Fire

Even after Pujols, Cardinals still running like a machine

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Even after Pujols, Cardinals still running like a machine

ST. LOUIS After Paul Maholm gave up a bomb to Albert Pujols in spring training, he joked that there was a reason why no American League West teams were on his wish list as a free agent.

The Cubs werent in the market for a megadeal last winter. They bought low on guys like Maholm, a veteran left-hander who had spent his entire career in the Pirates organization.

The plan was to collect enough starting pitchers so that the 2012 Cubs could have a chance every night, while Theo Epsteins front office built the infrastructure for a perennial contender.

With Sundays 10-3 loss at Busch Stadium, the Cubs are 3-7 after two turns through the rotation. Pujols wasnt here for the banner raising or ring ceremony over the weekend, part of a power play by the Angels to gain ground in Southern California.

But its clear that the Cardinals are still running like a machine, even with a first-year manager (Mike Matheny) replacing a legend (Tony La Russa).

Maholm didnt have to face Pujols whos 22-for-39 (.564) for his career against the left-hander or World Series heroes Lance Berkman and David Freese, who both sat out on Sunday.

Instead, Maholm watched Yadier Molina hammer a 3-2 pitch 359 feet beyond the wall in left for a three-run homer that made it 6-0 in the third inning. The Cubs dont have the lineup to win those high-scoring games often.

Maholm hit two batters, walked another and gave up six runs in four innings, running his ERA to 13.50.

Yeah, obviously, Id much rather be 2-0 with a zero right now, Maholm said. But thats not how it is. Im going to learn from it.

Its a long season. Im going to get it going. And all these guys in here are busting it and expecting to win and thats how were going to do it.

Or, as manager Dale Sveum said, It wasnt real pretty again.

Maholm will make 4.25 million this season (the Cubs hold an option for 2013). He hasnt won a game since July 10 of last season, when he beat the Cubs (a streak skewed in part because he was shut down with a shoulder issue).

The Cubs took a game on Friday against Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals ace still recovering from Tommy John surgery, but were outscored 15-4 the next two games in front of sellout crowds.

Its such a great baseball atmosphere, said Cubs utility man Joe Mather, who came up through the Cardinals system. You cant deny that, no matter what team youre on. Even once the games over, you go try to get some food and theres red everywhere.

Coming into St. Louis, where were not fan favorites, its always nice to come in and play close games. I think were probably just a little more disappointed we arent playing as competitive a game as we think we can.

The Cardinals (7-3) didnt have a problem with the back end of the Cubs rotation Maholm or Chris Volstad and they exposed the gap in the National League Central.

We just got to do things a little bit better, Sveum said. We got to make our pitches when we have to and stay away from slugging percentage. We didnt do that too well in this series. Even though they didnt hit a lot of home runs, there were a lot of doubles and triples with guys on base.

Even without Pujols, the World Series champs are going to defend their title.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

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USA TODAY

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

It may be a good thing that the Fire’s originally scheduled season opener March 3 at Colorado got moved back.

The Fire’s preseason has been riddled with injuries to key players and the extra week may end up being needed to get the team ready for the season. Four players (not counting the already known long-term injuries to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic) sat out Saturday’s game against Florida Gulf Coast University due to injury: Daniel Johnson (a right ankle injury suffered in a game against Philadelphia on Feb. 8), Grant Lillard (left knee), Matt Polster (left knee) and Luis Solignac (left hip).

Polster’s injury is especially notable because he has had recurring left knee problems since first suffering a sprain in the 2016 season finale at Toronto. Polster missed the first nine games of 2017 due to the injury and missed three more in August due to a related injury.

The 24-year-old, who is now the longest tenured player on the team and the only player remaining from before general manager Nelson Rodriguez’s tenure began at the end of the 2015 season, arrived with the Fire after playing with the U.S. national team in January. He played all 90 minutes on Jan. 28 against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bastian Schweinsteiger still hasn’t played in the preseason and the team hasn’t listed him as injured.

All the absences, combined with rest for some of the team’s regulars, resulted in a starting lineup against Florida Gulf Coast that featured two players who have appeared in an official match with the Fire. Three trialists and four draft picks started.

Four of the Fire’s seven scheduled preseason matches are in the books. The Fire lost 2-1 to Montreal on Feb. 14. One of the bright spots was a rare set piece goal after the Fire trailed the Impact 2-0. Dax McCarty headed in a free kick from Diego Campos. Campos has been dangerous on set pieces, hitting the post with a free kick and assisting a goal from a corner kick in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Florida Gulf Coast.

Next up is a match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Feb. 21. Next Saturday the Fire play at Orlando to finish up play in Florida.

The Fire close out the preseason March 3 against the team’s USL affiliate, Tulsa, at Toyota Park before the season opener on March 10.

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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USA TODAY

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”