Cubs

Why Theo Epstein almost reached the breaking point and sold pieces off this Cubs team

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USA TODAY

Why Theo Epstein almost reached the breaking point and sold pieces off this Cubs team

Divided, tone-deaf, gridlocked, the Cubs reflected Washington the last time they played at Nationals Park, where veteran catcher Miguel Montero went rogue during an epic postgame rant and the defending World Series champs kept stalling around the .500 mark.

Team president Theo Epstein watched the Nationals run wild across his iPad on June 27 while he was visiting the Class-A Myrtle Beach affiliate, a breakdown that had Montero pointing the finger directly at Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta for those seven stolen bases.

Within seconds of seeing those explosive comments in his South Carolina hotel room, Epstein knew he wanted to get rid of Montero, who couldn’t hide his frustrations with manager Joe Maddon…during a radio interview the day of the championship parade and Grant Park rally last November.

Montero wasn’t exactly a lone wolf, speaking out for players who didn’t always see the communication skills that Maddon showed off during his media sessions. Even Arrieta appreciated Montero’s honesty, saying: “I love Miggy.”

Looking for a button to push with a team that wasn’t getting a jolt from The Cubs Way culture or Maddon’s laissez-faire style, Epstein DFA’d Montero and eventually shipped him to the Toronto Blue Jays.

The next day, about half the team showed up at the White House, where board member Todd Ricketts told Donald Trump the Cubs would run into the Nationals in the playoffs and predicted: “You’ll see them crumble.”

In reality, the Cubs were dangerously close to imploding, which will make it fascinating to watch which team crumbles during the best-of-five National League Division Series that begins Friday night in Washington.

As Epstein consulted with a few players about the Montero decision, he sent this message: Get your stuff together and play with an edge if you want us to trade the Class-A talent here in Myrtle Beach for big-league reinforcements this summer.

The Cubs also quietly put the word out to teams looking for starting pitching and bullpen help: There was a remote possibility that looming free agents Arrieta and Wade Davis would be available at the July 31 trade deadline. A new collective bargaining agreement – with the international spending restrictions, luxury-tax implications and a modified qualifying-offer system – would have been part of the rationalization.

“Not blowing it up,” Epstein said. “But when you’re five-and-a-half out, if you have a bad road trip and a bad homestand and then you’re 10-and-a-half out, absolutely, we would have sold.”  

[MORE CUBS: How Jon Jay brought Cubs clubhouse together for big finish]

That’s the deficit the Cubs faced on July 9, when Jon Lester got rocked during a 14-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field that left the defending World Series champs with a 43-45 record. During that final game before the All-Star break, Epstein received a text message from White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, sparking the Jose Quintana trade talks.

Davis – who wasn’t even a part of last year’s championship team – would be the only player representative at the All-Star festivities in South Florida. Epstein went into stealth mode that week – credit Reddit users Wetbutt23 and KatyPerrysBootyHole with the scoop – and gave up top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease in a blockbuster deal for Quintana that would solidify the rotation through 2020.

Epstein left his family’s beach vacation in Massachusetts to join the team at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where he got his start in professional baseball as a summer intern out of Yale University in 1992, the same year that trendsetting stadium opened in downtown Baltimore.

Epstein noticed the mood in the visiting clubhouse after that first game back from the All-Star break on July 14 – a 9-8 victory where the Cubs got homers from Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Addison Russell, still almost blew an eight-run lead and began a six-game winning streak.

“In the first half, we were kind of tired of the postgame celebration,” Epstein said. “It was getting kind of old.

“Folks don’t understand. Once you win it all – and you’ve given everything you’ve had – the specter of playing 162 games and making them all meaningful is really overwhelming. It’s hard to get up for all of them.

“The first half, there were just a lot of things, different gripes going on. It was kind of more a collection of individuals than it was anything else.

“And then as soon as we hit the break – and we had to answer the bell – our guys did. We came back from the break as a team – and as a really good team – and we celebrated that win like it was a postseason win.

“We took off from there. That vibe of a loose atmosphere – but very connected group – was back. And we kind of rode it the whole second half.”

The Milwaukee Brewers, a rebuilding team with an Opening Day payroll around $56 million, spent 69 days in first place, but never after July 25. Epstein’s front office never got to the point of exchanging names or discussing any white-flag deals in depth or really considering a breakup of their young core. But the Cubs now believe that adversity will make them stronger in October.

“Look, it was crunch time early this year,” Epstein said. “If we had had a bad road trip and a bad homestand to start the second half, we’re selling. We didn’t. We started to play pretty good baseball right off the bat. We added and our guys elevated their level of play and had a hell of a second half and a great closing kick.

“And now we’re going into the playoffs with as much momentum as anybody.”

Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 4: The beginning of the end

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USA TODAY

Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 4: The beginning of the end

Once again, baseball has proved it's far too wacky to predict.

It's not just the Cubs offense that's been slumping: I've gone 0-for-3 in predictions for each game of the NLCS thus far.

So what's the point in throwing out a prediction again? Based on the last four days, it would be easy to pick the Cubs to lose and that's what I would do, but I've been wrong the first three games, so what do I know?

I never thought the Cubs would get swept in this series. They're too talented, too experienced, too deep to get steamrolled.

But they're also completely worn out and it's showing. The mood in the locker room and the body language on the field is not at all indicative of the same team that showed legendary resiliency last fall.

That's OK. It's understandable. The Cubs have played more games and pitched more innings than any other team in baseball since the start of 2015. 

After all, they are human. 

There is something to be said for a lack of pressure. The Cubs have absolutely nothing to lose right now and they've procastinated all season, playing their best baseball only when they've been backed into a corner.

"Nobody's expecting us to come back except the guys in this room," Kris Bryant said. "I don't know if it's a comforting feeling, but it takes a little pressure off us because nobody expects us to do it."

Bryant also aptly pointed out that if any group can become the second team in baseball history to climb out of an 0-3 hole in a seven-game series, it's the team that ended a 108-year championship drought by erasing a 3-1 deficit in the World Series.

But Bryant said these things without much conviction Tuesday night in the Cubs home clubhouse. 

It looks like these guys left everything in D.C. after that epic Game 5. 

But if I'm wrong again and these Cubs are going to get another entry into the baseball history books, it starts Wednesday night against Alex Wood. Here's the lineup they'll roll with:

1. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
2. Kyle Schwarber - LF
3. Kris Bryant - 3B
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Willson Contreras - C
6. Addison Russell - SS
7. Javy Baez - 2B
8. Jon Jay - RF
9. Jake Arrieta - P

Dodgers starter Alex Wood is a pretty neutral pitcher, really good against both right-handers and lefties. So it makes sense that Almora and Schwarber are both in the lineup and atop the order, as they've had the best plate appearances of anybody on the team in this NLCS.

It also makes sense that Jason Heyward is not in the lineup, as his postseason numbers with the Cubs have been downright icky. 

Heyward deserves a ton of credit for his clubhouse leadership, that rain delay speech and incredible defense in the outfield. But he's hitting .109 with a .186 on-base percentage and .156 slugging percentage in 70 postseason plate appearances in a Cubs uniform. That's a .342 OPS.

Barring a curveball with more break than his own, this will be Arrieta's last start in a Cubs uniform, which is maybe the biggest storyline of the game after the whole will-the-Cubs-swept-out-of-the-NLCS-for-the-second-time-in-three-years thing.

When Arrieta started Game 4 of the NLDS, he admitted he couldn't help but take a moment or two to look around Wrigley Field and try to take it all in. This is the place that turned his career around.

Arrieta is also a gigantic reason this Cubs team has played so many games these last three seasons, winning the Cy Young in 2015 and beating the Cleveland Indians twice on the road in the World Series.

It'll be great to see the reaction from the crowd and his own reaction when he steps out to the mound and whenever it is he walks off the bump to the third base dugout.

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

For the second straight week, Kyle Schwarber halted his postgame media scrum to get something off his chest.

Standing at his locker — the same spot he stood exactly a week prior — the Cubs slugger got about as forceful as he's ever been with the cameras rolling.

Are the Cubs drained right now?

"Never. Nope. Not at all," Schwarber said. "I'll shut you down right there — we're not running out of gas at all."

Really? 

You gotta admire Schwarber's grit. He's got that linebacker/football mentality still locked and loaded in mid-October after a brutal first three games of the NLCS.

But...come on. The Cubs aren't drained? They're not tired or weary or mentally fatigued?

Schwarber says no, but it doesn't look that way on the field. They look like the high point of the season was that epic Game 5 in D.C. It was one of the craziest baseball games ever played, very reminsicent of Game 7 in last year's World Series.

Only one thing: Game 7 was the ultimate last game. They left it all on the field and that was cool because there was no more season left. Last week's wacky contest wasn't the final game of the season. It was just the final game of the FIRST series of the postseason.

So if the Cubs aren't feeling any weariness — emotional, physical, mental or otherwise — they must be superhuman.

Yet Anthony Rizzo — the face of the franchise — backed Schwarber's sentiment.

"I'm 28 years old right now," Rizzo said. "I could run laps around this place right now. I've got a great job for a living to play baseball.

"We have a beautiful life playing baseball. You gotta keep that in perspective. So if you wanna try to get mentally tired, realize what we're doing."

Rizzo talked that talk, but his performance on the field has hit a wall. After his "Respect Me!" moment in Game 3 of the NLDS, Rizzo went hitless in his next 16 at-bats before a harmless single Tuesday night. He then struck out in his final trip to the plate.

Bryzzo's other half — Kris Bryant — actually took the opposite stance of his teammates.

"Yeah, [that Washington series] was pretty draining, I think," Bryant admitted. "Some good games there that I think were pretty taxing for our bullpen and pitchers, too. 

"Kinda expect that around this time of year. The games mean a lot."

It's not surprising to hear those words from Bryant. In fact, it wouldn't even be mildly shocking to hear every player in the clubhouse share the same point of view.

The Cubs played all the way past Halloween last fall, then hit the town, having epic celebrations, going on TV shows, having streets named after them, etc. 

Then, before you know it, there's Cubs Convention again. And shortly after that, pitchers and catchers report. 

From there, the "title defense" season began, featuring a lackluster first half and a second half that took a tremendous amount of energy just to stave off the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central and get into the postseason.

Oh yeah, and then that series with the Nationals where the Cubs squeaked out a trio of victories by the slimest of margins.

These Cubs have never really had anything resembling a break. 

However, they're now just one game away from getting that rest they so badly need (and deserve).