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.

Why did Kris Bryant get a first-place vote in this year's National League MVP balloting?

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USA TODAY

Why did Kris Bryant get a first-place vote in this year's National League MVP balloting?

Kris Bryant was the 2016 National League MVP. And despite having what could be considered an even better campaign this past season, he finished seventh in voting for the 2017 edition of the award.

The NL MVP was awarded to Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton on Thursday night, a fine choice, though it was nearly impossible to make a poor choice, that's how many fantastic players there were hitting the baseball in the NL this season.

After Stanton, Cinicinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto finished second, earning the same amount of first-place votes and losing out to Stanton by just one point. Then came Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon and Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon ahead of Bryant.

But there was someone who thought Bryant deserved to repeat as the NL MVP. Yes, Bryant earned a first-place vote — as did everyone else mentioned besides Rendon, for that matter — causing a bit of a social-media stir considering the Cubs third baseman, despite his great season, perhaps wasn't as standout a candidate as some of the other guys who finished higher in the voting.

So the person who cast that first-place vote for Bryant, MLB.com's Mark Bowman, wrote up why he felt Bryant deserved to hoist the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award for the second straight year.

"In the end, I chose Bryant because I believe he made the greatest impact, as his second-half production fueled the successful turnaround the Cubs experienced after the All-Star break," Bowman wrote.

"Though I don't believe the MVP must come from a playoff contender, in an attempt to differentiate the value provided by each of these three players (Bryant, Votto and Stanton), I chose to reward the impact made by Bryant, who produced the NL's fourth-best OPS (.968) after the All-Star break, when the Cubs distanced themselves from a sub-.500 record and produced an NL-best 49 wins."

It's easy for Cubs fans and observers to follow that logic, as the Cubs took off after the All-Star break following a disappointing first half. As good as Bryant was all season long, his second-half numbers, as Bowman pointed out, were especially great. He hit .325 with a .421 on-base percentage and a .548 slugging percentage over his final 69 games of the regular season, hitting 11 home runs, knocking out 21 doubles and driving in 35 runs during that span.

Perhaps the craziest thing about this year's MVP race and Bryant's place in it is that Bryant was just as good if not better than he was in 2016, when he was almost unanimously named the NL MVP. After slashing .292/.385/.554 with 39 homers, 102 RBIs, 35 doubles, 75 walks and 154 strikeouts in 2016, Bryant slashed .295/.409/.537 with 29 homers, 73 RBIs, 38 doubles, 95 walks and 128 strikeouts in 2017.

Of course, the competition was much steeper this time around. But Bryant was given the MVP award in 2016 playing for a 103-win Cubs team that was bursting with offensive firepower, getting great seasons from Anthony Rizzo (who finished third in 2016 NL MVP voting), as well as Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist. While the Cubs actually scored more runs this season and undoubtedly turned it on after the All-Star break on a team-wide basis, Bryant was far and away the best hitter on the team in 2017, with many other guys throughout the lineup having notably down years and/or experiencing down stretches throughout the season. Hence, making Bryant more, say it with me, valuable.

So Bowman's argument about Bryant's impact on the Cubs — a team that still scored 822 runs, won 92 games and advanced to the National League Championship Series — is a decently convincing one.

Check out Bowman's full explanation, which dives into some of Bryant's advanced stats.

Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

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AP

Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

During the middle of Jake Arrieta’s 2015 Cy Young Award campaign, super-agent Scott Boras compared the emerging Cubs pitcher to another client – Max Scherzer – in the first season of a seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals.

Now don’t focus as much on the money – though that obviously matters – as when Scherzer arrived for that Washington press conference to put on his new Nationals jersey: Jan. 21, 2015.

It might take Boras a while to find a new home for his “big squirrel with a lot of nuts in his trees.” Teams have been gearing up for next winter’s monster Bryce Harper/Manny Machado free-agent class for years. Mystery surrounds Shohei Ohtani, Japan’s Babe Ruth, and the posting system with Nippon Professional Baseball. Major League Baseball’s competitive balance tax may also have a chilling effect this offseason.

As expected, Arrieta, All-Star closer Wade Davis and pitcher Alex Cobb were among the group of free agents who went 9-for-9 in declining the one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer before Thursday’s deadline.

With that formality out of the way, if Arrieta and Davis sign elsewhere, the Cubs will receive two third-round picks in the 2018 draft.

By staying under the $195 million luxury-tax threshold this year, the Cubs would have to give up a second-round draft pick and $500,000 from their international bonus pool to sign Cobb, an obvious target given their connections to the Tampa Bay Rays, or Lance Lynn, another starter on their radar who turned down a qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals.

That collectively bargained luxury-tax system became a central part of the Boras media show on Wednesday outside the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, where he introduced “Playoffville” as his new go-to analogy at the end of the general manager meetings.

“The team cutting payroll is treating their family where they’re staying in a neighborhood that has less protection for winning,” Boras said. “They’re not living in the gated community of Playoffville. Certainly, they’re saving a de minimis property tax, but the reality of it is there’s less firemen in the bullpen. There’s less financial analysts sitting in the press boxes.

“The rooms in the house are less, so obviously you’re going to have less franchise players. When you move to that 12-room home in Playoffville, they generally are filled with the people that allow you to really achieve what your family – your regional family – wants to achieve. And that is winning.”

Boras also represents four other players who rejected qualifying offers – J.D Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Greg Holland – another reason why this could be a long winter of Arrieta rumors, slow-playing negotiations and LOL metaphors.