Cubs

No time to panic: How Cubs can get back in NLCS vs. Mets

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No time to panic: How Cubs can get back in NLCS vs. Mets

Joe Maddon’s mind tricks and motivational gimmicks won’t save the Cubs now. Skip the “Rocky” theme song, save the zoo animals for later and ignore the manager’s red herrings. This team already created an identity, showing the resiliency needed to get back into this National League Championship Series.

It won’t be easy, not with Jacob deGrom waiting to slice up this lineup on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field and give the New York Mets a commanding 3-0 lead in this best-of-seven matchup.

But it’s not like these Cubs are soft or worrying about what happened against the Mets in 1969 or trying to pull off the impossible upset as a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament.

“This is a group that’s not afraid of losing and doesn’t approach the day like that,” said veteran catcher David Ross, who could be seen playing air guitar and singing along to the country music during Monday’s workout at Clark and Addison. “They attack the day. We’re excited about tomorrow’s atmosphere, for sure.”

[MORE CUBS: Kyle Hendricks welcomes pressure of pitching in 'must-win' game]

During the regular season, the Cubs won 34 one-run games, 23 in their last at-bat and 13 in extra innings, running their total to 101 victories since Opening Day, a remarkable number for a group with so many rookies, castoffs and role players.

The chemistry has reminded president of baseball operations Theo Epstein of the iconic Boston Red Sox teams he helped build at Fenway Park.

“We went through a few different periods, makeup-wise, in Boston,” Epstein said. “The ’03-’04 sort of ‘Idiots’ and the ‘Cowboy Up’ carefree (attitude) — it reminds me of (that), how loose it is and how they don’t have a care in the world.

“They just enjoy each other’s company and making each other crack up and coming out raking and going back laughing about it. It’s a very similar vibe.”

[MORE CUBS: Will Cubs push Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta on short rest in NLCS?]

Kris Bryant went there, too, thinking of the New York Yankees and that 2004 American League Championship Series. The 2015 Mets could win it all this year and still feel great about their five-year competitive window.

But does anyone think this New York team has a Hall of Fame core at the level of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, plus dynasty leaders like Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada, not to mention Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui and Mike Mussina?

“Anything’s possible in the playoffs,” Bryant said. “The Red Sox were down three games to nothing and they won. It really doesn’t matter. Anything can happen. A guy could step up huge each one of these four games. There’s no sense of desperation.”

Of course, it would help if someone actually hit like Manny Ramirez in the playoffs (.937 career OPS) instead of just hanging out with Manny Ramirez in the clubhouse.

Bryant had been a dramatically different hitter at Wrigley Field during the regular season, essentially transforming from an MVP winner at home (1.037 OPS) into a defense-first infielder on the road (.693 OPS).

[MORE CUBS: Addison Russell hopes to be ready if Cubs survive and advance to World Series]

The weather should warm up from the bone-chilling temperatures over the weekend at Citi Field, and maybe the wind will be blowing out on the North Side for young power hitters like Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez.

The Cubs already beat deGrom twice this year (6.10 ERA) and perhaps a lineup that led the majors by seeing 3.97 pitches per plate appearance can drive up the count and find the soft spots in New York’s bullpen.

“Nothing really changes,” Epstein said. “We’ve had a great mix all year as far as the chemistry in the clubhouse and the group psychology and rallying from a little bit of adversity.

“It’s our veterans embracing the young players and showing the way a little bit — and young players providing energy and production — and Joe setting the tone as just another day.”

[MORE CUBS: The mind-blowing statistics that prove Daniel Murphy just might have a deal with the devil]

Kyle Hendricks doesn’t have a tabloid-friendly nickname like “The Dark Knight of Gotham” or “Thor” and no one will confuse the Game 3 starter’s finesse/control game with the upper-90s velocity unleashed by Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard.

But Hendricks won’t be underprepared or overwhelmed. The Dartmouth College graduate spent most of this year searching for a feel and trying to get into a rhythm, and he still wound up making 30-plus starts and finishing with a sub-4.00 ERA in his first full season in the big leagues.

“Look, tomorrow’s Tuesday for us,” Epstein said. “We’ve responded all year. Usually, actually, with winning streaks after we go through a little losing streak. So we hope to do that again. But the last thing I worry about is this whole psychological component of: Will we rally? Will we show up?

“We ran into two really good starting pitchers, and the baseball gods were a little bit against us that series, too. We smoked some balls that didn’t fall in, but we got outplayed, no excuses.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs playoff gear right here]

Maybe luck begins to even out and Mets outfielder/Chicago guy Curtis Granderson doesn’t make that leaping catch at the wall. Steven Matz, New York’s Game 4 starter, had only six big-league starts on his resume before the playoffs began. After hitting five playoff homers in October, Daniel Murphy will have to cool off eventually, right?

“Nobody feels desperation,” Bryant said. “We haven’t felt it all year. We have a tremendous kind of belief in each and everyone here. Once you let that creep in your head, you might as well just call it over. We don’t feel that way at all. We’ve never felt that way. I think we still have a pretty good chance.”

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

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: