Cubs

Five takeaways from Game 2: While Dodger bullpen dominates, where was Wade Davis?

Five takeaways from Game 2: While Dodger bullpen dominates, where was Wade Davis?

LOS ANGELES – You could feel Dodger Stadium shaking on Sunday night once Justin Turner slammed John Lackey’s 92-fastball out toward center field, clearing the wall for a three-run, walk-off homer that landed in a fan’s glove and left the Cubs two losses away from the end of their season.  

Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” blasted from the sound system once the Dodgers grabbed control of this National League Championship Series, a sellout crowd of 54,479 celebrating a 4-1 victory that left the defending World Series champs down 0-2.   

Where was All-Star closer Wade Davis in the ninth inning? That became the first question in Joe Maddon’s postgame press conference. The manager pushed lefty Brian Duensing into an extra inning and went with Lackey, a 38-year-old pitcher working on back-to-back days with almost zero experience as a reliever.

“I really just needed (Wade) for the save tonight,” Maddon said. “He had limited pitches. It was one inning only. And in these circumstances, you don't get him up and then don't get him in. So if we had caught the lead, he would have pitched. That's it.”

· The Cubs still would’ve had to score against a Dodger bullpen that’s now faced 25 hitters in the NLCS and only allowed one base-runner across eight no-hit innings.

The Cubs can’t count on winning a seven-game series filled with 2-1 and 3-2 games. A team that poured so much capital into its offense will need more from Bryzzo Souvenir Co. and the players – Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez, etc. – who delivered so many clutch hits during last year’s World Series run. A good sign: Addison Russell drilling a Rich Hill pitch down the left-field line and into the seats for a fifth-inning homer.   

But the Dodgers built a bullpen for October, working backwards from $80 million closer Kenley Jansen. This lineup went 4-for-30 with a walk in a Game 1 loss – and all that came within the first five innings against Clayton Kershaw. Meaning it got harder once the Cubs knocked out a three-time Cy Young Award winner.

· No doubt, Jon Lester is extremely talented, but he evolved into a three-time World Series champion and a borderline Hall of Famer through the force of his will. Tired? Achy? Under the weather? Who cares?

Lester took the ball four days after throwing 55 pitches as a $155 million reliever, trying to finish off the Washington Nationals in the divisional round. It takes guts and a feel for pitching to work around five walks and limit the Dodgers to one run in 4.2 innings. Turner did the only damage with a two-out RBI single through the right side of the infield in the fifth inning – and Lester got bailed out when embattled reliever Carl Edwards Jr. struck out Chase Utley swinging at a curveball that left the pinch-hitter hopping in frustration.   

The Cubs will need that veteran leadership and stabilizing influence once the NLCS shifts to Wrigley Field. As Lester said: “All we can we do is show up Tuesday ready to play.”

· With Lester maxed out at 103 pitches, the Cubs still needed to cover the next four innings. This isn’t the time for moral victories, but credit Edwards, Pedro Strop and Duensing for at least keeping it a 1-1 game into the ninth inning, and maybe that will be a confidence boost for this bullpen, because the Cubs need those relievers to be viable if they want to keep playing through October.  

“You just don’t run away,” Maddon said. “There’s nowhere to run. These guys got to keep playing. And you got to keep putting them out there at what you think is the right time. That’s how you win, because we have eight games to win, not one or two.”

· Maddon worked for Andrew Friedman when the Tampa Bay Rays became known as a cutting-edge organization constantly looking for any advantage that would allow a small-market team to compete in the American League East. That philosophy is now combined with super-team resources in Los Angeles.

So, no, Maddon wasn’t surprised to hear that Dodgers manager Dave Roberts described Corey Seager as feeling “normal-ish,” the day after a back injury forced the All-Star shortstop off the NLCS roster. For now.

“Of course, did you expect anything different?” Maddon said. “We’ll just see how it all plays out.”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.