Cubs

New bullpen clicks as advertised in Cubs victory over White Sox

New bullpen clicks as advertised in Cubs victory over White Sox

The Cubs bullpen has gone from a problem area to a seemingly automatic endgame.

Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Aroldis Chapman preserved a tight lead as the Cubs beat the White Sox 3-1 Thursday night in front of 41,157 fans at Wrigley Field, evening up the season series between the two Chicago teams.

Manager Joe Maddon got to employ his best-case scenario as John Lackey accounted for six innings before Strop pitched the seventh, Rondon got two outs in the eighth and then Chapman came in for the final four outs.

"It's awesome," Cubs leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler said. "We have what they call the three-headed monster now. Those guys cut the game down."

Rondon got into a little trouble as Tyler Saladino led off the eighth with a double into the left-field corner in a one-run game, but the former Cubs closer struck out Adam Eaton and got Tim Anderson to ground out.

With Melky Cabrera — who has been swinging a hot bat — up next, Maddon came out to replace Rondon with the new 105 mph closer.

Chapman didn't even mess around with offspeed stuff, just blowing the ball right by Cabrera to end the threat.

"He's your guy and if you let that save moment get away ... it's an entirely different moment for him," Maddon said. "So definitely wanted to give him that opportunity to convert the save."

The Cubs tacked on a run in the bottom of the eighth as Ben Zobrist led off with a double, advanced to third on Eaton's error and then scored on Addison Russell's ground out.

Chapman was drama-free in the ninth, retiring all three of the hitters he faced to earn his first save as a Cub.

Maddon said he talked to Chapman pregame about the possibility of a multi-inning save and then broached the topic to the All-Star closer again mid-game.

[RELATED - With Aroldis Chapman now in the fold, do Cubs have a bullpen that rivals world champion Royals?]

Even 37-year-old Lackey in his 14th season in the big leagues can sit by and become a spectator on the edge of his seat when Chapman comes into the game.

"It's been a cool atmosphere, for sure," Lackey said. "Playing [the White Sox] and with him coming in the game last night, that was fun to be in the dugout and check that out.

"It's definitely something you want to tune in to see, for sure."

Fowler was his classic "you go, we go" self, scoring the Cubs' first two runs against Sox ace Chris Sale — first on an RBI double from Kris Bryant on the Cubs' second batter of the game and then later on Zobrist's single up the middle in the third inning.

Lackey allowed only the one run and it came in the first inning when Tim Anderson reached on an infield single and then scored on Cabrera's double into the right-field corner.

It was Lackey's first victory since June 8, but he only threw 84 pitches and he wasn't happy about coming out of the game early.

With the Cubs' new bullpen able to cover the final three innings on most nights, the starters may not be asked to go as deep into games.

When asked about quicker hooks, Lackey said, "We'll see," before adding, "It's definitely lengthened the bullpen for sure with him at the back end. You feel good about Stroppy in the seventh inning; Ronnie as an eighth inning guy is pretty special. I can see that possibly happening."

Maddon doesn't expect his starters to like the quicker hooks, especially the ultra-competitive Lackey.

"There's nothing to sell with Johnny," Maddon said. "Maybe a six-pack. Or a 12-pack might sell. That's about the only chance I got.

"Maybe some new boots. That's all I got. I have no shot."

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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USA TODAY

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: