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.

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.