Cubs

Indians pitcher Josh Tomlin will pitch World Series Game 3 against Cubs with ailing father in stands

Indians pitcher Josh Tomlin will pitch World Series Game 3 against Cubs with ailing father in stands

If you don’t think this World Series has it all then you haven’t heard about Cleveland Indians pitcher Josh Tomlin and his father.

As if a matchup between the teams with the longest championship droughts in Major League Baseball wasn’t compelling enough, Tomlin will start the first World Series game at Wrigley Field in 71 years on Friday night in front of his father, Jerry, who only two months ago was paralyzed from the chest down. Game 3 of the series between the Cubs and Indians gets underway at 7:08 p.m. CST. 

Temporarily removed from the Indians rotation in August after he understandably struggled, Tomlin has rediscovered the form that made him one of his team’s most effective starters through July. On Friday, Tomlin will pitch with his father in attendance only nine days after he was released from a Texas rehabilitation center.

“Oh, it means a lot,” Tomlin said. “He hasn't been to a game in quite a while, and it wasn't looking like he was going to get to come to a game at all. So to have him here and just to be able to see him is the thing I'm most looking forward to.”

Tomlin said his family was set to arrive in Chicago late Thursday after traveling from his hometown of Whitehouse, Texas. He had to plans to see his parents for the first time since he went home in mid-August when Jerry Tomlin required surgery after suffering arteriovenous malformation, a tangle of blood vessels on his spinal cord.

The right-hander had already been struggling at the time his father fell ill and couldn’t shake it after he rejoined the team. Tomlin made six starts in August and had an 11.48 ERA in 26 2/3 innings.

Once September rolled around and rosters were expanded, the Indians gave Tomlin what pitching coach Mickey Callaway described as a “breather” designed to help the 32-year-old get centered once again. He didn’t make a start from Sept. 1-13 with only one inning pitched in relief on Sept. 5.

Baseball is a sport that is difficult enough without any distractions. The way the Indians saw it, Tomlin, who had a 3.43 ERA through his first 120 2/3 innings, needed to refocus and they had enough flexibility to offer him a break.

“He’s probably the best we have that would probably be able to separate something like that to the best of their ability,” Callaway said. “When it’s something that major, and it’s your dad, it’s going to take its toll and you can’t expect it not to. If you’re the person or the coach or anybody, you have to support him, be with him and let him know that you can and that’s what we did.

“We had the ability to give him a little bit of a breather and we took that avenue and it’s paying off.”

The biggest difference in Tomlin’s game since he returned to action has been his success with the four-seam fastball. From Opening Day through the end of July, batters hit just .184 against Tomlin’s heater.

The pitch is the primary reason Tomlin posted a 3.28 ERA over 29 starts from August 2015 through July. When he struggled in August, batters hit .590 against Tomlin’s fastball. Callaway said Tomlin began to turn more often to his cut-fastball, which hitters pounced upon, batting .850.

“The execution of my pitches wasn't where it needed to be,” Tomlin said. “I was leaving balls over the middle of the plate, and guys were taking advantage.”

They haven’t been of late. Since Tomlin returned to action on Sept. 14 his fastball has been effective again as opponents are hitting .219 against.

“He had a hiccup in August, but since then he's been pretty good,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “Kind of top of the league. I mean, since last August … you take out this August, he's been one of the better pitchers in baseball.”

Once he returned, Tomlin made four starts during the Indians’ division-clinching run and went 2-1 with a 1.75 ERA in 25 2/3 innings. In two postseason starts, Tomlin is 2-0 with a 2.53 ERA in 10 2/3 innings.

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Over that stretch, Tomlin has surrendered only one homer after he yielded 10 in August.

“Everybody has their ups and downs for different reasons whatever they may be,” Callaway said. “And he had his and now he’s bounced back really good from it.”

It’ll get even better for Tomlin this weekend.

Jerry was released from the Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation on the pitcher’s birthday, which also coincided with the Indians winning the pennant. And on Friday, his parents will be in the stands when Tomlin pitches in the Fall Classic for the first time.

“The fact that we get to experience the World Series together is pretty neat,” Tomlin said.

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.