Cubs

Cubs get World Series flashbacks amid craziness of Max Scherzer meltdown

Cubs get World Series flashbacks amid craziness of Max Scherzer meltdown

WASHINGTON — All the beer and champagne flying across the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park, the layers of cigar smoke floating around the room and all the mind-blowing aspects to this elimination game left Cubs players feeling like they just blacked out, not sure what really happened here in Washington as Thursday night turned into Friday morning.

Have you ever experienced anything like this before?

“Yeah, Game 7 of the World Series,” said Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs first baseman laughing and being serious at the same time.

This National League Division Series absolutely lived up to the hype. A Cubs team that spent most of the regular season looking a little bored or distracted — jonesing for this adrenaline rush — found a match in the Nationals. The unpredictability of a 9-8 game that lasted 4 hours and 37 minutes could be boiled down to the fifth inning and a total Max Scherzer breakdown.

“It was bizarro world, there’s no question about it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “But it happens. It happens this time of the year.”

There’s an eerie banner facing out from the right-center-field deck at Nationals Park, a close-up shot of Scherzer’s blue and brown eyes, with a backward K and a K in each one, an artistic rendering of a two-time Cy Young Award winner with more than 2,100 career strikeouts.

Scherzer’s outsized presence loomed over this entire NLDS, from the hamstring “tweak” that would allow him to start only once in a best-of-five format, to the no-hitter he took into the seventh inning on a bad right leg in a Game 3 loss at Wrigley Field, to turning into Washington’s bullpen weapon, ready to end the reign of the defending World Series champs.

Except these Cubs are built for moments like this, the ones that will now haunt Scherzer, manager Dusty Baker and the rest of the Nationals until they outrun their reputation for underachieving in October — four first-round knockouts since 2012 — and ride in a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.

“We’ve been through it,” said Ben Zobrist, last year’s World Series MVP. “In those situations, we tend to start believing we’re going to get the job done, even if it doesn’t look like we are.”

Baker was in toothpick-chewing mode as the Nationals clung to a 4-3 lead in the fifth inning. Scherzer fired six pitches at Kris Bryant and Rizzo and quickly notched the first two outs. But an NLDS that already brought you Rizzo screaming “RESPECT ME!” and Baker’s Chicago mold conspiracy theory and The Stephen Strasburg Under The Weather Game was going to get weird.

Bat-flipping catcher Willson Contreras and the pinch-hitting Zobrist knocked back-to-back singles to set up Addison Russell, who bounced a two-run, go-ahead double down the left-field line, stunning and silencing the sellout crowd of 43,849.

“You got to believe that as a club we’re just going to find a way to do it,” Zobrist said. “We’ve done it so many times in the past now that you just start believing it’s going to happen again.

“That’s what great teams do. And we were able to pull out a crazy one.”

This is where the Nationals collapsed. Scherzer intentionally walked Jason Heyward, perhaps the least dangerous hitter in this lineup. Javier Baez swung and missed a strike three that went through the legs of catcher Matt Wieters, who chased after the ball and carelessly threw it into right field, allowing another run to score. Pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella then went to first base on a Wieters catcher interference. Scherzer drilled Jon Jay’s left knee with a pitch to make it 7-4.

Score it all as ... WTF?

“I would say that this is the most fun I’ve had playing in a baseball game,” Russell said. “It ranks right up there with winning the World Series, (coming back from) being down 3-1 in the World Series.

“Just to see the fight that my team had, (how) everyone's up there top-stepping every pitch. Just to see the energy, the flow within the dugout was ... I get chills just talking about it. It was awesome.”

The Cubs didn’t exactly go into cruise control from there, but they have an internal compass for when things go absolutely bonkers, like it did early and often and late in Game 5, remembering how they got here in the first place.

While the Nationals wonder, “Wait until next year?,” the Cubs don’t think like that anymore, focusing only on the next pitch and trying to treat each one like a separate event. That’s why they will be flying cross-country overnight to the West Coast on their third straight trip into the NL Championship Series and Saturday’s Game 1 at Dodger Stadium.

“It’s not easy to control your emotions,” Rizzo said. “We’re really good at going one pitch at a time, especially in these situations. We got to keep it going now. We’re going have some fun on the plane ride. We’re going to L.A. and have some fun.”

Jon Lester: The most important signing in Cubs history

Jon Lester: The most important signing in Cubs history

Jon Lester became the most important signing in Cubs history when he agreed to a six-year, $155 million contract to be the ace of the Cubs.

He spurned his old team — the Red Sox — along with a handful of other teams ready to pony up the nine-figure deal necessary to acquire the frontline starter. By choosing the Cubs, Lester accelerated Theo Epstein & Jed Hoyer's famous "Plan," legitimizing Chicago as a free agent destination and as an up-and-coming perennial playoff team.

"This signing really marks a transition of sorts for the Cubs, the start of a period where we are clearly very serious about bringing a World Series to the Cubs and the people of Chicago," Epstein said back on Dec. 15, 2014.

Inking Lester to a megadeal was a calculated risk, but all $100 million contracts are. Here's a closer look at the Cubs 100 million dollar men:

Nov. 30, 2006 - The Cubs introduce Alfonso Soriano

Back in 2007, the Cubs needed to make a splash and did so by signing the top free agent hitter on the market.

The Cubs inked Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year, $136 million dollar contract — then, the largest in franchise history. The Cubs had their leadoff hitter — fresh off becoming the fourth member of the 40-40 club — to go along with a new manager in Lou Piniella. Soriano made two All-Star teams for the Cubs in 2007 and 2008 while playing a key role on both division-title winning teams.

However, his time with the Cubs will often be remembered by his offensive decline, his subpar play in the outfield, and his eventual trade to the Yankees. While his overall body of work was statistically respectable, his output did not match the $136 million the Cubs invested in him.

Dec. 15, 2014 - The Cubs introduce Jon Lester

Like the signing of Soriano, the reeling in of Lester to Wrigley Field was paired with the hiring of another new big name manager, Joe Maddon.

Three years into his megadeal, Lester is 43-25 with a 3.33 ERA in 96 starts. The 2016 All-Star and Cy Young runner-up has done some of his best work in the postseason, where he's 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA in his last nine postseason appearances — three of which came in the 2016 World Series.

Lester's tireless work ethic off the field and his veteran influence in a young Cubs clubhouse has made this signing a smashing success. 
    
Dec. 15, 2015 - The Cubs introduce Jason Heyward

One year to the day after introducing Lester, Jason Heyward met with the Chicago media after signing an eight-year, $184 million contract — the richest in franchise history.

Heyward was coming off one of his best offensive seasons (.289, 13 HR, 60 RBI with the Cardinals) and his third Gold Glove in four seasons but the prized free agent struggled from the start in Chicago. Taking Heyward away from the Cardinals and signing baseball's top free agent prize ended up creating an outfield log jam in Chicago.

Heyward's speech during the rain delay in Game 7 against the Indians will most likely end up being the highlight of his Cubs career. The post-World Series championship offseason storyline of Heyward rectifying his broken swing was entertaining to follow on social media, but his 2017 slash line of .259/.326/.389 is clearly not worth the $184 million he signed for.

The future is now

"I believe in the plan that they have in place for the future of the Cubs."

That's what Lester said back on Dec. 15, 2014.

That statement still holds true today. Lester remains the anchor of the Cubs staff surrounded by Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana with reinforcements on the way. Regardless of any additions or subtractions, the Cubs will again be one of baseball's World Series favorites entering 2018 and the reliable lefty will be at the center of it all.

Halfway home, the $155 million deal has been "smart money" spent on Lester, the most important signing in Cubs franchise history.

14 amusing observations from the 2017 MLB Winter Meetings

mlb_wm_observations_slide.jpg
USA TODAY

14 amusing observations from the 2017 MLB Winter Meetings

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The MLB Winter Meetings are exactly as advertised.

It was my first trip to what is essentially baseball's biggest trade show and the four days in Orlando went by like a blur even though there were very few moves actually made.

The two Chicago teams combined for just three moves — and all of them from the Cubs' perspective (one of which — Drew Smyly — may not even pitch in 2018).

Throughout the week at Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort, I rounded up some of the most amusing behind-the-scenes observations with help from the NBC Sports Chicago crew (Chuck Garfien, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon, Vinnie Duber):

—A Red Sox fan intercepting David Ross in the hotel lobby and telling him over and over again, "I'm a SAWX fan, I'm a SAWX fan; I love you, bro," in one of the thickest Boston accents I've ever heard.

—A kid wearing a bright pink suit (like something out of "Dumb and Dumber") trying to get a job.

A White Sox person saw the young man and noted: "If I wore that suit, I would look like a bottle of Pepto Bismol."

—A svelte Kyle Schwarber showed up at the Winter Meetings, driving some 90 miles from the Tampa Bay area to visit with Cubs personnel. He didn't talk to the media, but he certainly looked to be in the "best shape of his life."

When asked about Schwarber representing the Cubs in the ESPN Body Issue, Theo Epstein laughed and said, "I'll let you write about that." (Joke's on Theo because that's exactly what I just did.)

—Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto nearly sent Chuck Garfien to the disabled list with an agressive revolving-door maneuver.

—Scott Boras walked through the hotel flanked by his muscle and his own camera crew. Kelly Crull accidentally got on the escalator right behind Boras and in an effort to escape the TV shot, started running up the down escalator...in heels.

—Scott Changnon and I clearly have no idea what we're doing:

—During our Facebook Live Tuesday, Jed Hoyer walked by in the background on the phone, maybe closing out the final details of the Drew Smyly or Brandon Morrow deal?

Live from Day 2 of the MLB Winter Meetings

It's Day 2 of the Winter Meetings! Chuck Garfien, Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki will answer your questions about the latest Cubs and White Sox rumors!

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Tuesday, December 12, 2017

—10 minutes after Hoyer walked through the background of our Facebook Live, Theo Epstein ran past the camera as Chuck and Vinnie discussed potential free agent targets for the White Sox.

—A man in a Hawaiian shirt photobombed Wednesday's Facebook Live behind Chuck, Kelly and Vinnie. (Side note: I totally messed up by not packing a Hawaiian shirt for the Winter Meetings.)

MLB Winter Meetings Day 3

Kelly Crull, Chuck Garfien and Vinnie Duber are live from the MLB Winter Meetings. What's new with the Cubs and White Sox?

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Wednesday, December 13, 2017

—Joe Maddon wore the same olive green blaze he wore to the White House earlier this year and knew full well what he was doing, as he joked about it with reporters.

—Boras stood on a literal pedestal for his hour-long media session Wednesday, stepping up on a sturdy plastic camera case to help all three dozen media cameras catch his entire press conference.

—A woman in a Christmas-themed top hat walking her little pug around the lobby on a leash, but it was slow going as baseball men and women kept stopping them to pet the very good dog.

—Some dude's sneezing in the media workroom was the real star of the show. Never heard anything like it in my life before. Sounded literally like the devil was coming out of his nose.

—The work ethic of people in baseball is mind-bottling to me. 

Not only the front office members, like the Cubs' staff who went from playing deep into October for the third straight fall to preparing for free agency, weighing trade options, scouting and — this winter — pulling all-nighters to put together a proposal for Shohei Ohtani.

But baseball media members are ridiculously hard-working. These people spent all year covering 162-game seasons plus 6+ weeks of spring training and then another month of postseason and now, two weeks before Christmas, they're pulling 15-hour days during the Winter Meetings. 

Yes, it's a really cool job and we get paid to cover a game and hang around professional athletes, but it's also a lot of work and the people who have done this for a lifetime are so impressive.