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.

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

When the 2017 season ended, Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber looked in the mirror and didn't like what he saw.

He was stocky, slower than he wanted to be and he had just finished a very difficult season that saw him spend time back in the minor leagues at Triple-A after he struggled mightily through the first three months of the season.

Schwarber still put up solid power numbers despite his overall struggles. He slammed 30 home runs, putting him among the Top 15 hitters in the National League and among the Top 35 in all of baseball. But, Schwarber was honest with himself. He knew he could achieve so much more if he was in better shape and improved his mobility, his overall approach at the plate and his defense.

Schwarber was drafted by the Cubs out of Indiana University as a catcher. However, many scouts around baseball had serious doubts about his ability to catch at the big league level. The Cubs were in love with Schwarber the person and Schwarber the overall hitter and felt they would give him a chance to prove he could catch for them. If he couldn't, then they believed he could play left field adequately enough to keep his powerful bat in the lineup.

However, a serious knee injury early in the 2016 season knocked Schwarber out of action for six months and his return to the Cubs in time to assist in their World Series run raised expectations for a tremendous 2017 season. In fact, the expectations for Schwarber were wildly unrealistic when the team broke camp last spring. Manager Joe Maddon had Schwarber in the everyday lineup batting leadoff and playing left field.

But Schwarber's offseason after the World Series consisted of more rehab on his still-healing injured left knee. That kept him from working on his outfield play, his approach at the plate and his overall baseball training. 

Add in all of the opportunities and commitments that come with winning a World Series and it doesn't take much detective work to understand why Schwarber struggled so much when the 2017 season began. This offseason, though, has been radically different. A season-ending meeting with Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer led to a decision to take weight off of Schwarber's frame. It also included a decision to change his training program so that he improved his quickness, lateral movement and his overall baseball skills.

"I took two weeks off after the season ended and then I went to work," Schwarber said. "We put a plan together to take weight off and to improve my quickness. I have my meals delivered and I feel great. My baseball work combined with a lot of strength and conditioning has me in the best shape that I have ever been in."

Schwarber disagrees with the pundits who felt manager Maddon's decision to put him in the leadoff spot in the Cubs' loaded lineup contributed to his struggles.

"I have no problem hitting wherever Joe wants to put me," Schwarber said. "I didn't feel any more pressure because I was batting leadoff. I just needed to get back to training for a baseball season as opposed to rehabbing from my knee injury. I'm probably 20-25 pounds lighter and I'm ready to get back to Arizona with the boys and to get ready for the season."

Many around the game were shocked when the Cubs drafted Schwarber with the No. 4 overall selection in the 2014 MLB Draft, but a rival executive who was not surprised by the pick believes that Schwarber can indeed return to the form that made him such a feared hitter during his rookie season as well as his excellent postseason resume.

"Everyone who doubted this kid may end up way off on their evaluation because he is a great hitter and now that he is almost two years removed from his knee injury," the executive said. "He knows what playing at the major-league level is all about I expect him to be a real force in the Cubs lineup.

"Theo and Jed do not want to trade this kid and they are going to give him every opportunity to succeed. I think he has a chance to be as good a hitter as they have in their order."

Watch the full 1-on-1 interview with Kyle Schwarber Sunday night on NBC Sports Chicago.

The low-key move that may pay dividends for Cubs in 2018 and beyond

The low-key move that may pay dividends for Cubs in 2018 and beyond

The Cubs-Cardinals rivalry is alive and well and this offseason has been further proof of that.

The St. Louis Cardinals haven't made a rivalry-altering move like inking Jake Arrieta to a megadeal, but they have proven that they are absolutely coming after the Cubs and the top of the division.

However, a move the St. Louis brass made Friday afternoon may actually be one that makes Cubs fans cheer.

The Cardinals traded outfielder Randal Grichuk to the Toronto Blue Jays Friday in exhange for a pair of right-handed pitchers: Dominic Leone and Conner Greene. Leone is the main draw here as a 26-year-old reliever who posted a 2.56 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 10.4 K/9 in 70.1 innings last year in Toronto.

But this is the second young position player the Cardinals have traded to Toronto this offseason and Grichuk is a notorious Cub Killer.

Grichuk struggled overall in 2017, posting a second straight year of empty power and not much else. But he once again hammered the Cubs to the tune of a .356 batting average and 1.240 OPS. 

He hit six homers and drove in 12 runs in just 14 games (11 starts) against Joe Maddon's squad. That's 27 percent of his 2017 homers and 20 percent of his season RBI numbers coming against just one team.

And it wasn't just one year that was an aberration. In his career, Grichuk has a .296/.335/.638 slash line against the Cubs, good for a .974 OPS. He's hit 11 homers and driven in 33 runs in 37 games, the highest ouput in either category against any opponent.

Even if Leone builds off his solid 2017 and pitches some big innings against the Cubs over the next couple seasons, it will be a sigh of relief for the Chicago pitching staff knowing they won't have to face the threat of Grichuk 18+ times a year.

Plus, getting a reliever and a low-level starting pitching prospect back for a guy (Grichuk) who was borderline untouchable a couple winters ago isn't exactly great value. The same can be said for the Cardinals' trade of Aledmys Diaz to Toronto on Dec. 1 for essentially nothing.

A year ago, St. Louis was heading into the season feeling confident about Diaz, who finished fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year race in 2016 after hitting .300 with an .879 OPS as a 25-year-old rookie. He wound up finishing 2017 in the minors after struggling badly to start the season and the Cardinals clearly didn't want to wait out his growing pains.

The two trades with Toronto limits the Cardinals' depth (as of right now) and leaves very few proven options behind shortstop Paul DeJong and outfielder Tommy Pham, who both enjoyed breakout seasons in 2017.