Cubs

BREATHE and the 7 biggest things as the Cubs advance to a third straight NLCS

BREATHE and the 7 biggest things as the Cubs advance to a third straight NLCS

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Holy. Cow.

Have you digested all that?

Game 5 of the NLDS turned into an absolute classic, taking 4 hours and 37 minutes to play with 14 different pitchers combining to throw 377 pitches in Washington D.C.

The end result is this: 

The Cubs are headed to their third straight National League Championship Series after outlasting the Washington Nationals 9-8.

The Cubs are now 5-1 under Joe Maddon when facing elimination in October. 

First, take a deep breath, get out of your glass case of emotion, and then try to wrap your head around the 5 biggest things from an epic night of baseball:

Big game experience

It's an overblown storyline, but it's a fact. The Cubs have experience in wacky, edge-of-your-seat, bite-all-your-nails-off-until-your-fingers-bleed October baseball games. And they somehow keep finding ways to come out on top of them.

I don't know how, in reality. Some of it is definitely luck and the breaks going your way. But the players deserve credit, too, for somehow keeping their wits about them and getting the job done juuuuust enough to win.

Max truly is mad

Cubs fans were absolutely not feeling good about things when Max Scherzer was announced as the new pitcher for the fifth inning. Ditto when he retired Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo as the first two hitters.

But then baseball happened. The weird, quirky, nonsensical sport that has imbedded itself into American culture happened.

Here's a summary of the inning that changed the fortunes of the Cubs' season:

— With two strikes on him, Willson Contreras fought to put the ball in play and reached on an infield single.

— Ben Zobrist pinch-hit, fought off some tough two-strike pitches, then blooped one into shallow left for a single.

— Addison Russell jumped on Scherzer's first offering and grounded a ball just inside the third base line for a two-out, two-run double.

— Jason Heyward was intentionally walked.

— Javy Baez reached on a dropped third strike, Russell scored on Matt Wieters' errant throw to first base.

— Pinch hitter Tommy La Stella reached on catcher's interference.

— Jon Jay was hit with a pitch, plating another run.

— Bryant finally ended the inning with a pop out to shortstop.

The inning had everything, and it had everybody triggered:

Scherzer's final line: one inning pitched, three hits, four runs (two earned), one walk, one strikeout. 

And one L.

Time for fall break

The Professor is about take his fall break. But he'll be back next week.

Kyle Hendricks didn't have his A stuff Thursday night, giving up four earned runs on nine hits, a walk and two homers across four innings. He did strike out seven Nationals and only allowed Washington to score in one inning, but it was a grind to even get through four innings.

This wasn't the same Professor we saw in Game 1, when he patiently lulled the Washington hitters to sleep.

But it was enough to get by and eat up some outs and that's what the Cubs truly needed. Hendricks found ways to shut the door on Nationals rallies at just the right time, allowing his team back into the game.

Wade. Davis.

I don't have any cute, catchy sub-head for the Wade Davis category, because he wouldn't want it any other way.

Maddon called on his guy to close out the game, bringing the closer in in the seventh inning with two on and two out.

Davis responded by striking out Ryan Zimmerman to escape the seventh-inning jam. He walked the first two hitters of the eighth inning before getting pinch-hitter Adam Lind to ground the first pitch of the at-bat into a double play. 

But then, naturally, the guy in the next bullet came to the plate.

Still, Davis got the job done by the skin of his teeth and pitched the Cubs to the NLCS.

It was his longest outing (both in terms of pitches thrown and outs recorded) since August 2013, when he was still working as a starting pitcher.

Michael F. Taylor

(The F is for "freakin.")

The young Washington outfielder did his best to carry his team the last two nights, following his backbreaking grand slam in Game 4 with a three-run shot in the second inning of Game 5. That second blast seemed to be a dagger for the Cubs early on, but that was long before things got weird. Like really, really weird.

Taylor became the first player ever to drive in a combined seven runs on back-to-back plate appearances in the postseason and became a hero in our nation's capital for it. 

But Taylor wasn't done in the second inning. He started the seventh-inning rally with a leadoff walk and scored a run. Then he drove in another run in the eighth off Davis, trying to singlehandedly will his team back into the game.

All hands on deck

Maddon has used four starting pitchers the last two games and yet still John Lackey couldn't get in either game.

Here is a list of the pitchers used by Maddon and how many outs they accounted for:

Hendricks: 12
Brian Duensing: 2
Pedro Strop: 3
Mike Montgomery: 1
Carl Edwards Jr.: 0
Jose Quintana: 2
Davis: 7

Maddon also used Zobrist, Tommy La Stella and Kyle Schwarber as pinch-hitters and Leonys Martin as part of a double switch. 

In the last two nights, the only guys who didn't enter either game were backup catcher Alex Avila and Lackey.

Like Maddon said, there is no Game 6, and he managed like it.

Cubbie occurrences? Nahh

But Nattie occurrences? Maybe...

The Nationals will head into 2018 — the final year of Bryce Harper's contract — still having not won a postseason series. 

That makes four failures in four tries for the Nats since 2012, the year they shut Stephen Strasburg down because they wanted to prioritize his arm health and figured they'd have plenty of postseason runs in years to come.

Thursday's game was absolutely crazy and sloppy. Cubs fans are used to seeing some of those wacky occurrences happen against them, but that's all changed now with a 108-year championship drought ended.

Instead, it was the Nationals who looked star-crossed, making mistakes all over the field and essentially handing the Cubs the game on a silver platter.

The end result is what figures to be another loooong winter in D.C. breaking down this specific missed opportunity.

But we live in Chicago, and Cubdom only need worry about one thing:

Onto L.A.

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

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USA TODAY

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.”