Cubs

How Cubs plan to regroup and take control of NLCS at Dodger Stadium

How Cubs plan to regroup and take control of NLCS at Dodger Stadium

This time, the Cubs wouldn’t set off any late-inning fireworks or jump around in a mosh pit at home plate. A Los Angeles front office overflowing with current/former GMs and a first-year Dodgers manager (Dave Roberts) didn’t have to overthink this one. Just get out of the way and let Clayton Kershaw show why he might be the best pitcher on the planet.

The equation became pretty simple on Sunday night at Wrigley Field, seven innings of Kershaw plus six outs from closer Kenley Jansen equaling a 1-0 victory in Game 2 and a tied National League Championship Series that now shifts to the West Coast.

But the Cubs played music in the postgame clubhouse as they got dressed and packed up for the overnight flight, showing no signs of panic or frustration, knowing who they have lined up for Games 3, 4 and 5 on the road. That would be Jake Arrieta, the Cy Young Award winner who’s already thrown a no-hitter at Dodger Stadium, followed by two two-time World Series champions in John Lackey and Jon Lester.

“We have a luxury,” outfielder Jason Heyward said. “We’ve been spoiled this year (with our pitching). It’s pretty cool to have someone like that – with that kind of experience and that mindset – to know how to go in and attack.”

The reality is the Dodgers had to win this one, because they can’t be sure what they will get from ex-Cub Rich Hill in Game 3 and what might happen with the blisters on his left hand. Their Game 4 starter is listed as TBA, probably Julio Urias, assuming the 20-year-old lefty isn’t needed on Tuesday night in an emergency situation.

The Dodgers used 15 different starting pitchers during the regular season, while the Cubs had four 15-game winners, including one (Jason Hammel) who hasn’t made the playoff roster in either round yet.

The Dodgers will have to ride Kershaw, already beating the Washington Nationals twice during his two starts in their best-of-five NL Division Series. Two days after throwing 110 pitches, Kershaw notched the last two outs and the save in Thursday night’s Game 5, getting Mr. October Daniel Murphy to pop up with two runners on and rewrite his own playoff legacy.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Kershaw retired the first 14 batters he faced at Clark and Addison, taking a perfect game into the fifth inning before Javier Baez and Willson Contreras drilled back-to-back singles, the only hits the three-time Cy Young Award winner would allow.

“We just chased a lot of pitches,” Baez said. “With him pitching on a couple days’ rest, (I didn’t think) he was going to be that nasty. But obviously he came ready for us. He just did his job.”

Jansen struck out four of the six Cubs he faced, mowing down Dexter Fowler (swinging) and Kris Bryant (looking) in the ninth inning before Anthony Rizzo lined a 95-mph first pitch out to second baseman Chase Utley to end the game.

“It’s easy to get used to good stuff, right?” said Miguel Montero, who followed up his pinch-hit grand slam in Game 1 with a pinch-hit four-pitch strikeout against Jansen. “When you fly a private plane and then you got to go in coach, that’s tough, right?

“So if you hit a homer, and then you come up the next day, people expect you to go again in the private plane. No, you strike out, so you go back in coach.

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. You just got to move on.”

The Cubs have their offensive issues. Fowler is getting on base 23 percent of the time during these playoffs. Combined, Rizzo and Addison Russell are 2-for-45 in the postseason. Pitchers Arrieta and Travis Wood and backup catcher David Ross have generated three of the team’s seven homers through six playoff games overall.

But this still doesn’t look or feel or sound like the rattled team the New York Mets swept out of last year’s NLCS. This time, the Cubs are in position to win the arms race.

“We like our chances,” Montero said. “We like where we’re at. And Cubs fans, they deserve the best in the world, because they’ve been so patient and so supportive. Believe me, we’re going to do everything in our power. We’re going to give it our best every single day out there. Because we want the good stuff, for ourselves and for the whole city.”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.