Cubs

Max Scherzer gets payback in type of game Cubs will have to win in October

Max Scherzer gets payback in type of game Cubs will have to win in October

WASHINGTON – This might be a worst nightmare for the Cubs in October, a $210 million ace at the absolute top of his game, using all his weapons and making this lineup look helpless. The Washington Nationals seem unbeatable when Max Scherzer pitches like this.

Scherzer took a perfect game into the sixth inning on Monday night at Nationals Park, giving the Cubs flashbacks to the New York Mets and the power pitching that swept them out of the National League Championship Series.

“That’s what we ran into last year,” manager Joe Maddon said after a 4-1 loss. “We ran into the Mets and we didn’t put the ball in play enough, and that’s what we got to really strive to do – at least move the ball and give ourselves a chance.”

The Cubs (43-19) upgraded their lineup by committing $240 million to Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, allowing for second-year improvements from Kris Bryant and Addison Russell and re-signing leadoff guy Dexter Fowler in spring training.

But Scherzer struck out nine of the first 10 hitters he faced, and by the time the Nationals (40-24) pulled him for a pinch-hitter with a three-run lead and the Cubs loading the bases with an intentional walk in the seventh inning, Maddon admitted: “You could have brought Sandy Koufax in, it might have looked a little bit better at that point.”

The last time the Cubs beat Scherzer, he responded with a 20-strikeout performance against the Detroit Tigers in his next start, matching a big-league record shared by Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood and Randy Johnson.

The Cubs had blasted four home runs off Scherzer on May 6 at Wrigley Field, part of a four-game sweep that had the Nationals on edge heading into this measuring-stick showdown.

“No, I don’t look at it like that,” said Nationals manager Dusty Baker, who guided the Cubs to within five outs of the 2003 World Series before an epic collapse. “Why do I have to measure against them? They’re the best right now in our league, but I don’t believe in that. I believe in measuring against yourself – how can we get there?

“I approach the series with positive attitude and think about winning and no negatives, because everything that (could have gone) wrong in Chicago for us (did) go wrong. And everything that went right in Chicago went right for them. But you can’t bring it back, so there’s nothing you can do about that. All we can do is go forward.

“You can give them the pennant right now if you want to. It’s up to you. But we still got to play.”

The Cubs know what this feels like on certain nights Jake Arrieta pitches, that air of invincibility warming up and game-over vibe after scoring the first run. Scherzer – who won a Cy Young Award with the Tigers in 2013 and threw two no-hitters for the Nationals last season – didn’t mess around this time.

“He made a pretty good adjustment,” said Miguel Montero, who caught Scherzer with the Arizona Diamondbacks. “At Wrigley, he gave up a lot of hard hits on 0-0 counts trying to get ahead with the fastball, and the guys kind of ambushed him a little bit.

“He pitched a little bit backwards today, and he was able to throw the breaking ball for a strike. When you slow it down – and then you throw the fastball to speed it up – it’s hard to catch up.

“He wanted payback.”

Russell, the No. 8 hitter, ended the perfect game with one out in the sixth inning, driving a Scherzer cutter into the left-field seats at the end of a nine-pitch at-bat for a game-tying homer. But the Cubs really didn’t play their A-game behind Kyle Hendricks (4-6, 3.05 ERA), making two errors and watching Heyward just miss making a spectacular catch at the right-field fence.

The ball bounced out of Heyward’s glove as he threw his body across the Delta advertisement, landing in Washington’s bullpen for a go-ahead Wilson Ramos home run in the sixth inning. Heyward – a three-time Gold Glove winner who expects to make those highlight-reel plays – threw his glove to the ground.

The Cubs struck out 11 times against Scherzer and didn’t draw a walk all night. Anthony Rizzo delivered the only other hit off Scherzer – a double to left-center field with two outs in the seventh inning.

“I’m not even one bit concerned about strikeouts,” Heyward said. “A guy like that makes his pitches, he’s going to be able to rack up some strikeouts. But we did have some decent (at-bats) against him. We made some good swings, and we got to him late.

“I kind of wished he would have stayed in a little longer, (so) we had another chance at him.”

Scherzer is exactly the kind of pitcher the Cubs will face in October, someone who can throw close to 100 mph or kill you softly. It’s up and down, in and out, pinpointing sliders and dropping curveballs, all with a purpose. 

“In order to win in the playoffs, you got to beat good pitching,” Montero said. “It’s fine. We beat him one time, he beat us this time. In the playoffs, you see good pitching. That’s why they get to the playoffs, because they got good pitching. The bottom line is you just got to compete.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”