Cubs

Showing no panic, Cubs shift pressure onto Cleveland and force must-see Game 7

Showing no panic, Cubs shift pressure onto Cleveland and force must-see Game 7

CLEVELAND – Just get back to Cleveland. Even at the lowest point of their season, the Cubs sensed the building World Series narrative would flip if they could force a Game 6. The Indians would suddenly feel a different pressure and weight of expectations. 

Just like that, the Indians unraveled on Tuesday night at Progressive Field, looking a lot like those outdated perceptions of the Cubbies and bringing back memories of their franchise’s tortured history. With a dominant 9-3 victory that created little drama or suspense given the stakes, the Cubs forced a must-see Game 7.

It will be Corey Kluber vs. Kyle Hendricks on Wednesday night, the only guarantee being one championship drought (68 years) or the other (108 years) will end, turning Cleveland or Chicago into a mixture of Times Square on New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. 

“There’s no tomorrow after tomorrow,” Anthony Rizzo said. “You lose, you go home. You win, you’re a hero.”

As oblivious to history as these Cubs can sometimes seem to be, they also have an innate understanding of how ridiculously talented they are now. Down 3-2, there would be no need to panic, with time to go trick-or-treating with the kids built into the travel itinerary before a Halloween night flight out of O’Hare International Airport. 

The longer this World Series went, the more the young Cubs could get acclimated to the overstimulation and slow down their at-bats. It meant a patient lineup would see more pitches and a get a better feel for Cleveland’s plan of attack.

It didn’t take long this time. A “Let’s go, Cubs!” chant broke out in the sellout crowd of 38,116 with two outs in the first inning when Kris Bryant launched Josh Tomlin’s 0-2 curveball 433 feet into the left-field seats. Rizzo and Ben Zobrist’s back-to-back singles off the finesse right-hander started the “TOM-LIN! TOM-LIN!” chants.

Addison Russell – who dressed up as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle for Halloween and made another splash on social media – then lifted a catchable flyball out toward right-center field. Lonnie Chisenhall cut over from right while Tyler Naquin charged in from center and the ball fell in between them. Hustling all the way from first base, Zobrist delivered the forearm shiver to Roberto Perez, knocking over the Cleveland catcher. Zobrist stood up screaming and smacked Rizzo’s hand.

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“Look, it’s been 108 years since this organization has won,” Zobrist said. “If we’re going to come back and win (from) down 3-1, then what better way to do it?”

At some point, Cleveland’s thin pitching staff would make more mistakes. Future Hall of Fame manager Terry Francona couldn’t push the right bullpen button every single time within this matrix of decisions. The deeper, more talented team could impose its will.

With Tomlin in trouble in the third inning, Francona summoned reliable right-hander Dan Otero to face Russell, who took two pitches before crushing the next one over the wall in left-center field for a grand slam. The Cubs handed Jake Arrieta a 3-0 lead before he threw his first pitch, and the Cy Young Award winner had a 7-0 lead by the time he gave up his first hit leading off the fourth inning.

Arrieta earned his second World Series win by pitching into the sixth inning, and that’s another reason why the Cubs didn’t overreact, expecting Jon Lester to take care of business in Game 5 and positioning ERA leader Kyle Hendricks for Game 7.  

“It kind of allows you to take a deep breath and say: ‘Hey, we’re still very much in this,’” Arrieta said. “When you look at the circumstances being down 3-1 – and having the guys that we did lined up – it makes us feel a little bit better about it. Whether our offense struggles or not in a particular game, we know that at any point in time, a guy like Addie can hit a grand slam.”

After handling some of the softer spots in the Cleveland pitching staff, the Cubs will now see Kluber for the third time in nine days, with Andrew Miller and Cody Allen reading and waiting to run in from the bullpen.

“We’ve overcome adversity all year,” catcher David Ross said. “Even going back to last year where it was all these things: ‘Could you do this? Could you do that?’ We answered most of those. And then the Mets beat us and you had to hear all about that for a full season, even when you win 103 games.

“It’s always something – I’ve learned that in the game. There’s always something to overcome. It’s always: ‘How are you going to do this? How are you going to do that?’ And this group has answered the bell. It’s in Game 7 of the World Series.”

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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.