weapon, understanding there will still be a learning curve in the Pacific Coast League.

Maples also gave up 11 hits and 11 walks in those 13.2 innings with the Smokies after a strong showing at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach (4-0, 2.01 ERA, 44 strikeouts in 31.1 innings).

That’s probably not where Maples envisioned beginning his age-25 season. And Joe Maddon’s bullpen – with All-Star closer Wade Davis and setup guys Carl Edwards Jr., Koji Uehara and Pedro Strop – has been a real strength for a 46-45 team. But all these years later, Maples will soon be one phone call away from Wrigley Field.

The Cubs are so good on defense, they even elicited an emotional reaction from Kyle Hendricks

The Cubs are so good on defense, they even elicited an emotional reaction from Kyle Hendricks

Kyle Hendricks never shows emotion on the mound.

Never.

That's what made his simple gesture — mouthing the word "wow" — during Thursday night's 1-0 win over the Brewers so intriguing.

Albert Almora Jr. had just made a nice running catch on the warning track in dead center in the top of the sixth inning, yet another highlight-reel play from the young outfielder.

Hendricks thought it was an extra-base hit for Brewers leadoff hitter Lorenzo Cain, but Almora turned it into Out No. 2 in the inning.

"I see the ball hit, I'm just hoping to keep it to a double at that point," Hendricks said. "And then when he reaches his glove up and catches it, yeah, it's an instant reaction. 

"You're not expecting that at all. I think I mouthed that over to [Tommy] La Stella at third base; he said the same thing. It was a hell of a catch. That's what he's been doing lately. It's fun to watch him out there."

Hendricks pitches so devoid of any emotion, he's even poked fun at himself by using Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion" as his walk-up song.

His Cubs teammates — including Kyle Schwarber Thursday night — describe Hendricks as pitching with "no pulse out there." If you just watched his reactions and body language, you wouldn't know if he's throwing a no-hitter or getting shelled.

Hendricks also works quickly, always keeping his defense on his toes. He struck out only 5 batters in 7 shutout innings Thursday, so he needed to rely on his defense a bunch.

It wasn't just Almora that stepped up behind Hendricks. Javy Baez made a spectacular leaping grab and also turned a lightning-quick double play to get the Cubs out of a jam. And Anthony Rizzo did his usual work with a couple of nice plays the night after committing his first error in more than a calendar year (a Cubs record). 

Schwarber — who provided the only offense of the game with a lined shot into the Budweiser patio in right field — loves standing in left field and watching his teammates play defense.

"Everybody's talking about Almora," Schwarber said. "I saw that in High-A, the way that he goes after balls and he's able to get there. 

"It's just a lot of fun to watch him go out there and make those catches. And obviously Javy out there, too, just Javy being Javy."

The Cubs don't appear to be on a trajectory toward following in the footsteps of the 2016 team that played defense at a historic level, but they also proved in the series opener with the Brewers that they can still win with pitching and defense.

With the starting rotation looking more like themselves and the weather conditions getting back to normal, the defense can once again settle in as a strength of this team.

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 6th homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 6th homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa once again terrorized the Padres for his sixth homer of 1998, coming as his last blast in the month of April.

Slammin' Sammy went deep in the first inning, a two-run shot off San Diego starter Joey Hamilton for 434 feet, his longest shot of the campaign to date. It staked the Cubs to an early lead they did not relinquish in a 3-1 victory.

Six down, 60 to go.

It's crazy to see how slow of a start Sosa got to a record-setting season, but I guess 20 homers in one month will get you back on track pretty quickly.

Fun fact: Kevin Tapani shut down a Padres lineup that included Tony Gwynn, Steve Finley, Ken Caminiti and Greg Vaughn, holding San Diego to just one run in 8 innings. Rod Beck picked up his 8th save on the year.

Fun fact 2: The game took just over two hours (2:06) to complete, as both starting pitchers worked quickly and efficiently and each team made just one pitching change apiece.