Cubs

Why Theo Epstein thinks these Cubs can withstand the pressure

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Why Theo Epstein thinks these Cubs can withstand the pressure

Hector Rondon waited around his hotel room, not sure if he should wear his Superman onesie to Dodger Stadium.

The unofficial Cubs closer knew he made the right decision as soon as he got down to the hotel lobby and saw his teammates already dressed up for Joe Maddon’s latest stunt.

With a red cape around his neck, Rondon rolled off the team bus and into the visiting clubhouse around 2:25 p.m. on Sunday, followed by Starlin Castro in a Super Mario Bros. T-shirt and pajama pants. Pedro Strop went with the same look in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Of course, they posed for pictures that would be posted on Twitter and Instagram. This was about two-and-a-half hours before first pitch against a $300 million first-place team in front of a national-television audience.

The Cubs would be back in the same room toasting Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter with bottles of Dom Perignon before boarding an overnight flight home from Los Angeles.

“We’re not guilty of overthinking too many things, which is good,” Theo Epstein said, talking about this specific group and not necessarily his baseball-operations department as a whole.

“The guys are really loose, and it’s not just words. I think if you’re around the team, you feel it. There’s not a lot of weight to the clubhouse on a day-to-day basis.”

As ex-manager Dale Sveum used to say: “Ya think?”

[MORE: Albert Almora named Cubs minor league player of the month]

The Cubs have lost six of their last eight games and still woke up on Thursday with a 6.5-game lead over the San Francisco Giants for the National League’s second wild card. FanGraphs (96.4 percent) and Baseball Prospectus (93.7 percent) projected the Cubs as locks for the playoffs.

“There is a momentum at play in September that’s powerful,” Epstein said. “It’s more powerful than playoff odds and math and things like that that people like to look at this time of year.

“I think being loose and having a really positive vibe — even if we lose a few games in a row — is really important to help keep the momentum going the right way.”

In other words: Save it, nerds.

Epstein was the lead architect for the Boston Red Sox teams that won World Series titles in 2004 and 2007 — and the dysfunctional group that wound up with four words near the top of the 2011 season’s obituary: Fried chicken and beer.

Those Red Sox had been 30 games over .500 on Sept. 3, 2011, in second place in the American League East and nine games up on Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays.

“At this time of year,” Epstein said, “if you start paying attention to the standings, or things aren’t going your way, or you’re not performing up to expectations, or you don’t like what people are writing about you, or you’re scoreboard-watching and not getting the results that you want to get, players and teams and organizations can get too tight.

“And it’s really hard to escape that.”

[RELATED: Cubs awaiting results on Kyle Schwarber’s MRI]

The Rays stormed into the playoffs as a wild-card team while Boston’s collapse led to sweeping changes at Fenway Park, with Epstein leaving for a president’s title and a direct report to ownership in Chicago.

The Cubs have serious issues with their rotation beyond Arrieta and Jon Lester. Injuries to Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler could create bigger holes in a lineup that might already be dragging.

Addison Russell played in only 68 minor-league games last season, and Kris Bryant hasn’t experienced playing through September and into October, either.

But the Cubs could go 15-15 the rest of the way and still win 90 games. This isn’t a fluke team or an accidental contender.

“Our thing is just playing naïve,” outfielder Chris Coghlan said. “Just going out there and doing it (because) that’s really essentially what it’s about.

“When we play in October, it’s the same thing. It’s the same game. Now it’s magnified to the nth degree, but it really is the same thing for us. You’re just critiqued a whole lot more or praised a whole lot more.”

So there goes Strop — his green-and-gold Air Jordans balanced on a two-wheel electric scooter — through a Wrigley Field clubhouse that sometimes smells like stale beer and has a disco ball and DJ lighting equipment hanging from the ceiling.

“Just show up, play hard and compete and try to win a ballgame,” Epstein said. “If you win, celebrate extremely hard for about 15 minutes and then let it go (and) do it again the next day. That’s really valuable and it also helps you avoid the pitfall of getting too tight.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“It’s such a loose group. I don’t think players are out there thinking about the standings or thinking about pressure or thinking about numbers or thinking about the gravity of the situation.

“I think they’re out there relaxed, loose, having fun, playing hard for one another, enjoying the moment and trying to let their talent take over and win a ballgame.”

Beginning Labor Day, the Cubs will have 13 games in 21 days against the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates. Check back then to see if the Cubs are still playing so loose and carefree — or suddenly feeling the weight of history and expectations.

“This team doesn’t strike me as the type that’s going to be overwhelmed by any situation,” Epstein said. “Over the course of 162, we’re going to go through our ups and downs. But I think this team thrives in competitive situations.

“You’ve seen how we’ve performed against good teams, how we’ve performed in certain games with our backs against the wall, limiting losing streaks or facing real tough starting pitching.

“I think this team responds to that type of challenge. And we’ll see this month.”

Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

MESA, Ariz. — For years, Chris Bosio was credited as part of the reason for the Cubs’ recent string of pitching success. He helped turn Jake Arrieta into a Cy Young winner and oversaw pitching staffs that led the Cubs to three consecutive NLCS appearances and that curse-smashing World Series win in 2016.

But now it’s 2018, and Bosio is out. Jim Hickey is in.

The Cubs’ new pitching coach arrives with high expectations and has been tasked with shepherding a group of arms that saw a few too many bumps in the road last season. Jon Lester had his worst season in a long time, Jose Quintana’s numbers weren’t as good as they had been during his time with the White Sox, Tyler Chatwood led the National League in losses last season, and Yu Darvish got roughed up in a pair of World Series starts. And that’s before even mentioning the bullpen.

Still, even with all that said, the Cubs look to have, on paper, one of the best starting rotations in the game. And the upgrades in the bullpen have tempered some of the rage over the relief corps’ repeated postseason implosions. Theo Epstein’s front office had a mission this offseason to improve the pitching staff, and Hickey is a very large part of trying to accomplish that mission.

“What really was the slam dunk in my decision to come to Chicago or at least the finishing touches on it was getting to meet Theo, getting to meet Jed (Hoyer), going physically to Chicago, go to the offices there, seeing the physical building, meeting the people inside, just getting that vibe. Everybody was on the same page, and that page was winning,” Hickey said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. “And also built not just to win here for two or three years but for a sustained period of time, and that was what was very, very attractive.”

Hickey’s ties to the Cubs are obvious. He worked as Joe Maddon’s pitching coach in Tampa Bay for eight seasons before Maddon left to take over managing duties on the North Side. The two coached some phenomenal pitchers with the Rays, guys like James Shields, David Price, Scott Kazmir and Chris Archer and won an American League pennant in 2008. Prior to that, Hickey coached for the Houston Astros and oversaw a staff that included Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt en route to the 2005 World Series.

How does the Cubs’ rotation of Lester, Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Quintana and Chatwood compare to those great rotations from Hickey’s past?

“That’s a really tough question. But I think one through five, it may be as deep as any staff that I’ve had,” he said. “Really tough to say. I’ll give you a better idea after the season’s over, but one through five, it’s really, really good. Had some very, very good staffs, obviously, in years past. But these five guys, we talk about it all the time, the starters pitching innings and not falling into this pattern of starters being used less and less and the bullpen being used more and more.

“If you were to give me a staff of five guys, or give anybody a staff of five guys, that threw between 185 and 200 innings, you would probably have a championship-caliber club. And that’s what my expectations are out of this staff, and I think they will be a championship-caliber club.”

Hickey’s toughest task, though, likely won’t be working with all those veteran starters but instead working with a  bullpen that struggled under the bright lights of the postseason last October. While Cubs relievers had the sixth-lowest ERA in baseball during the regular season (3.80), the playoffs were a different story, with the bullpen rocked to the tune of a 6.21 ERA. Cubs relievers walked a postseason-high 27 batters while striking out only 35 in 37.2 innings.

The front office tried to fix that strike-throwing problem by bringing in new closer Brandon Morrow, who shone with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, and Steve Cishek, who has closing experience from his time with the Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners, plus he worked with Hickey last season in Tampa Bay.

But Hickey is the bigger key to fixing that problem, and it’s one of his biggest objectives to not just bring the walks down but make the Cubs one of the best staffs in baseball when it comes to issuing free passes.

“I really think that walks, especially out of the bullpen, are a little bit more of a mindset than they are anything physically or mechanically wrong,” he said. “You come into a situation where maybe you give up a base hit and maybe it changes the game, so you’re a little bit reluctant to throw the ball over the plate.

“So I think it’s more of a mindset, and once the group gets the mindset of ‘attack, attack, attack,’ it’ll be contagious. And I think it is contagious. I think last year it was probably contagious in that there was more walks than you would like, and I think as you turn the corner and head the other direction, that would be contagious, as well.

“I have very few outcome goals in a season. I don’t sit there and say, ‘I want to lead the league in earned-run average’ or ‘I want to lead the league in strikeouts.’ … But that one thing, that one outcome goal that I always have for a staff is to have the least amount of walks in the league. And I think at the end of the day, especially with the talent that’s out there, if that is the case, it’s going to be an extremely successful season.”

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”