Cubs

A perfect storm pushes Epstein to Chicago

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A perfect storm pushes Epstein to Chicago

Theo Epstein will meet the press at 11 on Tuesday morning. The Cubs will open their stadium club two hours before that, so the cameramen can start elbowing for position at Wrigley Field.

Epstein once worked as sports editor of the Yale Daily News. He took out a full-page ad in Sundays Boston Globe to thank Red Sox Nation. He must know that hes the big story now.

The Chicago media will alternate between fawning over the new president of baseball operations, and asking real questions about the direction of this franchise.

Boston reporters will want to know if he feels responsibility for the fried chicken and beer culture that poisoned the Red Sox clubhouse, and perhaps guilty about leaving a team in crisis.

The national writers are already heading to the DallasFort Worth International Airport for a travel day in the World Series, and could start rubbernecking at Clark and Addison.

Epstein got out of journalism at the right time, before the media industry started splintering and newspaper companies filed for bankruptcy. Baseball owners and executives began falling in love with young Ivy League graduates, entrusting wonder boys to run their franchises.

It took a perfect storm to sweep Epstein out of Yawkey Way. If one element had turned out different, who knows if he would have been dropped on the North Side next to chairman Tom Ricketts for Tuesdays news conference?

When Ricketts publicly announced Jim Hendrys firing on Aug. 19, the general manager called it one of the best-kept secrets in Cubs history. Hendry knew his fate almost a full month earlier, and it would lead to one of the worst-kept secrets in Cubs history.

But by the end of August, the Red Sox were still a first-place team with a 161 million payroll. They were 31 games over .500 and closing in on their 700th consecutive sellout at Fenway Park. Conventional wisdom had Ricketts trying to find the next Theo Epstein, not hiring the actual Theo Epstein.

The Red Sox experienced a total meltdown. Their pitching staff gave up 172 runs in September, and they lost 20 of 27 games that month. They finished in third place for the second consecutive season, one game behind the Tampa Bay Rays in the wild-card race.

The environment became toxic. Embarrassing details emerged about Terry Franconas marriage and the ex-managers use of prescription drugs in a Boston Globe investigate piece. Reports surfaced about Red Sox pitchers drinking in the clubhouse and in the dugout during games.

Principal owner John W. Henry went on the teams flagship radio station and talked about the shelf life of a general manager in that market. After nine seasons on the job, Epstein was nearing his expiration date.

The Red Sox never slammed the brakes on this process by reassuring Epstein with a promotion or a contract extension.

Nearing his 38th birthday, Epstein had reached the point in his life where he appeared to have outgrown his job or at least the many layers of upper management on Yawkey Way. He felt comfortable uprooting his family and leaving his hometown, moving his wife and young son to another great city.

With or without Epstein and the two World Series rings he helped bring them Red Sox executives seemed to have complete faith in their way of doing business. Ricketts and Cubs president Crane Kenney, who was born in Quincy, Mass., have been obsessed with that model for years.

Ricketts had to reconsider the structure of his front office, and his belief that he didnt need a baseball guy to watch my baseball guy as team president. Epstein had to be guaranteed that Kenney would be limited to business operations and kept out of baseball decisions.

After watching his team lose 178 games across the past two seasons, Ricketts had to find his voice and sell Epstein on his vision. Right or wrong, this would be a signature hire for the chairman.

The Cubs could offer a direct report to ownership and a chance to cement a Hall of Fame legacy. There would be a commitment to spending on amateur talent, with new player-development facilities about to break ground in Arizona and the Dominican Republic.

The Cubs had already paid the price for the "win one for the Tribune" before the team was sold mentality. Several big contracts were about to fall off the books, and the team would begin cycling back toward contention anyway.

The deal didnt fall apart when Cubs management failed to clue in baseball staffers and have them start putting together potential compensation packages. They did this all backwards, agreeing to terms with Epstein on a five-year, 18.5 million deal before settling with the Red Sox on two prospects to free him from the final year of his contract.

Desperately trying to turn the spotlight back on the World Series, commissioner Bud Selig had to threaten to arbitrate the dispute. This stalemate over compensation could be something they all laugh about years later after the parade down Michigan Avenue or perhaps the first signs Epstein could see of a deeper dysfunction within the Cubs organization.

After all the twists and turns that brought everyone to this point, the story is really just beginning.

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

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USA TODAY

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

“Sometimes, you got to lay your marbles out there,” Jon Lester said Sunday night inside Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse, before the Cubs flew home from Los Angeles down 0-2 in the National League Championship Series. “And you get beat.”

It will be extremely difficult for the Cubs to win four of the next five games against the Dodgers, starting Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. But the Cubs had the, uh, marbles to win last year’s World Series and have developed the muscle memory from winning six playoff rounds and playing in 33 postseason games since October 2015.

There is a cross section left of the 2015 team that beat the Pittsburgh Pirates and silenced PNC Park’s blackout crowd in a sudden-death wild-card game. While 2016 is seen in hindsight as a year of destiny, those Cubs still had to kill the myths about the even-year San Francisco Giants, survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Dodgers and win Games 5, 6, 7 against the Cleveland Indians under enormous stress.

There is at least a baseline of experience to draw from and the sense that the Cubs won’t panic and beat themselves, the way the Washington Nationals broke down in the NL Division Series.

· Remember the Cubs pointed to how their rotation set up as soon as Cleveland took a 3-1 lead in last year’s World Series: Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks would each give them a chance to win that night. The Dodgers will now have to deal with last year’s major-league ERA leader (Hendricks) in Game 3 and a Cy Young Award winner (Arrieta) on Wednesday night in Game 4.

“Obviously, we know we need to get wins at this point,” Hendricks said. “But approaching it as a must-win is a little extreme. We've just got to go out there and play our brand of baseball.

“Since we accomplished that, we know we just have to take it game by game. Even being down 3-1 (in the World Series), we worry about the next game. In that situation, we didn’t think we had to win three in a row or anything like that. We just came to the ballpark the next day and worried about what we had to do that day.”

· The history lessons only go so far when the Dodgers can line up Yu Darvish as their Game 3 starter instead of, say, Josh Tomlin. There is also a huge difference between facing a worn-down Cleveland staff in late October/early November and a rested Dodger team that clinched a division title on Sept. 22 and swept the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first round. Joe Blanton and Pedro Baez aren’t walking through that bullpen door, either.

“We’ve done it before. We’ve been there before,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “But this year’s a new year. That’s a different ballclub. We’re definitely going to have to bring it.”

· Outside of Kenley Jansen, can you name anyone else in the Los Angeles bullpen off the top of your head? No doubt, the Dodger relievers have been awesome in Games 1 and 2 combined: Eight scoreless innings, zero hits, zero walks and Anthony Rizzo the only one out of 25 batters to reach base when Jansen hit him with a 93.7-mph pitch.

But the Dodgers are going to make mistakes, and the Cubs will have to capitalize. Unless this is the same kind of synthesis from the 2015 NLCS, when the New York Mets used exhaustive scouting reports, power pitching and pinpoint execution to sweep a Cubs team that had already hit the wall.

“Their bullpen is a lot stronger than it was last year,” Kris Bryant said. “They’re really good at throwing high fastballs in the zone. A lot of other teams try to, and they might hit it one out of every four. But this team, it seems like they really can hammer the top of the zone. And they have guys that throw in the upper 90s, so when you mix those two, it’s tough to catch up.”

· Bryant is not having a good October (5-for-28 with 13 strikeouts) and both Lester and Jose Quintana have more hits (one each) than Javier Baez (0-for-19 with eight strikeouts) during the playoffs. But we are still talking about the reigning NL MVP and last year’s NLCS co-MVP.

Ben Zobrist is clearly diminished and no longer the switch-hitting force who became last year’s World Series MVP. Kyle Schwarber doesn’t have the same intimidation factor or playoff aura right now. But one well-timed bunt from Zobrist or a “Schwarbomb” onto the video board could change the entire direction of this series and put the pressure on a Dodger team that knows this year is World Series or bust.

“We need to hit a couple balls hard consecutively,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Once we’re able to do that, we’ll gain our offensive mojo back. That's all that’s going on.

“I inherited something from my dad, and that was patience. So you’ve got to be patient right now. You’ve got to keep putting the boys back out there. You keep believing in them, and eventually it comes back to you.”

· Maddon is a 63-year-old man who opened Monday’s stadium club press conference at Wrigley Field by talking about dry-humping, clearly annoyed by all the second-guessers on Twitter and know-it-all sports writers who couldn’t believe All-Star closer Wade Davis got stranded in the bullpen, watching the ninth inning of Sunday’s 1-1 game turn into a 4-1 walk-off loss.

By the time a potential save situation develops on Tuesday night, roughly 120 hours will have passed since Davis threw his 44th and final pitch at Nationals Park, striking out Bryce Harper to end an instant classic. Just guessing that Maddon will be in the mood to unleash Davis.

Dry humping and second-guessing: Joe Maddon defends his Game 2 bullpen decisions

Dry humping and second-guessing: Joe Maddon defends his Game 2 bullpen decisions

Joe Maddon has no easy decisions.

With the way his tattered bullpen has pitched this postseason, there's a very real possibility that any guy he calls on to pitch is the "wrong" guy or the right guy in the "wrong" spot.

For everybody wanting Maddon to ride Wade Davis as a workhorse this fall — something the Cubs skipper has already done just to get to this NLCS — remember how much flak he took for overusing Aroldis Chapman a year ago at this time.

Davis also hasn't been superhuman this postseason, allowing a pair of runs (including a homer) and seven baserunners in 4.1 playoff innings, good for a 4.15 ERA and 1.62 WHIP.

So when Maddon sat in the dugout late Sunday evening watching helplessly as John Lackey served up a walk-off homer to Tormund Giantsbane Justin Turner, the "Madd Scientist" immediately found himself in the crosshairs of Cubs fans and the media.

The first question he fielded in his postgame press conference was about not using Davis and there were several follow-ups. That and the offensive futility is about all anybody wanted to talk about after the Cubs fell down 0-2 in the NLCS.

Maddon explained Davis was available only in a save situation due to workload issues — the Cubs closer was in uncharted territory Thursday night/Friday morning, throwing the most pitches (44) and innings (2.1) he's thrown since Aug. 24, 2013 when he was still working as a starter. That's a span of 1,511 days.

"Wade knew that going into the game, it was going to be with the say," Maddon said. "We caught the lead, he's in the game. So whatever the narrative was, it's really a false narrative. He was not coming into that game until we grabbed the lead. He was not going to pitch more than three outs. That's it."

How does Maddon respond to his second-guessers?

"Doesn't matter," Maddon said. "First of all, social media, the moment I start worrying about that, I really need to retire. Second of all, that was all predetermined [Sunday] night again."

Davis also has a recent history of arm troubles (he was on the disabled list twice in 2016 for a forearm issue) and also saw his workload jump in September just to help the Cubs get to the postseason. In the final month of the regular season, Davis threw 237 pitches, 42 more than he threw in any other month of 2017. The last time he topped 200 pitches in any month was May 2015.

TV cameras showed Davis throwing in the Cubs bullpen alongside Lackey at one point in the ninth inning, leading to surprise by a huge faction of the (*looks around and whispers*) social media fanbase when the game broadcast resumed after commercials and the pitching change was to bring Lackey — not Davis — into the game.

"Wade was not warming up to come in that game," Maddon said. "Wade was probably just testing his arm at that point. We had talked about it before the game — up and in. 

"For those that aren't involved in Major League Baseball and professional baseball in general, when a guy's throwing too much, it's very important to not dry hump him, as the saying goes. Get him up and put him back down and bring him back in later. So I wasn't going to do that."

(Wow, really was not expecting to hear or write the phrase "dry hump" regarding this story.)

Maddon insists health is not the problem with Davis.

"Yes [he's healthy]. Oh yeah," Maddon said. "Listen, this guy just did yeoman kind of work — I love that word — in Washington and was not prepared to go more than three outs. I don't understand why that's difficult to understand.

"And furthermore, you have to also understand it wasn't the last game of the year or the second to last game. It was about winning eight more games. All these things are factors."

Maddon has a point. This isn't a Buck Showalter case where the Baltimore Orioles manager failed to use his best reliever — Zach Britton — in a non-save situation in a winner-take-all American League wild card game because he wanted the closer to be ready for a save.

The Cubs went down in a game that was tied 1-1 with their best reliever failing to get in the game even though he hadn't pitched in the last two days. 

But Davis can't cover every inning in relief, especially when the Cubs' two starters (Jose Quintana and Jon Lester) lasted just 9.2 innings against the Dodgers, leaving the Cubs bullpen to account for the other 8+ innings somehow.

The rest of the Cubs bullpen has to step up, too, which they did before the ninth inning of Game 2.

Still, Maddon couldn't resist getting one more defensive shot in before putting the matter to bed:

"I really hope you all understand that social media doesn't count at all," he said. "Twitter doesn't count at all. And really, as sportswriters, you should do a better job than relying on Twitter to write a story, quite frankly."

Well then.