Cubs

Joe Maddon went into 'must-win' mode in Game 4, so how will he line up his pitchers for Game 5?

Joe Maddon went into 'must-win' mode in Game 4, so how will he line up his pitchers for Game 5?

“Jon Lester is warming up in the Cubs’ bullpen.”

Come again?

That was a surprising announcement to hear over the speaker in the middle of Game 4 of this NLDS, a game in which the Cubs’ season was not on the line, a game in which the score was a razor-thin 1-0 in the fifth inning.

Lester, of course, pitched in relief last postseason, when he relieved Kyle Hendricks in Game 7 of the World Series. This time, though, manager Joe Maddon wasn’t calling on Lester to save his team with a championship on the line. He called on him to take the baton from Jake Arrieta and prevent a return flight to Washington for a Game 5.

Of course, that’s not how it played out. Lester was mostly terrific in his 3.2 innings of work, going nine up, nine down through three frames before getting two outs — including a pickoff at first base that had Wrigley Field exploding — in the top of the eighth. But lifted before getting out of that inning, Lester was relieved by Carl Edwards Jr. and Wade Davis. Edwards issued back-to-back walks to load the bases, and Davis served up the grand slam to Michael Taylor that landed in the right-field basket and flipped this NLDS on its head.

Despite what came after he left, it was the kind of performance Maddon was looking for out of Lester, one of the best postseason pitchers ever.

“The fact that he was available,” Maddon said when asked why he turned to Lester as the first man out of the ‘pen to relief Arrieta. “We could have done him or (Jose) Quintana, but he pitched before Q, so we went with him first.

“We didn't know exactly where Jake was going to be tonight, so we talked about that in advance. Now, when that showed up, if this score was like we're losing 4-0, (Lester) would not have pitched tonight. It would have been (Mike) Montgomery and the rest of the bullpen. But that part of ballgame, I felt strongly about it. It was the fact we predetermined that he's going to back up Jake tonight, and then Q would back up Kyle (Hendricks) tomorrow night because we're able to do that. That was it.”

As Maddon alluded to, we could see a similar scene play out Thursday night in the do-or-die Game 5 in Washington. Hendricks will get the start, but Quintana, who started and pitched wonderfully in the Cubs’ Game 3 win on Monday, figures to be the first guy out of the chute.

“You've got obviously starting, Kyle, and then Quintana will play the role of Jon Lester tomorrow if it's necessary,” Maddon said. “We talked about that pregame. If, in fact, it was really close, which it was — that was a good spot for Lester tonight — and then tomorrow, just everybody's available tomorrow. So it will start with Kyle, and Q is ready tomorrow to back up like Jon did tonight and the entire bullpen.

“We'll be fine tomorrow.”

Earlier Wednesday, it was Nationals manager Dusty Baker talking about the “all hands on deck” approach to Game 4, his team a loss away from being eliminated from the 2017 postseason. Now, the Cubs are in the same boat. It seems they used the “all hands on deck” approach a night early, with Lester relieving Arrieta, whose performance coming in was a bit of a mystery given the long layoff while dealing with a hamstring injury.

But now that approach spins into Thursday, too. And while Quintana has been terrific for the Cubs, he’ll be the only piece of this postseason rotation available to help out Hendricks because Arrieta and Lester likely won’t be available.

And this is all without mentioning John Lackey, who’s yet to be used in this series. The aforementioned Montgomery has faced just four batters. And what becomes of Edwards, who has had two disastrous outings in this series?

The Cubs know Hendricks will pitch tomorrow. It sounds pretty likely that Quintana will, too.

While some folks might instantly start thinking what the heck this all means for the NLCS, pump the brakes. The Cubs need to get there first.

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.