Dexter Fowler

Jon Jay's future and how Cubs are looking to fix leadoff spot

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USA TODAY

Jon Jay's future and how Cubs are looking to fix leadoff spot

WASHINGTON — Dexter Fowler set the tone in the last elimination game the Cubs played, leading off with a home run against Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber and backpedaling between first and second base, showing the natural swagger and tension-free attitude needed to end a 108-year championship drought.

Out of that epic World Series Game 7 win over the Cleveland Indians, Fowler switched sides in the rivalry when the St. Louis Cardinals made him an offer he couldn’t refuse — five years and $82.5 million — and the Cubs couldn’t come close to matching.

The 2017 leadoff formula never became as simple as Joe Maddon’s reminder to Fowler: “You go, we go.” But with this season on the line, the Cubs manager absolutely wanted Jon Jay at the top of Thursday night’s Game 5 lineup against Washington Nationals lefty Gio Gonzalez.

After rolling with Fowler thorough six playoff rounds across the last two seasons, the Cubs went 0-for-13 from the leadoff spot in the first four games of this National League Division Series, part of an overall Washington shutdown where they hit .159 with a .514 OPS.

“You know what’s going to fix that? Facing different pitchers, hopefully,” Maddon said with a laugh inside his temporary office at Nationals Park. “That’s what would fix that. They’ve just been that good. Listen, there’s no running away from it. There’s not an excuse. (Max) Scherzer was good. (Stephen) Strasburg’s been good twice.

“We’ve scored eight runs and won two games out of four? That’s not (bad). All this stuff is typical higher-mound baseball, (Bob) Gibson, (Sandy) Koufax kind of stuff.

“They’re really imposing and they got great stuff — every one of them — and also command. That’s been the big thing.”

Think Fowler misses Chicago? He didn’t put any emoji underneath a family photo at McKee Ranch in Las Vegas, but the caption on his Instagram account summed it up: “This October is less climactic than the last, but no less filled with joy.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BaHcdoslfJd/?hl=en

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Jose de Jesus Ortiz also called him out this week in a story about embracing The Cardinal Way: “When teams are winning, teammates hardly ever bother to notice or even care if Dexter Fowler is usually the last guy in the clubhouse and one of the first to leave.”

Jay was drafted and developed under The Cardinal Way and earned a World Series ring with the 2011 team. The Cubs wanted that veteran leadership and playoff experience and got their money’s worth out of a one-year, $8 million deal.

Jay hit .296 with a .749 OPS, played all over the outfield and called a pivotal team meeting on Sept. 10 after the Milwaukee Brewers swept a three-game series at Wrigley Field, helping refocus a team that closed with a 15-4 surge.

Maddon won’t lobby for Jay or any other upcoming free agent: “Listen, that’s up to the front office to decide that.”

Jay also doesn’t want to get distracted or tip his hand about his plans for the future.

“Right now, it’s simple for me,” Jay said. “We’re here trying to win. When I came here, it was for the chance to be in October, and that's what we're doing right now, and I'm extremely happy with that. Right now, my goal is to continue to help this team win.”

Whether or not Jay is still part of the 2018 solution, the Kyle Schwarber leadoff experiment was a failure (though he still wound up with 30 homers after a detour to Triple-A Iowa). Ben Zobrist will be 37 early next season and coming off one of the worst offensive years of his career. A winter focused on top-of-the-rotation pitching will also have to account for top-of-the-lineup production.

“You’re always looking for the prototypical leadoff guy,” Maddon said. “Everybody is, and that’s not an easy animal to find. We thought, honestly, at the beginning of the year with Schwarbs, that would play.

“He just did not have his typical year. He’s unconventional but really highly conventional in the fact that I expected a higher on-base percentage. That’s where it started to alter, and then having to splice it out among Jay and Zobrist, etc., that was just Plan B and C.

“Overall, we have not been displeased, but I think every team wants a guy that can hit a little bit and run a little bit, a little bit of pop on the top. I mean, that’s what everybody’s looking for.”

10 reasons for optimism as Cubs enter the final two weeks of 2017 season

10 reasons for optimism as Cubs enter the final two weeks of 2017 season

As the Cubs begin their final day off of the regular season, they ride into the last two weeks of 2017 on a serious high.

The Cubs played 20 games in 20 days before their off-day a week ago, but since then, they've won six straight and are a season-high 17 games over .500. They have a four-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central and a six-game jump over the St. Louis Cardinals.

That's quite a swing of events after all the panic skirting through the Cubs fanbase at this time last week following a sweep at the hands of the Brewers.

"We're definitely playing at the highest level of mental energy we've played with all year, period," Joe Maddon said Sunday following the Cubs' sweep of the Cardinals. "It's coming at the right time."

I'll say.

The Cubs entered the weekend series with the Cardinals needing a strong showing and turned in an absolutely dominating performance instead.

They're now 11-4 against the Cardinals in 2017, the best record since 2007 against their in-division rivals.

Here are 10 reasons Cubs fans have to count their blessings before the final road trip of the year:

1. Post All-Star Break stars

The Cubs have been on a roll since the All-Star Break, going 40-21 with a +106 run differential:

Which is the norm under Maddon in Chicago, as the Cubs have gone 140-69 in the season's second half over the last three years:

2. The Windy City

Wade Davis is still a perfect 31-for-31 in save chances, but Sunday may have been his closest call yet.

Dexter Fowler — who already homered earlier in the game to account for all three of St. Louis' runs — drove Davis' last pitch into deep center field, causing Davis and Cubs fans everywhere to react in anguish.

But the wind blew it back into play and into the waiting glove of Leonys Martin. 

"I thought it was going to the scoreboard," Davis joked after the game.

Instead of a go-ahead homer, it was the final out and the Cubs were owners of a three-game streak.

3. Starting staff

Jose Quintana made one mistake Sunday, a three-run shot to Fowler in the sixth inning. 

The Cubs' big summer acquisition was one out away from another quality start, but he was also the victim of some shoddy fielding behind him. Kris Bryant made an error and Kyle Schwarber failed to catch a flyball a few batters before Fowler's shot.

Quintana acknowledged he saw Kyle Hendricks' gem Saturday and wanted to go out and deliver his own strong outing.

The Cubs' starters are feeding off each other in a positive way at just the right time.

"We're competing at a pretty good level [as a team]," Davis said. "Our starters have really been carrying us the last 4-5 games. That's really been a big deal."

4. Solidfying the bullpen

The bullpen accounted for nine innings against the Cardinals and did not allow a run. 

Davis and Carl Edwards Jr. appeared in all three games, teaming with Pedro Strop (two appearances) to get 21 outs combined. 

Even Justin Wilson got into the mix, picking up a big strikeout in the only batter he faced Friday, helping swing the momentum in the Cubs' favor. 

This is the time of the year where the bullpen earns their money and the Cubs will need to rely on Davis and Co. heavily with eight games remaining still against the Brewers and Cardinals.

The day off Monday helps add another opportunity for rest for Hector Rondon (elbow) and Koji Uehara (knee, back). 

5. Regaining health

Even with Rondon and Uehara leaving the bullpen a little short, the Cubs have gotten great reports on frontline starter Jake Arrieta, who threw a 42-pitch bullpen Saturday and reportedly felt "grrreat." There is no word yet on when Arrieta will start, but it's possible the Cubs get him back early on this road trip.

Addison Russell, meanwhile, is back in a big way. He reached in all five plate appearances over the weekend, hitting a pinch-hit homer Saturday and collecting a single and three walks Sunday.

Willson Contreras is also showing no ill effects after missing about a month with a hamstring injury. He is hitting .444 with a 1.111 OPS in five games since returning from the DL and Contreras catcher served his one-game suspension Sunday, so he'll be ready to roll from Game 1 of the road trip.

6. Addison's back

Not only is Russell back, but he's already at the top of his game. 

With several slick defensive plays over the weekend, Russell also has not made an out at the plate since Aug. 2, the last game he played before landing on the disabled list with a foot injury. 

"Everything he's doing is looking good," Maddon said. "Great at-bats, no expanding of the zone. A lot like Contreras. Willy did the same thing coming back; he did not expand the strike zone. Addison played really well."

Russell's return also allows for a break for Javy Baez, who has had to play nearly every inning over the last six weeks. And when the two young infielders play at once, the Cubs have a pair of elite level defenders up the middle of the field.

The weekend served as a reminder to the baseball world how much the Cubs have missed Russell's presence this season and with two weeks left, his return to form couldn't have come at a better time.

7. Cardinals faltering

The Cardinals have had several moments over the course of the season where they looked down and out but they were simply overmatched in the three-game set at Wrigley Field. They threw their three best starting pitchers — Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha — and still couldn't pull out a victory in a crucial series.

The Cardinals are still within striking distance at six games back in the division and they host the Cubs for four games next week, but with just 13 games remaining on the schedule, time is fast running out for the Redbirds.

8. Their fate is in their own hands

The Cubs don't have to do too much scoreboard watching. They constantly talk about how their main focus is taking care of their own business and if they do so in the final two weeks, they'll have accomplished their first 2017 goal: Make the playoffs.

The Cubs don't have to rely on anybody else for their fate and can put away the Brewers next week with a strong showing (and then that four-game set in St. Louis immediately following). 

9. All hands on deck

The Cubs got 19 players in both Friday and Sunday's games and played 15 different guys Saturday as Maddon didn't hesitate to use his full complement of weapons with the expanded September rosters.

Maddon loves when a lot of guys get involved because it gives them all a feeling of "ownership" in the victories.

The Cubs have remarkable depth on their roster and there are still questions that have to be answered before any sort of postseason roster (assuming they make it) can be constructed. These last few weeks are giving Maddon and Co. a glimpse of what everybody can do.

10. State of the offense

The Cubs lineup has been relentless over the last week, scoring 55 runs in six games. None of the Cardinals' top three starters could make it out of the sixth inning, with Lynn managing to get just 12 outs Sunday.

The Cubs now lead the NL in runs scored and any questions doubters had about their ability to score runs off championship-caliber pitching have been put to rest for at least a little while.

Playing with the enemy: Chicago athletes who teamed up with rivals

Playing with the enemy: Chicago athletes who teamed up with rivals

Chicago's chosen son may soon play with the enemy. 

According to reports on Thursday, Derrick Rose is in talks to join LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on a one-year deal. 

That is indeed hard to imagine, considering the former MVP has spent years battling James for supremacy in the Eastern Conference. But leaving the Windy City to join a rival team isn't a new concept. 

In fact, a few Chicago superstar athletes have done it before: 

-- Chris Chelios, Blackhawks to Red Wings

One of the best defenseman in hockey, Chelios was traded to the Detroit Red Wings after nine productive seasons in Chicago. He hoisted a Stanley Cup not long after and finished his 10-year Red Wings career with 152 points and a plus-158. 

-- Julius Peppers, Bears to Packers

After becoming a cap casualty with the Bears, Peppers chose greener pastures in Wisconsin. The defensive end signed with the Green Bay Packers, where he's tallied 25 sacks in three seasons. 

-- Dexter Fowler, Cubs to Cardinals

Well, at least he won a ring here. Fowler's surprise return to the North Side in 2016 helped boost the Cubs to their first World Series trophy in 108 years, but after winning, the center fielder rightly opted for the money. He signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal in St. Louis last offseason. 

Watch the video above as Siera Santos and Kelly Crull relive the heartbreak.