Will Cubs offense go boom or bust against Cardinals?

Will Cubs offense go boom or bust against Cardinals?

The New York Mets are in such a free fall – from 2015 National League champions to basically a glorified Triple-A team at the moment – that all the offensive fireworks at Wrigley Field became white noise.

The Cubs know that the Mets are no longer the litmus test for this lineup, feeling confident enough on Thursday night to start a pitcher making his big-league debut (Jen-Ho Tseng) and their fifth catcher (Taylor Davis) and cruise to a 14-6 win that kept them in control of the NL Central race.

Putting 39 runs on the board during this three-game sweep – following a lost weekend where they scored three runs in three games and got swept by the Milwaukee Brewers – temporarily changed the subject and increased their division lead by one game.

But it didn’t reveal much about whether or not these hitters will be ready for October – or a St. Louis Cardinals team that has Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn lined up for Friday, Saturday and Sunday in what should be an electric atmosphere.

“You got to beat better pitching to win this thing,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You have to pitch better than good pitching. You got to take advantage. You got to score runs with outs. We’re scoring runs right now without homers sometimes, which is kind of nice to watch and see, execution-wise.

“We’re not going to score 15 runs, but we need to continue to execute good at-bats consistently.”

The Cubs have a three-game lead on St. Louis and Milwaukee, a magic number that is now 14 and 11 games left against those two division rivals that didn’t necessarily expect to be in this position.

The Cardinals were seven games under .500 in late June, thinking about a trade-deadline sale this summer and a 66-66 team by Aug. 30. That’s when they traded Mike Leake off their rotation to the Seattle Mariners for a minor-league infielder in a salary dump.

“There’s still a lot of good major-league players left behind,” Maddon said. “I think a lot of the resurgence with the Cardinals is they’re getting a lot of good bump from some young players. Maybe when you trade a guy like that, somebody else is unleashed or surfaces.

“They probably knew they had somebody good in mind – very good in mind – and by not overemphasizing that you’re keeping less pressure off the kid coming up. They probably expected a lot of this from the young guys they brought up.”

For all their identity issues, the Cardinals can pitch, ranking third in the NL in ERA (3.87) and tied for second in quality starts (78) and shutouts (12). The St. Louis pitching staff has limited the Cubs to a .217 batting average and a .669 OPS so far this season.

The Cubs have gone 8-4 against the Cardinals – while getting outscored 48-44 overall – and 10 of the 12 games have been decided by one or two runs.

“We’re really familiar,” said Anthony Rizzo, who now has 32 homers and 106 RBI. “We see Martinez, Wacha and Lynn all the time. We’ve seen them a lot over the last few years, so we know what they got. We know their bullpen. On the other side, they know what we have.

“That’s the good thing about rivalries like this – you know what you got – and then just go out there and play.”

That familiarity should breed contempt, more memorable moments and traffic jams all around Wrigleyville.

“Probably shouldn’t take Clark,” Maddon said. “Just go down Lake Shore.”

Why Cubs should make Jim Hickey an offer he can't refuse


Why Cubs should make Jim Hickey an offer he can't refuse

Monday’s interview with Jim Hickey in Chicago — roughly 72 hours after the Cubs fired pitching coach Chris Bosio and within a week of manager Joe Maddon saying “of course” he wanted his entire staff back — is a first step in the reboot at Wrigley Field.

Maddon would probably like to have that answer back, knowing he could have softened the language with corporate speak and created some wiggle room in the middle of a National League Championship Series where the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs in every phase of the game.

But Hickey, the former Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach, is a familiar face and an expert voice at a time when Maddon’s honeymoon period appears to be over, repeatedly first- and second-guessed about his decisions, from the World Series Game 7 the Cubs won last year through a frustrating 43-45 start to this season and deep into another playoff run.

That staff is already in flux, with bench coach Dave Martinez scheduled to interview with the Washington Nationals for Dusty Baker’s old job and assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske now leaving to take a lead role with the Los Angeles Angels hitters.

Here’s why the Cubs will probably have to make Hickey an offer he can’t refuse:

— A rival scout noticed how often Maddon looked like a solitary figure in the dugout, standing there looking down at his lineup card. Whatever friction Maddon felt with Bosio — a big presence who pitched 11 seasons in the big leagues and isn’t afraid to tell you exactly what he thinks — Hickey is someone the manager trusts after their eight seasons together with the Rays.

Maddon insisted he wasn’t maneuvering behind the scenes when he reached out after Hickey surprisingly parted ways with Tampa Bay in October, but it still showed the depth of their relationship: “I called him to console a friend.”

— While working for the Boston Red Sox, Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer got an up-close look at what Hickey did in the American League East, helping build the small-market contender that advanced to the 2008 World Series, the beginning of five seasons with at least 90 wins in six years.

Between his time with the Rays and Houston Astros, look at the All-Star pitchers Hickey has worked with: Chris Archer, David Price, Alex Colome, Brad Boxberger, Matt Moore, Fernando Rodney, James Shields, Rafael Soriano, Scott Kazmir, Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge and Roger Clemens.

— Hickey can also offer unique insight into Alex Cobb, a free agent the Cubs will have to do more background work on as they try to replace 40 percent of their rotation. Cobb — who went 48-35 with a 3.50 ERA in 115 career starts for the Rays — just turned 30 and has only 700 innings on his major-league odometer after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in the middle of the 2015 season.

“He has a talent that most organizations search for relentlessly,” Cobb told the Tampa Bay Times after Hickey left the Rays with a year remaining on his contract. “He will have a great time being a free agent.

“I’m not going to try to explain how great Jim Hickey is. There’s really nothing I can say that would speak louder than his track record. All I can say is how fortunate I was to have him when I got to the big leagues. No one could have prepared me better.”

— Beyond the connection to Maddon, Hickey is someone who knows Chicago after growing up on the South Side, and that hometown draw will probably matter at a time when the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals are among several marquee teams in the market for a new pitching coach that now might be thinking: "Better Call Boz."

In latest twist to Cubs-Nationals, Dave Martinez will interview for Dusty Baker's old job

In latest twist to Cubs-Nationals, Dave Martinez will interview for Dusty Baker's old job

Dave Martinez – Joe Maddon’s bench coach during unprecedented runs of success with the Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays – is ready to step outside of the star manager’s shadow and run his own big-league team.

A Washington Nationals franchise coming off back-to-back division titles – while having some big personalities in the clubhouse and obvious internal issues – could still be that ideal opportunity.

The Nationals have reached out to set up an interview with Martinez, a source said Monday, confirming a Washington Post report in the wake of Dusty Baker’s messy exit, eight days after a massively disappointing playoff loss to the Cubs.

Martinez had been an X-factor in Washington’s search two years ago, when negotiations broke down with Bud Black and the Nationals eventually circled back to Baker, the former Cubs manager.

Martinez has the built-in credibility that comes from playing 16 seasons in the big leagues, which would be an asset for a team that has Bryce Harper entering his final season before free agency and Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the top of the rotation.    

Martinez, who is fluent in Spanish and analytics, spent the last 10 years working as the bench coach for two data-driven organizations, putting him at the cutting edge of defensive shifts, bullpen management and game-planning systems.    

While Maddon thrives in the front-facing aspects of the job, dealing with the media before and after every game and selling a vision to the public, Martinez handles a lot of the behind-the-scenes issues, putting out clubhouse fires and interacting with the players in one-on-one settings.

The partnership worked to the point where the Rays captured the 2008 American League pennant and the Cubs won last year’s World Series. While the Cubs have advanced to the National League Championship Series for three straight seasons, the Nationals have been knocked out of the first round of the playoffs four times since 2012.

In the middle of the grueling five-game playoff series where the Cubs outlasted the Nationals – which may have been a tipping point against Baker for Washington executives – Maddon lobbied for Martinez to be in the manager mix during baseball’s hiring-and-firing season.

“He belongs in the group,” Maddon said. “I know all these people being considered, and I promise you our guy matches up with every one of them.

“He was such a heady, aggressive, gritty kind of player. Bilingual. All that matters. He's not afraid to have the tough conversations (that) people in that position may shy away from.

“Believe me, I see all the names. There are a lot of good names, and I like a lot of these dudes. But I’m just telling you: To not include his name with those other people baffles me.”