Cubs

Matt Harvey shuts down Cubs as Mets take 1-0 NLCS lead

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Matt Harvey shuts down Cubs as Mets take 1-0 NLCS lead

NEW YORK – At a time of heat maps, spray charts, video databases and all those shiny new toys designed for pitching and defense, the Cubs built a World Series contender around young power hitters who don’t know any better and just love to rake.

Those big bats went cold in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series as the New York Mets rode Matt Harvey to a 4-2 win on Saturday night at Citi Field, taking control of this best-of-seven, made-for-TV matchup between two big-market franchises finally back in the October spotlight.

A crowd of 44,287 chanted “HAR-VEY! HAR-VEY!” throughout the night, everything forgiven after super-agent Scott Boras sparked an innings-limit controversy in September, trying to protect a client who missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

On a cold night where it would be 48 degrees with the wind blowing 15 mph at first pitch – ski-mask weather for some Cubs – Harvey retired the first 12 batters he faced and looked like the guy who started the All-Star Game here two years ago inside this pitcher-friendly park.

“He was throwing everything early for strikes,” Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s not like he was just trying to establish his fastball. From the first inning on, he was changeup, curveball, slider. We hit some balls hard off him. They didn’t fall.

“At the end of the day, they just played better than us.”

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The little things mattered in an NLCS billed as Chicago’s thunderous lineup going up against New York’s power pitching.

Harvey lost his perfect game when he drilled Rizzo’s right arm with a pitch to lead off the fifth inning. Juan Lagares then misplayed the line drive Starlin Castro hit to center field, watching it fly over his head and allowing Rizzo to score from first base to tie the game.

But Castro only made it to second base. Two batters later, when Javier Baez singled to left field, Yoenis Cespedes fired the ball back to home plate and nailed Castro.

“I hit it pretty good,” Castro said. “I thought (Lagares) was going to be right on it. I just stopped a little bit at home plate. But after that, just try to run hard.”

The Cubs gave Jon Lester a six-year, $155 million contract for nights like this and the big-game lefty will be the first to admit he didn’t live up to his standards. Lester lasted 6.2 innings and gave up four runs to a New York lineup that looks dramatically different since the Cubs swept the season series (7-0) before the All-Star break.

Daniel Murphy’s home run bounced off the bottom of the second deck in right field in the first inning while Travis d’Arnaud blasted one to straightaway center in the fifth, hitting the Big Apple that would pop up moments later, the orange-and-blue crowd in a frenzy.

The Mets manufactured an insurance run in the seventh inning, Curtis Granderson hitting a sacrifice fly to left field and Lagares beating Kyle Schwarber’s one-bounce throw that created a difficult angle for catcher Miguel Montero behind home plate.

[RELATED: Why the Cubs don't see Jake Arrieta slowing down anytime soon]

“It’s the playoffs,” said David Ross, Lester’s personal catcher. “Every inch matters. You got to make plays. And they made more plays today than we did.”

Schwarber finally knocked Harvey out of the game with two outs in the eighth inning, blasting a mammoth home run out to right-center field. “The Dark Knight of Gotham” walked off the field to a standing ovation after allowing only two runs and four hits and finishing with nine strikeouts. Mets manager Terry Collins used closer Jeurys Familia to nail down the final four outs.

“The most important thing is getting it started right as a team,” Harvey said. “I knew I had to kind of set the tone early. I know there’s been a lot of speculation or talks going around the past month, but I kind of wanted to kind of stop all that and really go out there and do everything I could for the team.”

The Cubs will give the ball to Jake Arrieta on Sunday night in what should be another pitchers’ duel in Game 2 with the Mets starting Noah Syndergaard, a brash rookie with a “Thor” nickname who changed his Twitter backdrop to a photo of a lightning storm above the Chicago skyline.

“We’re not hanging our heads (about this) right now,” Schwarber said. “It’s just the way this team is. These guys have been there before. They’ve lost playoff games before. They know what it’s like. And they know what it’s like to win. Lester’s won a World Series. Rossy’s won a World Series. They lost games in there. But you always got to keep bouncing back. That’s what good teams do.”

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.