Cubs

'Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?' Ten reasons for Cubbie confidence heading into Game 5

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AP

'Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?' Ten reasons for Cubbie confidence heading into Game 5

Michael Taylor’s grand slam sent fans streaming toward the Wrigley Field exits in the eighth inning Wednesday night. It flipped this NLDS completely on its head. And it’s likely got Cubs fans in a gloomy mood as the team heads back to Washington for Thursday night’s do-or-die Game 5.

But while things might not seem to be going the Cubs’ way with the season and the quest for back-to-back World Series championships on the line, there are actually plenty of reasons to like the North Siders’ chances in this win-or-go-home fifth straight matchup with the Nationals.

1. Kyle Hendricks has been fantastic

The Cubs’ Game 1 starter is back on the hill in this elimination game, and there’s no pitcher on the roster the team would rather give the ball to in this situation.

Hendricks was stellar in the first game against the Nationals, besting the 10-strikeout outing of Stephen Strasburg, who took a no-hitter into the sixth inning. Hendricks pitched seven shutout innings, giving up just two hits and walking three.

But it’s not just his experience this postseason, but his experience from postseasons past. Hendricks pitched against Clayton Kershaw in the game that won the Cubs’ the pennant last fall, and he started opposite Corey Kluber in Game 7 of the World Series. In eight playoff starts in his career, Hendricks has a dazzling 1.98 ERA. This is guy is no stranger to — and he sure as heck isn’t bothered by — big games with the utmost meaning.

“You have to rely on your experience and having been in those situations,” Hendricks said Tuesday. “You know what the atmosphere is going to be like. You know what the crowd is going to be like. All those external factors, if you can kind of keep that under control, you know the pitching part. You know what to do once you get out on the mound.

“Being able to control all those external factors, I think, is going to be huge. But yeah, it will help me out. At the end of the day, it's just about making good pitches. That's where I need to mentally prepare, go out when it's Game 5, and just make good pitches.”

2. The Nationals still aren’t hitting

It might sound a little odd after a night where the Nationals won by a healthy 5-0 margin and had someone hit a grand slam, but the Nationals are still struggling mightily at the plate in this series.

Even including Taylor’s grand slam Wednesday night, the Nationals had just five hits in Game 4. They’re still just hitting .130 as a team against Cubs pitching, and they aren't getting on base much either, with a series on-base percentage of .241. Both of those numbers are postseason lows. Just two players on the team, Taylor and Ryan Zimmerman, have more than two hits on the series.

Nine of the 12 runs the Nationals have scored in this series have come in just two big innings — the eighth innings in Games 2 (five runs) and 4 (four runs). And two of those 12 runs have been unearned, the Nationals benefitting from errors made by Cubs fielders.

Could Wednesday night’s big fly off Taylor’s bat be the spark the Nationals have been looking for? Maybe. But that grand slam was only a grand slam because of the back-to-back walks issued by Carl Edwards Jr. If the Cubs can keep the walks down in Game 5 — they issued nine of them in Game 4 — the Nationals’ bats could still remain cold.

3. Jose Quintana is waiting in the wings

Joe Maddon declared after Game 4 that he plans to use Quintana on Thursday in the same way he used Jon Lester on Wednesday.

The skipper surprised a lot of people when he went to Lester in a game that wasn’t a must win Wednesday, trotting one of the best postseason pitchers ever out to the mound much like he did in Game 7 of last year’s World Series. And the move paid off, with Lester throwing three perfect innings and leaving with two outs in the eighth before the rest of the bullpen blew up behind him.

In fact, the most criticized of Maddon’s moves on social media after the game was taking Lester out.

While Hendricks is expected to be able to throw more than the four innings Jake Arrieta tossed in Game 4 — remember that Arrieta battled that hamstring issue throughout the last month — there’s a terrific backup plan waiting in Quintana.

Now, the lefty who came over in that midseason trade with the White Sox hasn’t made a relief appearance since his rookie season, but he had never pitched in the postseason before Monday’s Game 3 and he was great. He allowed just one unearned run in his 5.2 innings in that game, striking out seven and walking only one.

While Maddon might have gone into “must-win” mode a night early, using Lester and making him unavailable for Thursday night, Quintana is the next best option.

4. The Cubs got to Gio Gonzalez early in Game 2

While Dusty Baker somewhat surprisingly said he didn’t know who he would start Game 5 shortly after his team completed its season-extending victory Wednesday night, all signs point to Gio Gonzalez getting the ball for the Nationals.

Gonzalez pitched Game 2 of this series, a game the Cubs lost, but they did have success scoring off him early in the game, something they could not do against Strasburg (twice) or Max Scherzer. The Cubs scored three runs off Gonzalez — all three coming on a pair of homers, the only homers the Cubs have hit against Nationals pitching in this series. Willson Contreras and Anthony Rizzo socked those dingers, and you know they’ll be back in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup for Game 5.

Gonzalez is a formidable foe, of course, he of a 2.96 ERA and 15 wins during the regular season. But of the three starters they’ve faced this series, Gonzalez would seem to be the one most likely to get hit around by the Cubs. Certainly they haven’t been able to do that against Strasburg or Scherzer.

5. The Cubs’ bullpen is rested … 

Cubs fans might not want to hear positives about the team’s relief corps a day after Edwards and Wade Davis combined for the second eighth-inning implosion of the series. But one thing the Cubs don’t have to worry about is relievers being unavailable.

Coming into Game 4, Edwards, Davis, Pedro Strop and Mike Montgomery were the only relief arms to pitch, what with the starters doing such a bang-up job. Well only the first two of those guys pitched Wednesday, with Brian Duensing and Justin Wilson making their first appearances of this series, as well. Thanks to Lester's efforts, none of those guys threw an obscene amount of pitches Wednesday night, meaning they should all be ready to go Thursday.

Montgomery has only faced four batters in the NLDS. And we’ve yet to even see John Lackey. Maybe we won’t with Quintana scheduled to relieve Hendricks. But Maddon figures to have plenty of options.

6. … and at least one key guy in the Nationals’ bullpen is not

Meanwhile, as good as Strasburg was Wednesday, the Nationals still turned to their bullpen for two innings of relief, and Baker went with the two best pitchers in his bullpen. Elite setup man Ryan Madson pitched the eighth, and closer Sean Doolittle pitched the ninth.

Those were not at all the wrong moves by Baker, but those guys had to work. Madson, especially, who put two guys on with a walk and a hit by pitch and ended up throwing 27 pitches. Also, Madson had a rough outing in Game 1, allowing a run and throwing 24 pitches to six batters in his inning of work. Doolittle had a 1-2-3 ninth inning in Game 4.

But the point is that both guys, should they be needed in Game 5, threw Wednesday, with one of them throwing a lot. If the Cubs are within striking distance with Madson on the mound late in the game, maybe his 51 pitches in his two outings this series catch up to him.

7. No more Stephen Strasburg

While the Cubs have to face another great starting pitcher in Gonzalez and could see Scherzer in relief, they get to avoid the guy who’s dominated them in two of the four games in this series.

In Game 4, Strasburg one-upped his own incredible performance from Game 1, striking out 12 Cubs hitters in seven shutout innings. And he did it all a day after feeling real bad with an illness of some kind.

Half of the Cubs’ 44 strikeouts in this series have come against Strasburg. The bats looked bad Wednesday, but they should look better Thursday considering you know who won’t be on the mound.

“We have to do a better job offensively,” Maddon said Wednesday night. “We scored limited runs, and their guy was outstanding. … Strasburg was that good. The changeup was spectacular. Hit that one ball good early to left field that the wind knocked down. Otherwise, we didn't have a good time against them.”

8. Due for some dingers … and some runs

The Cubs hit 223 home runs during the regular season, a top-10 mark in baseball. Six guys hit 20 homers or more. But through four games of this series, the Cubs have only hit two homers, both coming in Game 2 off the bats of Contreras and Rizzo.

It means they’re due, right?

The Cubs’ bats have been cold this series — nearly as cold as the frigid Nationals, if we’re being honest — thanks to the Nationals’ great pitching. But this team scored 822 runs during the regular season, fourth in the majors and second in the NL. The Cubs led the NL in on-base percentage and ranked second in walks.

While it’s expected that the Nationals would get some great pitching from some of the best arms in the game, it’s highly unusual that the Cubs’ offense would be this unproductive for this long. You’d figure that’s got to change sometime.

9. The Cubs have been here before

You might remember that this isn’t the Cubs’ first go-round in an elimination game.

They’ve won the last three of them, Games 5, 6 and 7 of last year’s World Series after falling into that 3-1 hole against the Cleveland Indians. And they won that NL wild card game back in 2015 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. That means the Cubs are a grand total of 4-1 in elimination games in the last three postseasons (the lone loss in Game 4 of the 2015 NLCS against the New York Mets).

There has been no shortage of big games over the last three seasons, as the Cubs have rarely had trouble rising to the occasion, ousting the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015 and the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers last season en route to that World Series win over the Indians.

Here’s another huge game.

“We have been here before,” Maddon said Wednesday night. “Our guys are ready to play. It's been a really interesting series. Both teams have reflected one other pretty closely and they got us tonight, and we just have to fly back east and try to get them tomorrow night.”

10. Because Carl Edwards said so

You heard the man.

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.