Cubs

Kyle Hendricks embraces Game 7 stage, but keeps usual even-keeled approach

Kyle Hendricks embraces Game 7 stage, but keeps usual even-keeled approach

CLEVELAND — Kyle Hendricks has already done "it," with "it" being a pressure-packed start opposite his opponent’s ace in the 2016 playoffs. And that one went well.

In Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, Hendricks out-dueled Los Angeles Dodgers star Clayton Kershaw with 7 1/3 innings of shutout, two-hit, facing-the-minimum ball. It was a spectacular showing on a nervy stage at Wrigley Field, which hadn’t seen its team secure a pennant since 1945.

Now, Hendricks will be the one taking the ball for the Cubs as they look to erase a 3-1 deficit and win the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908 on Wednesday night. He’ll face Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber, who’s already shut down the Cubs twice in the World Series, but is embracing the moment that has 108 years of history riding on it.

“This is the ultimate dream,” Hendricks said. “You dream of getting to the World Series, winning the World Series. When you're out in your backyard as a kid, playing Little League at the field with your friends, this is the moment you dream about: Game 7, 3-2, two outs, something like that, bottom of the ninth. But it's always Game 7 of the World Series.”

The Cubs will deploy an all-hands-on-deck strategy Wednesday, with ace left-hander Jon Lester available out of the bullpen as well as Game 4 starter John Lackey and even Game 6 starter Jake Arrieta, who threw 102 pitches Tuesday. Hendricks will throw plenty of stressful pitches, which is to say every one of them will have to be perfectly executed in a game that can be reasonably expected to be close.

That means a quality-over-quantity approach will likely be in place for Hendricks’ pitch count, with Lester prepared to make his first relief appearance in nine years (that came in the 2007 American League Championship Series, in which the Indians blew a 3-1 series lead and lost to the Red Sox).

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Lester has set a positive example for a young guy like Hendricks — he’s only 26 and, while he led the National League with a 2.13 ERA, is only in his third year in the majors — for how he goes about his business in the playoffs. Though Lester said he doesn't feel the need to say anything extra to Hendricks before Wednesday night: "Hey, it’s Kyle. He doesn’t talk to anybody anyway, so nothing changes.

"I would imagine his emotions are going to be the same as it was a month ago and two months ago and three months ago and back to Opening Day," Lester added. "That’s one thing that impresses me about him is that he stays really level-headed and even-keeled throughout (any) situation.”

Outside of that Game 6 NLCS start, Hendricks’ postseason has been a bit of a mixed bag. He allowed two runs in an injury-shortened start in Game 2 of the National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants and uncharacteristically struggled with his control (four walks) in the Cubs’ Game 2 loss to Kershaw and the Dodgers in the NLCS. He was knocked around a bit in Game 3 of the World Series by Cleveland, scattering six hits and two walks, but he didn't allow a run in 4 1/3 innings.

Manager Joe Maddon said there’s a subtle key to Hendricks having an “on” night, which he’ll be looking for from the third base dugout Wednesday.

“He's an artist,” Maddon said. “I mean, he could really make pitches. So pitching tomorrow you'll know very quickly where he's at just based on the location.

“I’ve always gone by the takes. If you see the hitter take a pitch that is obviously a strike, and he does not mention anything to the umpire and he knows it's a strike, that tells you how much his ball is moving and how fine it is. When I'm watching from the side and I see that, I know he's going to have a good night.”

With his Wednesday status still uncertain, Hendricks sat in Progressive Field’s interview room and answered questions maybe a little more emphatically than usual but not to a jarring extent. The wasn’t any air of nerves or pressure or anything but the same, usual demeanor Hendricks has on or off the field. Game 7 might be the biggest start he’ll ever make in his career, and he’ll embrace the target that comes with it, but he’s approaching it as a normal game without anything else attached to it.

“When we get there tomorrow, I'm just going to embrace the opportunity like I have the rest of this postseason, honestly,” Hendricks said. “Approach it like any other game, simple thoughts, the same old thing.”

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.