Cubs

Miguel Montero believes Cubs have what it takes to win big in October

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Miguel Montero believes Cubs have what it takes to win big in October

PITTSBURGH – The Cubs noticed the way Russell Martin helped change the culture around the Pittsburgh Pirates and targeted the free-agent catcher for his clubhouse presence, pitch-framing feel and take-charge style with a pitching staff.

When the Toronto Blue Jays outbid the Cubs last November – locking up Martin with a five-year, $82 million contract – it sort of created a here-we-go-again feeling for another lost offseason.

But the Cubs didn’t build an all-or-nothing team or ignore the weakened infrastructure that couldn’t withstand a 162-game season.

“We can win it all,” catcher Miguel Montero said.

The Cubs looked like legitimate contenders in beating the Pirates three times in roughly 50 hours and winning this four-game showdown series.

[MORE: Devastating injury for Kang, but Cubs are playing with an edge now]

When the Cubs open a 10-game homestand against the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday afternoon, their magic number will be nine, and Wrigley Field might not go dark in October.

“In the playoffs, it’s whoever gets hot at the right time and anything can happen,” Montero said, “so I like my chances with (Jon) Lester and (Jake) Arrieta. It’s random, (but) I still like my chances with my team. That’s it. That’s all I care about. I don’t care about anything else.

“I believe in my team. And I believe we can do something special. You just got to prove it.”    

After losing the Martin sweepstakes, Plan B became acquiring Montero from the Arizona Diamondbacks for two low-level pitching prospects and taking on the three years and $40 million left on his contract.   

Personal catcher David Ross became the $5 million insurance policy to Lester’s $155 million megadeal and a glue guy in the clubhouse.

Kyle Schwarber never stopped hitting from the moment the Cubs made him the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft, bashing his way from Indiana University through five minor-league affiliates and into a pennant race.

[ALSO: Arrieta will keep being a perfectionist]

The Cubs seemingly went from having not enough catchers to having too many catchers (with Welington Castillo getting traded away and Willson Contreras becoming a Double-A batting champion).

Montero didn’t think he would be in different three-catcher rotations at various points of the season or plan on spraining his thumb right before the All-Star break.

But Starlin Castro also doesn’t see a part-time second baseman when he looks in the mirror. And Chris Coghlan doesn’t want to go on vacation against left-handed pitchers.

The Cubs could go 5-11 the rest of the way and still finish with 90 wins because of their diverse portfolio and a star manager in Joe Maddon who has the juice to make it all work.  

“I would like to play every day, too,” Montero said. “But you know what, we can’t control that. It’s been a long year. There (has) been a lot of ups and downs mentally and physically. You got to go over those humps. When you’re winning…you can’t say much.

“You can’t be really mad about it because we’re winning. That’s what we’re looking for – winning. At this point, anything we can do to contribute to help the team to win. We’re all on board.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“Would I like to play? Yeah, everybody wants to play, of course. If there are guys here (who) don’t want to play, might as well just pack it up and go home.”

To close out the final six innings in Thursday’s 9-6 win over the Pirates, the Cubs used a guy who escaped from Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate (Clayton Richard), a workhorse reliever (Justin Grimm) and a one-time All-Star starter (Travis Wood).    

Montero contributed with a hit, a walk and two runs scored. He’s added some thump to this lineup (15 homers, 50 RBI and a .766 OPS), caught Arrieta’s no-hitter at Dodger Stadium and brought an edge to the clubhouse.

Montero isn’t for everyone – he probably needed a change of scenery and wouldn’t have been an ideal fit for that rebuilding situation in Arizona – but he has helped change a losing environment.

Montero’s messages went viral on Twitter and inspired the “We Are Good” T-shirts you see on TV and around the clubhouse.

“I don’t want people to get down on us,” Montero said. “I don’t want my teammates to get down on us. You’re going to go through tough times.

“You’re not going to be great every day. But as long as you believe that you’re a good player – and you know you can do it – that’s all that matters. It’s about confidence. It’s about belief in your abilities and let it play.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.