Cubs

How the Cubs match up against the Dodgers in the NLCS

How the Cubs match up against the Dodgers in the NLCS

Ben Zobrist used a 1910 model of a glove during the Cubs workout Thursday, "just for fun."

Think the Cubs are loose enough?

Zobrist and his teammates are feeling themselves right now, as well they should. 

Tuesday's NLDS-clinching Game 4 comeback in San Francisco ranks among the best in MLB posteason history and the team that finished the regular season with the best record in baseball is overflowing with confidence.

As the Los Angeles Dodgers pulled out all the stops to fend off the Washington Nationals in a high-stress Game 5 Thursday night, the Cubs only had to be concerned with what to eat for dinner ("I think we're gonna use UberEats," Joe Maddon said).

Before the Dodgers and Nationals squared off in the longest nine-inning game in postseason history, Maddon didn't need to deliver any John Wooden quotes about how the Cubs just needed to focus on playing their game. 

Been there, done that.

Beyond Clayton Kershaw, the Cubs hitters have very little experience going up against the rest of the Dodgers pitchers, but that wasn't enough to create any sense of panic in Maddon at the Cubs workout at Wrigley Field Thursday.

"It's the same way for us, although I do believe a pitcher who's pitching well should have an advantage over a team that has not seen him to that point, normally," Maddon said. "Kershaw, we've seen in the past and you know how good he is. [Rich] Hill, I've never seen in person yet, but I've seen him on TV. 

"Of course, it's something different. But I wouldn't worry about that. ... I honestly believe our guys will be equal to the challenge. I know they're gonna be ready. We're feeling pretty good about ourselves. Just continually work the moment and we'll be fine."

The Cubs are already in a good spot, getting three full days of rest before the National League Championship Series starts Saturday night. 

Plus, they get to reset their rotation and roll out their ace (Jon Lester) for Game 1 in hopes of setting the tone again. 

The Dodgers, meanwhile, tapped their closer (Kenley Jansen) for a career-high 51 pitches and both of their top two starters (Kershaw and Rich Hill) in the do-or-die Game 5 Thursday night.

Kershaw threw 110 pitches in Game 4 Tuesday, had a day off, then threw another seven pitches to get two outs Thursday night. Would the Dodgers push him again to start one of the games at Wrigley this weekend?

Hill dealt with blister issues the entire second half of the season and already started Game 5 Thursday on short rest after throwing 82 pitches on Sunday. He wasn't all that effective in either outing (combined 6.43 ERA, 1.86 WHIP).

But the Dodgers are far more than just three pitchers.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

2016 SEASON SERIES

The Cubs went 4-3 against the Dodgers in the regular season, winning three of four at Wrigley in June before dropping a pair of one-run contests in a three-game set at Dodger Stadium in late August.

The Cubs finished the season with a +252 run differential, but that number was only +3 against the Dodgers in the seven games as the Cubs offense averaged only 2.7 runs per game against L.A. pitching.

LINEUP

The Dodgers lineup is so loaded with lefties, both Maddon and Cubs GM Jed Hoyer admitted rookie southpaw Rob Zastryzny could crack the 25-man NLCS roster.

Zastryzny has only 16 big-league innings under his belt and got lost in the shuffle a little bit down the stretch, appearing in only two games in the final four weeks of the regular season. But the results were all positive (1.13 ERA, 1.06 WHIP).

In the winner-take-all Game 5, the Dodgers started six lefties and a switch-hitter against Nationals ace Max Scherzer and then brought out another lefty (Andre Ethier) to pinch hit.

Beyond Lester, the Cubs also had three southpaws in their bullpen in the NLDS - Travis Wood, Mike Montgomery and closer Aroldis Chapman. Zastryzny would represent another weapon if the Cubs went that route.

Regardless of side, the Dodgers have a deep lineup with a nice blend of youth (Corey Seager, Joc Pederson) and battle-tested veterans (Chase Utley, Justin Turner, Adrian Gonzalez) plus role players like Josh Reddick, Howie Kendrick and the enigmatic Yasiel Puig.

Utley and catcher Carlos Ruiz won the World Series with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008 and will help keep the clubhouse focused on the big picture.

ROTATION

Kershaw pulled a Madison Bumgarner by pitching in three of the five NLDS games, leaving his status in doubt. 

Is Game 1 out of the question? He only threw seven pitches Thursday night plus his warm-ups in the bullpen. Other than that, he had Wednesday and will have Friday off after Tuesday's 110-pitch start.

Can he go in Game 2 Sunday night? Or will the Dodgers play it safe and just wait to unleash him until next week in Los Angeles?

Those are the main questions around the Dodgers rotation, since the sun rises and sets with Kershaw, the best pitcher on the planet. 

Hill's blisters could still be a concern and he probably won't be a factor in the first two games at Wrigley.

Then there's 20-year-old phenom Julio Urias, who pitched twice against the Cubs in the regular season to a 1-1 record and 4.91 ERA. But Urias really turned a corner in August, going 4-0 with a 1.34 ERA in his final eight games (six starts).

Japanese rookie Kenta Maeda rounds out the rotation and only lasted three innings in his first postseason start against the Nationals, giving up four runs and taking the loss.

BULLPEN

After taking advantage of the Giants' shaky bullpen in the NLDS, the Cubs now draw a Dodgers bullpen that paced the majors with a 3.35 ERA in the regular season.

Jansen (47 SVs, 1.83 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, 13.6 K/9) and Joe Blanton (28 HLDs, 2.48 ERA, 1.01 WHIP) lead the way. Righties Pedro Baez, Josh Fields and Ross Stripling and lefty Luis Avilan present manager Dave Roberts with plenty of options for the middle innings.

Grant Dayton, a 28-year-old rookie, had a 2.05 ERA in the regular season, but had a rough NLDS (16.20 ERA, 4.20 WHIP).

KEY TO THE SERIES

The Cubs hit just .200 with a .597 OPS against the Giants in the NLDS and saw a stunning share of their offense come from the pitching staff. 

But now they draw a team that threw everything on the line just to get to the NLCS.

Kershaw's postseason struggles are for real (5.84 ERA in NLDS, 4.83 in 15 games prior to 2016) and he also missed several months of the regular season with a back injury. If he can't turn things around in the NLCS or if he only gets in a couple games, that would be a huge boost for the Cubs.

Of course, there could be some regression to the mean for baseball's best offense regardless of who's pitching. Only the Texas Rangers posted a worse team OPS in the postseason through the NLDS and they got swept by the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALDS.

The Cubs offense is a sleeping giant and that Game 4 comeback could be the trigger.

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

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USA TODAY

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.

Anthony Rizzo declines role as an activist, says trip to Florida 'was the hardest thing I've ever had to do'

Anthony Rizzo declines role as an activist, says trip to Florida 'was the hardest thing I've ever had to do'

MESA, Ariz. — Anthony Rizzo’s gone above and beyond for his community in the wake of one of the worst mass shootings in United States history, when 17 people lost their lives last week at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, Rizzo’s alma mater.

His actions and words have carried plenty of weight in the last week, but Rizzo’s comments upon returning to Arizona were more focused on the general need for change rather than specific actions related to the issue of gun violence in America.

The Cubs’ first baseman, who returned to spring training on Monday after spending several days being with his community in Florida, repeatedly voiced the opinion — though it’s ridiculous to think there’s a counter argument that could actually qualify as someone’s opinion — that these mass shootings need to stop happening with such an incomprehensible amount of frequency.

But he stopped short of taking a full step into the national debate on the issue, clarifying that his comments made on Twitter the day of the shooting were not referencing gun control or that specific debate at all.

“Obviously, there needs to be change,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know what that is, I don’t get paid to make those decisions. I can sit back and give opinions, but you just hope somewhere up the line of command, people are thinking are thinking the same things that a lot of innocent kids are thinking: ‘Why? Why am I scared to go to school? Why am I scared to say goodbye to my son or daughter?’ God forbid someone was in an argument with someone they loved that day, how bad — it’s a bad time right now in the country with what’s going on with all these shootings.

“My opinion is my opinion. I don’t think it’s fair to my teammates and everyone else if I come out and start going one way or the other. I think, my focus is on baseball. My focus is definitely on Parkland and the community there and supporting them and whatever direction that they go. But for me it’s hard enough to hit a baseball, and it’s definitely going to be hard enough to try to be a baseball player and a politician at the same time.”

Rizzo has no more of an obligation to be a spokesman on this issue than any other American does, and his presence at his old school last week, his words at a vigil for the victims of this tragedy were powerful. Rizzo has established himself as a remarkable member of his community in Chicago, and he won the Roberto Clemente Award last season for his charitable efforts off the field. His willingness to leave Arizona and be with members of his community was reflective of the type of person Cubs fans and Chicagoans have gotten to know.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Just going back, you don’t what to say. There’s nothing you can say,” Rizzo said. “When people get shot, you’re grateful that they’re alive. When they pass away, you’re grateful that you knew them, to look at the bright side of things if you can. But just to see how real it is, it’s sad.

“The more I just sat and thought about it, I felt helpless here. That’s where I grew up, in Parkland. I got in trouble there, I succeeded there, I learned how to be who I am because of Parkland, because of Stoneman Douglas. So to be across the country and not be there and then to find out some very close people have lost loved ones, to be there to help them and support them was very important to me.”

Rizzo repeatedly said how proud he is of the students of Stoneman Douglas, who have been outspoken on social media, directing their comments toward the president and other members of the government and sharing their opinions that gun control is necessary for the violence to stop.

But Rizzo refrained from wading into that debate and even chastised those who mischaracterized his Twitter comments as a call for gun regulation.

“To be very clear I did not say the word ‘gun’ one time,” he said. “Anyone out there who wrote gun control, saying I called for gun control, I think is very irresponsible and I did not say that once.

“I don’t know what needs to be done, I don’t know. I don’t know enough about it. I know there are a lot of shootings. I know they are done with a specific make, but I don’t know what needs to be done. But something, some type of change needs to happen for the better because I’m sure people in here have kids. No one right now feels very comfortable on a daily basis sending their kid to school and not knowing if they’re going to see them again.”

That kind of message might not be as declarative as some would have hoped. But it remained a powerful one, showing that even if he wasn’t ready or willing to declare himself an activist, Rizzo shares the feelings of many Americans who are simultaneously numb to the news of these shootings and completely and entirely fed up with their frequency and the lack of action taken to stop them.

“As a human being, probably everyone in here when they first the initial (reports of a) shooter, I took my next golf swing, because that’s how numb this country is to it,” Rizzo said. “Until something crazy happens, when you hear ‘open shooter’ nowadays, it’s like, ‘OK,’ take your next breath and keep going. Then I found out it was at Douglas, you get a little more concerned, ‘OK, what’s going on.’ At first it’s a few people injured, then you found out it was what it was, and it’s just — it’s gut-wrenching. You just go numb.

“I stand behind my community, and I’m really proud of how everyone’s coming together. Obviously I said there needs to be change, I don’t know what the change needs to be. I’m just really proud of those kids and how they’re coming together and becoming one in Parkland. It’s really inspiring to see, and it makes me proud.”