Cubs

No panic: Cubs expect to bounce back after Game 1 loss to Cardinals

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No panic: Cubs expect to bounce back after Game 1 loss to Cardinals

ST. LOUIS – Joe Maddon compared the wild-card rush to winning Game 7 of the World Series to start your playoff run. The Cubs are working backwards then to find the rhythm that made them a 97-win team – and not live or die with the randomness of one game.

The Cubs have another tomorrow after Friday’s 4-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, a point they made over and over again in the visiting clubhouse. You came to the wrong place if you were looking for any sense of panic.

From the star manager to the battle-tested veterans to all the young players who don’t know any better, the Cubs have more than enough egos and a strong belief they belonged here in Game 1 of the National League division series. 

After playing 2,344 regular-season games in a rivalry that stretches all the way back to the year Ellis Island opened, the Cubs and Cardinals finally met in the playoffs, Busch Stadium’s sea of red dotted with blue specks in the sellout crowd.   

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“It’s like this all the time here, except there’s white towels waving around,” said Anthony Rizzo, who’s 0-for-7 with three strikeouts in two playoff games. “I really don’t think it’s any louder than it’s been when we were here in September, because that’s the way this place is. They’re always loud. 

“It’s just one game. We’ll bounce back tomorrow.”

It was 64 degrees for John Lackey’s first pitch at 5:46 p.m. on a gray evening that looked and felt like October. After jumping Gerrit Cole and knocking out the Pittsburgh Pirates ace after five innings in the wild-card game, the young Cubs couldn’t solve a two-time World Series champion.

[MORE: Playoff-tested Jon Lester comes up just short in Game 1 of NLDS]

“That’s why it’s first one to three,” Schwarber said. “It’s a race, not a sprint. The Pittsburgh game was a sprint. This is a nice little jog. We need to pace ourselves to go out there and win this next game. We can put ourselves in a pretty good situation going back home to our crowd. 

“We’re not too worried. We are obviously frustrated that we lost, but it happens.”

Lackey retired the first 10 batters he faced before Schwarber worked a five-pitch walk in the fourth, which got wiped away with an inning-ending double play. 

Addison Russell finally notched the first hit off Lackey with a single up the middle to lead off the sixth inning, which ended when Dexter Fowler hit a flyball out to the warning track in right field that landed safely in Randal Grichuk’s glove. 

“I’ve hit balls worse than that that have gone out here,” Fowler said. “Things just didn’t go our way.”

The Cubs got creative with Schwarber bunting to beat the shift to lead off the seventh inning, but Kris Bryant struck out and Rizzo hit into another double play, what can be an all-or-nothing team putting up zeroes.

[ALSO: Can Cubs trust Strop in critical moments against Cardinals?]

The Cubs led the majors with 1,518 strikeouts – or 126 more than the next team – and featured three rookies within the first seven spots on Friday’s lineup card. The Cubs can write off those swing-and-miss issues as a way to see more pitches and generate extra power.  

But the Cardinals certainly benefited from the return of Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina and the Cubs clearly had issues with home-plate umpire Phil Cuzzi.

“I’ll leave that up to you guys (in the media) to debate the strike zone,” said Chris Coghlan, who struck out looking twice and can be so demonstrative at home plate. “I’m just going to get in trouble if I say anything.”

The Cubs didn’t sound like a team in trouble, trying to quickly bury this loss and not worry about the possibility of leaving St. Louis in an 0-2 hole and being one game away from elimination.

“Tip your hat to John Lackey,” Rizzo said. “There was no hard contact off him. He was living on the corners and he didn’t put much over the plate. So there’s not much we can do right there.

“Win tomorrow. Come take care of business tomorrow, put the pressure on them to come to Wrigley.” 

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.