Cubs

Mike Montgomery explains the unique pitching culture around Cubs

3-20_mike_montgomery_usat.jpg
USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery explains the unique pitching culture around Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Mike Montgomery doesn't need a detailed job description of the hybrid role the Cubs envision or a clear idea of when the rotation might need a sixth starter. Just be ready for anything, a lesson reinforced during the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7.

"I like that better," Montgomery said Monday at the Sloan Park complex. "Don't necessarily tell me, because then I don't have time to think about it. Just throw me in there and I'm ready to go."

While Joe Maddon essentially confirmed that Brett Anderson will be the fifth starter – if healthy – the Cubs manager already trusted Montgomery enough to get the final out that ended the franchise's 108-year drought.

Anderson's projected rotation spot is mostly a reflection of his health issues and Montgomery's versatility. The change-of-scenery thing Cubs officials talk up doesn't work on anyone everywhere. Jake Arrieta is the lottery ticket that turned into a Cy Young Award winner. 

But Montgomery is seen as a pet project for Theo Epstein's front office and the pitching infrastructure built by coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode. 

"There's just a culture," Montgomery said, "especially with some of the veteran guys, that creates this pitching-friendly environment where you can learn and you can adapt. You can watch guys that are really good at what they do. 

"You combine that with the information and the scouting reports and talking to the video guys and working with the pitching coach. Obviously, with your mechanics, getting them squared away is important. But I think understanding who you're facing, what they like to hit (is also important). 

"The whole chess match part of the game – it's helped me a lot. It was being out there without a plan and just kind of winging it – and now (it's) putting a plan together.

"That's what these guys do so well. They just have a really good game plan and they execute it better than just about anybody in the game." 

Developing pitching talent at the major-league level is particularly important when the farm system hasn't felt a trickle-down effect yet and the scouting department has prioritized hitters at the top of the draft. 

Not that Montgomery is taking it for granted, but this is the first time he has reported to camp with his spot on the Opening Day roster already penciled into the team's plans. 

Not being on the bubble gives Montgomery the luxury to work on things, focus more on his craft and study how Jon Lester uses certain bullpen sessions to hone his fastball, down and in, down and away, up and in, over and over again.

"I love watching Jonny pitch," Montgomery said. "Being a lefty, too, it's just how consistent he is and how he can execute his fastball when he needs to or make a big pitch. It's kind of looking at them and saying: ‘OK, how can I get to that level?'

"It's cool to be in an environment like that. It really just breeds success for other guys that maybe mechanically aren't there yet, but they have the stuff. Once I get the mechanics down, then you take it to the next level of game-planning."

That's where Kyle Hendricks applied his Ivy League education, using sequencing, pinpoint control and sharp movement to overpower hitters and lead the majors with a 2.13 ERA last season.

"He's got a great memory," Montgomery said. "He can go out there and it's like he's got those reports on the hitters stuck in his head. For me, I've used it as more of a rough guideline if I need to fall back on something or I don't know where to turn in a certain situation.

"It just kind of gives you that safety blanket. You get in a tight spot, you take your chances on what you think is the best pitch. Having that information to begin with is huge."

[Buy Cubs tickets]

Epstein compared Montgomery's career arc to Andrew Miller's when the Cubs made the Dan Vogelbach trade with the Seattle Mariners. Montgomery checked so many boxes, from age (27) to size (6-foot-5) to first-round pedigree (36th overall in 2008) and controllability (through 2021). 

After bouncing around the minors for the Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Rays – and the biggest moment of his life – Montgomery will still be a Cubs Way test case.

"We think we're getting him at the right time," Epstein said last summer. "He's certainly not a household name. But we think he's got a chance to take off and maybe be the type of guy that a year from now you couldn't get in a deal of this size. 

"If you wait until they're fully established, sometimes the price tag is so high that they're virtually impossible to acquire. But if your scouts do a good job of identifying the guys who are trending in the right direction – and you're willing to take a shot – sometimes there's a big payoff at the end."

Dusty Baker takes the fall for Nationals meltdown against Cubs

dustybakerfired.jpg
USA TODAY

Dusty Baker takes the fall for Nationals meltdown against Cubs

The Washington Nationals must have been sitting at home, watching the National League Championship Series and wondering: How did we lose to this team?

The Cubs poured so much physical effort, mental focus and emotional energy into those five playoff games against the Nationals that they didn’t have much left in the tank for the bigger, better Los Angeles Dodgers team that dominated the defending World Series champs in every phase and captured the NL pennant on Thursday night at Wrigley Field.

By midday Friday, the Nationals announced that manager Dusty Baker will not return for the 2018 season, while the contracts for the big-league coaching staff have also expired, leaving a franchise with chain-of-command issues in damage-control mode.

This is a bitter disappointment for Baker, who needs a World Series ring as a manager to put the final bullet point on a Hall of Fame resume and still grumbles about how things ended in 2006 after four up-and-down years managing the Cubs.

Baker, 68, a former Marine, All-Star player and all-around Renaissance man with a great feel for dealing with people and managing the clubhouse, apparently couldn’t overcome last week’s elimination-game meltdown at Nationals Park, where the Cubs hung on for a 9-8 victory and forced Washington into its fourth first-round playoff exit since 2012.

Baker’s in-game decision-making was already under the microscope and his teams have now lost 10 straight postseason close-out games, a major-league record, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

The Nationals also needlessly subjected Stephen Strasburg to withering criticism when Baker said the $175 million pitcher was feeling under the weather — maybe because of Chicago mold and hotel air-conditioning units — and being saved for Game 5. Only to flip-flop and watch Strasburg throw seven scoreless innings in a dominant Game 4 performance at Wrigley Field.

That unforced error and yet another manager search is not a good look for the Nationals, who made the announcement through the Lerner family ownership group after general manager Mike Rizzo repeatedly signaled that he expected to reach a new agreement with Baker after winning 192 games combined in two years and back-to-back division titles.

Since the franchise relocated from Montreal and abandoned the Expos logo in 2005, the Nationals have employed seven different managers and will be starting all over again in 2018, when Bryce Harper will be in his last season before becoming a free agent and probably wondering if Washington can finally get its act together.

What now for the Cubs?

What now for the Cubs?

OK, time to turn the page.

Nah, it doesn't have to be that sudden.

The 2017 Cubs season may not have resulted in a World Series, but it was absolutely a smashing success. There was a time not long ago that playing — and even losing — in the fifth game of the NLCS was a huge step.

But the Cubs now have a World-Series-or-bust mentality now and the 2017 season did not live up to those expectations.

"We're capable of more than we showed in the postseason," Ben Zobrist said.

So what now? What's next for these Cubs?

Well, quite literally: Rest. Rest is next.

"For those guys that are playing every day, they need to take the time that they need to take," Zobrist said. "Take the three weeks, month to let your body relax and heal up.

"I think from there, it's listening to your body for them. For me, I'm in a different place. I didn't play as many games as I normally play. I feel like my stamina, I have to work on my endurance and stamina to get back up to where it needs to get to where I'm capable of playing more games and not getting injuries and things like that like I had this year.

"...[Kris Bryant] and [Anthony] Rizzo, they were our horses and so they need to take more time than somebody like me does going into the offseason. They deserve to get some rest and relaxation. I think we're all very motivated going into the offseason to get back to where we're capable of playing as a team."

Other players have a different attitude as they approach the winter.

Albert Almora Jr., after his first full season in the big leagues, is anxious to get better. Immediately.

The young outfielder is planning on spending a lot of time hanging out with his wife and one-year-old son, but he isn't interested in all that much rest right now.

"[I plan] to get back to work," Almora said. "I think we have a big chip on our shoulder coming into next year."

Rizzo and Bryant, meanwhile, played 167 and 161 games, respectively, including the postseason. They combined for over 1,500 plate appearances from April 2 through Oct. 19.

Neither player has much interest in watching the Los Angeles Dodgers play either the Houston Astros or New York Yankees in the World Series.

So what will they do?

"It's always tough," Rizzo said after the Cubs were officially eliminated. "You start a journey with all these guys and at the end of the day, these last couple days, you don't take anything for granted at all.

"The stretch, the cage work. Yesterday could've been our last day. Today's obviously our last day. We gotta enjoy these moments because you don't know how long they last.

"But you make a lot of friendships along the way. This next week will be tough and kinda scratching your head on what to do."