‘The train’s coming’ now: What were Cubs thinking against Bryce Harper?

‘The train’s coming’ now: What were Cubs thinking against Bryce Harper?

WASHINGTON – Bryce Harper – the Washington Nationals superstar anointed as “Baseball’s Chosen One” on a Sports Illustrated cover when he was only 16 years old – stood at home plate and admired the flight of the ball as it soared out toward the second deck in right field.

Harper stared into the home dugout and flipped the bat up and out of his right hand, the sellout crowd of 43,860 at Nationals Park roaring on Saturday night as the entire feel of this National League Division Series instantly changed. Fireworks went off, the smoke hung in the air and suddenly the Cubs didn’t look so invincible.

With one thunderous left-handed swing, Harper forced a rewrite of any the-Nationals-are-chokers stories, launching Carl Edwards Jr.’s curveball for a game-tying, two-run homer in the eighth inning. Three batters later, Ryan Zimmerman lifted a Mike Montgomery pitch just over the left-field wall for the go-ahead, three-homer that became the exclamation point to a 6-3 win that turned this into a best-of-three series.

“The train’s coming,” Harper said, believing Max Scherzer’s hamstring “tweak” won’t stop him from doing a Cy Young impression on Monday at Wrigley Field. “We’re a great team.”

What were the Cubs thinking?

Winning the World Series last year didn’t stop the first- and second- and third-guessing about Joe Maddon’s decisions, but the manager isn’t going to Wade Davis for five-out saves now. Harper has put up 122 of his 149 career homers and a .952 OPS against right-handers (compared to .783 vs. lefties). Edwards is young, confident and right-handed, the trusted reliever who handcuffed lefty hitters this season (.437 OPS, 31.8 strikeout percentage) and forced Harper to pop out in the eighth inning of Friday night’s Game 1 win.      

“That was the only option,” Maddon said. “That was the right option. C.J. was the right man for the job. Harper is good. C.J. is really good. C.J’s numbers against left-handed hitters are amongst the best in all of baseball.

“I have all the confidence in the world in him. If that happens again, you’re going to see C.J. back out there. He made a bad pitch and the guy didn’t miss it. That’s it. Sometimes that happens. Bryce is good. C.J. is good. Bryce got him.”

We wondered if Harper and Scherzer would be anywhere close to full strength this October and the game-changers the Nationals needed. Harper is still a freak of nature with five homers in only 16 career playoff games – and apparently on time after spending six-plus weeks on the disabled list in August and September with a bone bruise in his left knee.

“You just can’t make a mistake to him,” said Kris Bryant, who’s played with and against Harper since he was a prodigy growing up in Las Vegas. “He’s super-smart. It almost looked like he was sitting curveball on that pitch 3-1. You got to tip your cap to him.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him. I think he’s totally fine. Obviously, playoffs you have a little adrenaline.”

As reporters hovered near his locker, Edwards quietly changed into a faded pink T-shirt, tan-colored jeans and white Air Jordan sneakers. He turned around to meet the press and framed it as a matter of the right pitch in the wrong location, knowing it was gone as soon as it left his hand, only regretting not burying that curveball in the dirt, and looking forward to facing Harper again.

“I just hung it,” Edwards said. “That’s Bryce Harper. He can hit. But I don’t feel like it was his time. I could have made that wrong pitch to anybody and it probably would have been the same thing.   

“It hurts. But we still have two chances to finish this thing off. I hope we can do it at Wrigley.”   

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


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,'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


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.