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.”

Cubs reportedly interested in adding Yu Darvish to starting rotation

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USA TODAY

Cubs reportedly interested in adding Yu Darvish to starting rotation

The Cubs aren't expected to bring back Jake Arrieta. But what about adding the other top pitcher on the free-agent market?

According to a Saturday report from The Score's Bruce Levine, the Cubs are showing interest in Yu Darvish, who they recently saw in the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Darvish joined the Dodgers in the middle of last season after spending five and a half years as a Texas Ranger. He pitched Game 3 of the NLCS against the Cubs, holding that unusually cold lineup to just one run in 6.1 innings at Wrigley Field, helping the Dodgers reach the World Series. Darvish pitched twice in the Fall Classic against the Houston Astros, taking losses both times and twice failing to get out of the second inning against his old division rivals, including in the decisive Game 7.

The 31-year-old Darvish has been excellent since coming over from Japan ahead of the 2012 season. He's been named to four American League All-Star teams and finished in the top 10 in AL Cy Young voting in each of his first two seasons. He missed the entirety of the 2015 campaign with an injury.

Darvish has a 3.42 career ERA in his five big league seasons and three times has struck out more than 200 hitters in a season, including a baseball-leading 277 in 2013.

Along with Arrieta, Darvish is expected to fetch a huge payday this offseason. The Cubs' reported interest could show that they're not finished adding to their pitching staff despite signing four arms in recent weeks. Tyler Chatwood was a free-agent addition to the starting rotation, bringing the number of spoken-for spots there to four, with Chatwood joining Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana as rotation locks. Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek were added to the bullpen, while Drew Smyly — who's expected to miss the entirety of the 2018 campaign while recovering from Tommy John surgery — was signed with eyes on 2019.

After Mike Montgomery's desire to be a starter or go somewhere where he could be was reported during the Winter Meetings, there was a thought he could be the answer at the No. 5 spot on the starting staff. But this reported interest in Darvish — not to mention the team's previously reported connections to free-agent starter Alex Cobb — could mean the Cubs are still looking to add a big name to make the rotation more closely resemble what it looked like in recent seasons with Arrieta in the mix.

The Epstein's front office certainly has options, and the team has frequently voiced its confidence in Montgomery as a starter. But the team, for all its additions, has yet to make a splash this offseason. Stay tuned.

Jon Lester: The most important signing in Cubs history

Jon Lester: The most important signing in Cubs history

Jon Lester became the most important signing in Cubs history when he agreed to a six-year, $155 million contract to be the ace of the Cubs.

He spurned his old team — the Red Sox — along with a handful of other teams ready to pony up the nine-figure deal necessary to acquire the frontline starter. By choosing the Cubs, Lester accelerated Theo Epstein & Jed Hoyer's famous "Plan," legitimizing Chicago as a free agent destination and as an up-and-coming perennial playoff team.

"This signing really marks a transition of sorts for the Cubs, the start of a period where we are clearly very serious about bringing a World Series to the Cubs and the people of Chicago," Epstein said back on Dec. 15, 2014.

Inking Lester to a megadeal was a calculated risk, but all $100 million contracts are. Here's a closer look at the Cubs 100 million dollar men:

Nov. 30, 2006 - The Cubs introduce Alfonso Soriano

Back in 2007, the Cubs needed to make a splash and did so by signing the top free agent hitter on the market.

The Cubs inked Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year, $136 million dollar contract — then, the largest in franchise history. The Cubs had their leadoff hitter — fresh off becoming the fourth member of the 40-40 club — to go along with a new manager in Lou Piniella. Soriano made two All-Star teams for the Cubs in 2007 and 2008 while playing a key role on both division-title winning teams.

However, his time with the Cubs will often be remembered by his offensive decline, his subpar play in the outfield, and his eventual trade to the Yankees. While his overall body of work was statistically respectable, his output did not match the $136 million the Cubs invested in him.

Dec. 15, 2014 - The Cubs introduce Jon Lester

Like the signing of Soriano, the reeling in of Lester to Wrigley Field was paired with the hiring of another new big name manager, Joe Maddon.

Three years into his megadeal, Lester is 43-25 with a 3.33 ERA in 96 starts. The 2016 All-Star and Cy Young runner-up has done some of his best work in the postseason, where he's 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA in his last nine postseason appearances — three of which came in the 2016 World Series.

Lester's tireless work ethic off the field and his veteran influence in a young Cubs clubhouse has made this signing a smashing success. 
    
Dec. 15, 2015 - The Cubs introduce Jason Heyward

One year to the day after introducing Lester, Jason Heyward met with the Chicago media after signing an eight-year, $184 million contract — the richest in franchise history.

Heyward was coming off one of his best offensive seasons (.289, 13 HR, 60 RBI with the Cardinals) and his third Gold Glove in four seasons but the prized free agent struggled from the start in Chicago. Taking Heyward away from the Cardinals and signing baseball's top free agent prize ended up creating an outfield log jam in Chicago.

Heyward's speech during the rain delay in Game 7 against the Indians will most likely end up being the highlight of his Cubs career. The post-World Series championship offseason storyline of Heyward rectifying his broken swing was entertaining to follow on social media, but his 2017 slash line of .259/.326/.389 is clearly not worth the $184 million he signed for.

The future is now

"I believe in the plan that they have in place for the future of the Cubs."

That's what Lester said back on Dec. 15, 2014.

That statement still holds true today. Lester remains the anchor of the Cubs staff surrounded by Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana with reinforcements on the way. Regardless of any additions or subtractions, the Cubs will again be one of baseball's World Series favorites entering 2018 and the reliable lefty will be at the center of it all.

Halfway home, the $155 million deal has been "smart money" spent on Lester, the most important signing in Cubs franchise history.