Cubs

Now who’s soft? Stephen Strasburg shoves Cubs to brink of elimination

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USA TODAY

Now who’s soft? Stephen Strasburg shoves Cubs to brink of elimination

A system-wide failure led to Stephen Strasburg’s manhood getting called into question and forced Mike Rizzo and Dusty Baker into damage-control mode, making the entire Washington Nationals operation come across as unprepared, tone-deaf and thin-skinned.   

Whatever communication issues between a $175 million pitcher and his bosses and pressure points within the organization led to a totally unnecessary, completely avoidable situation, the on-field Nationals ran with military precision between 3:10 and 7:07 p.m. on Wednesday in this National League Division Series.  

Out of that sideshow came the main event: An absolutely dominant performance that should kill the narrative that Strasburg is soft, because he just shoved the Cubs to the brink of elimination. This could be the last scene for the defending World Series champs in a half-empty Wrigley Field, the Nationals lining up for high-fives after a 5-0 win.    

After all the drama within the last 24 hours, did you feel like you had something to prove?

“Not to you guys, no,” Strasburg said in the interview room. “No, you guys create the drama. (But) I have faith in every other guy in this clubhouse and I know the coaching staff feels the same.

“So we’re in it together, and when one guy goes down, you have to trust that the other guy is going to pick up the slack.”

After the mixed messages coming out of Tuesday’s rainout – Baker initially signaled Tanner Roark would remain the Game 4 starter as planned and partially blamed Strasburg’s illness on the mold in Chicago – it would be difficult to engineer a tougher environment for hitters.

It was a bone-chilling 59 degrees at first pitch, with rain misting sideways across the old stadium, the winds whipping in from center field at 16 mph and Strasburg showing no signs of feeling under the weather.  

Strasburg unleashed a 95 mph first pitch to leadoff guy Jon Jay for a called strike, unloaded 106 pitches across seven scoreless innings and forced 22 swings-and-misses, including 15 on his changeup.

“You just kind of figure they’re going to go with him,” said outfielder Jason Heyward, who has great career numbers against Strasburg and got plugged into the lineup when the Nationals made the IV-fueled switch late that morning.  

“We don’t care about the stories, whatever. We all know what we would have done in that situation if we got asked to have a part in the game. Everybody in here’s going to say, ‘Yeah.’ And that’s what he did.”

A 24-hour news cycle is an eternity during the playoffs, when so much momentum shifts from one moment to the next. Joe Maddon looked like a genius for deploying $155 million lefty reliever Jon Lester against the heart of the Washington lineup and getting 10 outs in a row. And then Maddon seemed to get a little cute when he pulled Carl Edwards Jr. with the bases loaded and a 1-0 count in the eighth inning. What was left of a crowd of 42,264 went silent once Michael A. Taylor’s grand slam off All-Star closer Wade Davis landed in the right-field basket.    

“I had to prepare for my job today,” Lester said, “so I don’t really care what Strasburg had to do, or what he didn’t do, and what Dusty did or didn’t do, or whoever’s under the weather. We’ve got to worry about our jobs. I don’t pay attention to the other side.”

Strasburg won’t be much help after striking out 12 of the 25 hitters he faced and allowing only three hits and two walks, but Washington can flip the script again on Thursday night at Nationals Park.  

This is still largely the same group of Cubs players who beat the Pittsburgh Pirates at a blacked-out PNC Park in the sudden-death 2015 NL wild-card game and dug out of a 3-1 hole against the Cleveland Indians in last year’s World Series. The Nationals also have a lot of muscle memory, from never having made it out of the divisional round after winning 98, 96 and 95 games in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

“I don’t really think anybody likes having their back against the wall, but I think that’s just our personality in this clubhouse,” Lester said. “We got a bunch of grinders. Even the guys that you consider superstars are still grinders. They grind out at-bats, grind out pitches.

“Nobody ever likes to have their back against the wall. Nobody ever likes playing Game 5s or Game 7s, but we’re in that situation. We’re going to show up tomorrow. We’re going to be prepared. And at the end of the day, that’s all you can really do.”

After four games like this in a series that has absolutely lived up to the hype, who wouldn’t want to see a fifth? Baker wouldn’t immediately say if Roark or Gio Gonzalez would get the ball first, but Max Scherzer should be available out of the bullpen. Let’s get weird.

“We’ll have fun,” Heyward said. “That’s what all these games are. Honestly, it’s fun.”

Offseason of change begins with Cubs firing pitching coach Chris Bosio

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USA TODAY

Offseason of change begins with Cubs firing pitching coach Chris Bosio

"Of course," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said in the middle of the National League Championship — he would like his coaches back in 2018. Pitching coach Chris Bosio told the team's flagship radio station this week that the staff expected to return next year. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein didn't go that far during Friday afternoon's end-of-season news conference at Wrigley Field, but he did say: "Rest assured, Joe will have every coach back that he wants back."

That's Cub: USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale first reported Saturday morning that Bosio had been fired, a source confirming the team declined a club contract option for next year and made a major influence on the Wrigleyville rebuild a free agent. Epstein and Bosio did not immediately respond to text messages and the club has not officially outlined the shape of the 2018 coaching staff.

Those exit meetings on Friday at Wrigley Field are just the beginning of an offseason that could lead to sweeping changes, with the Cubs looking to replace 40 percent of their rotation, identify an established closer (whether or not that's Wade Davis), find another leadoff option and maybe break up their World Series core of hitters to acquire pitching. 

The obvious candidate to replace Bosio is Jim Hickey, Maddon's longtime pitching coach with the Tampa Bay Rays who has Chicago roots and recently parted ways with the small-market franchise that stayed competitive by consistently developing young arms like David Price and Chris Archer.

Of course, Maddon denied that speculation during an NLCS where the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs in every phase of the game and the manager's bullpen decisions kept getting second-guessed.

Bosio has a big personality and strong opinions that rocked the boat at times, but he brought instant credibility as an accomplished big-league pitcher who helped implement the team's sophisticated game-planning system.

Originally a Dale Sveum hire for the 2012 season/Epstein regime Year 1 where the Cubs lost 101 games, Bosio helped coach up and market short-term assets like Ryan Dempster, Scott Feldman, Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija. 

Those win-later trades combined with Bosio's expertise led to a 2016 major-league ERA leader (Kyle Hendricks) and a 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) plus setup guys Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. and All-Star shortstop Addison Russell.

Bosio helped set the foundation for the group that won last year's World Series and has made three consecutive trips to the NLCS. But as the Cubs are going to find out this winter, there is a shelf life to everything, even for those who made their mark during a golden age of baseball on the North Side.

Report: Cubs fire pitching coach Chris Bosio after six seasons with team

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USA TODAY

Report: Cubs fire pitching coach Chris Bosio after six seasons with team

In Theo Epstein's end of season press conference on Friday he said that any coach Joe Maddon wants back will return in 2018.

Evidently, there's one coach Maddon didn't want back.

According to USA Today's Bob Nightengale, the Cubs have fired longtime pitching coach Chris Bosio.

Bosio served as the Cubs pitching coach from 2012-17. He was the team's pitching coach under former managers' Dale Sveum (2012-13) and Rick Renteria (2014), and was retained when Maddon was hired as manager of the Cubs in 2015.

Bosio, who is one of the most respected pitching coaches in baseball, was instrumental in the career resurgence of Jake Arrieta who captured the Cy Young award in 2015, and the development of 27-year-old starter Kyle Hendricks (MLB's ERA leader in 2016).

One reason that could've led to Bosio's firing was the pitching staff's control issues during both the regular season and postseason, which Epstein mentioned during Friday's press conference. The Cubs issued the fifth-most walks (554) in the National League during the regular season and the highest total (53) during the postseason.

As the Cubs hit the market for a new pitching coach, Nightengale mentioned that one name that could be on the radar is former Tampa Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, who parted ways with the organization following the 2017 season.

Hickey served as Maddon's pitching coach in Tampa Bay from 2006-2014.