Cubs

Game 3 swung on managers lifting their starting pitchers: Why did Maddon, Baker do what they did?

Game 3 swung on managers lifting their starting pitchers: Why did Maddon, Baker do what they did?

Max Scherzer was dealing. Jose Quintana, also dealing. It was a classic, textbook pitcher’s duel Monday at Wrigley Field. Until Joe Maddon and Dusty Baker put a stop to all that.

It wasn’t just managerial decisions that put an end to the epic pitching battle in the Cubs’ 2-1 Game 3 win that put them on the cusp of advancing to the NLCS for the third straight postseason. But both managers seemed determined, even in their postgame comments, on sticking to their predetermined scripts, making their roles in ending each All-Star pitcher’s day all the larger.

Maddon was showered with boos when he went out to remove Quintana after Kyle Schwarber’s fielding disaster in the sixth inning. The Nationals took a 1-0 lead on the first batter Pedro Strop faced, a Ryan Zimmerman hit that scored Daniel Murphy, who reached on Schwarber’s errors.

Scherzer wasn’t even all the way to his promised 100 pitches when Baker lifted his ace. The Cubs tied the game at 1 on the next hitter, Albert Almora Jr.’s clutch hit driving in Ben Zobrist and tying the game. Almora pinch hit for the aforementioned Schwarber in that moment.

The game swung dramatically immediately following both of those exits because those pitchers were nearly unhittable. They gave up a combined three hits and just one earned run. That’s it.

So why’d the managers do what they did?

Scherzer’s exit was easier to explain, given that he was coming off that much ballyhooed hamstring tweak that made his performance a mystery before Game 3 started. It turns out he had no-hit stuff until the last batter he faced. Scherzer promised he’d be well enough to throw 100 pitches. He threw 98.

“It was very difficult, but you know, we thought Max had had enough, especially coming off the injury, and you know, Schwarber is a dangerous man,” Baker said. “I probably couldn't live with myself if Schwarber had hit one out of the park on you, which he's dangerous to do that. So we thought we made the right decision. You know, he got a changeup up to Almora and you know, that was, you know — they continue to get the clutch hits.

“He was at a hundred pitches, and he had not been that far in a while. Like I said, Schwarber is a dangerous hitter. You know, if he made the pitch, then you know, we wouldn't be talking about it. But this — you know, just sometimes, you can't throw the ball where you want to throw it.”

The removal of Quintana was more difficult to explain away, and the fans in the stands booed Maddon and shouted audible “nos” when the skipper emerged from the home dugout. Quintana was making his first career postseason start, and Maddon — who even through three immensely successful seasons has earned legions of second-guessers — wanted to stick to his predetermined plan.

“I had it set up, he was not going to pitch to Zimmerman in that inning,” Maddon said. “Just happened that was a two-out error that had me bring Strop into the game. That was set up before the inning began. I really try to stay with the script that we present before the inning begins. I really felt strongly about Strop on Zimmerman. The reason is Strop has a much better chance for a punch-out as opposed to Quintana — and you don't want the ball to be moved, and he moved the baseball.”

While baseball folks are usually loath to describe a change in their mental approach, Anthony Rizzo — who had the game-winning hit in the bottom of the eighth, an inning after Scherzer was removed — admitted that everything changed once Scherzer left. The reigning Cy Young winner was untouchable into the seventh, and Rizzo said that getting him out was incredibly large for the Cubs in their comeback effort.

“He's Max Scherzer for a reason. He was dominating us, there's no two ways about it,” Rizzo said. “And Zo with that hit, the double, to get him out of the game was big for us. You just feel energy when you get guys like him out of the game. They have a really good bullpen, but when you get their ace, their guy out of the game, then obviously we have to score. But a lot of momentum when we got that one run.”

And count Zobrist, who picked up the Cubs' first hit, as one who would've kept Scherzer in the game.

"I wouldn’t have taken him the way he was pitching," Zobrist said. "He was very sharp, especially considering having not kind of having been on his normal five-day routine there. Hamstring, whatever, he didn’t show any effects of that today and he was very sharp. I just thought it was tough to take advantage of mistakes, he didn’t make a lot of them. Fortunately, with nobody on he gave me a heater I could handle and drive a little bit. In that moment, it’s just, you’ve got to believe in your guy that’s gotten you six innings the way they did. Fortunately, we were able to take advantage of it in that moment."

Managerial decisions are analyzed to death this time of year. Just look at the other side of this postseason bracket, where Yankees manager Joe Girardi has already been eviscerated for deciding not to challenge a hit by pitch. Astros manager A.J. Hinch was momentarily the subject of much online scrutiny Monday, when he put Justin Verlander into the game, only for the veteran to immediately surrender a home run.

Maddon himself is no stranger to all this noise, endlessly second-guessed for his pitching choices even after his team won the World Series. He heard that noise again, raining down on him as he removed Quintana on Monday.

The way things played out, however, Baker’s decision to lift Scherzer ended up as the more meaningful one. And, in part because of that move, the Cubs are now a game away from ending the Nationals’ season.

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.