Cubs

It is alive!

It is alive!

By Frankie O
CSNChicago.com

Coming back from my two-week hiatus, I of course find it appropriate to reference one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite actors. Much to John Wingers chagrin, Sergeant Hulka re-appeared in Italy to help run the EM-50 through its paces. And maybe to some others chagrin, Im returning to your computer screen. Whatever!

While Ive been away a lot has happened locally in the sports world and not all of it good. The Bears fall from 7-1 to out the playoffs and their head coach out of work as you would expect is the main topic.

During their free fall, Lovie Smith and Jay Cutler dominated the conversation. The local faithful were more than done with the Lovie regime. My response to that was: Do you think the McCaskeys would eat the five million left on his contract? Not to mention the money owed to his assistants who were resigned last year?

So needless to say, I was quite surprised that he was sacked after a 10-win season. But again, how many chances do you get to fail? Lovie had as many as Ferris had days missed at school that his parents didnt know about. Nine times? Nine times! Unlike Ferris though, he was not going to get a tenth one to make it count. No worries for him though as he still is owed that 5 mildo and can buy as many red Ferraris as he wants and now has plenty of free time to hang out with Abe Froman.

So along with the new head coach search, the Cutler topic becomes front and center. As Phil Emery approaches the halfway point of his seeming goal of interviewing 50 candidates, (No truth to the rumor that yours truly is on that list. As much as I know, even I would admit that the head job might be a bit of a stretch. But, Andy Reid keeps calling me, and since he hired a fry cook to run his defense in Philly, who knows? Maybe my density is on the sidelines of Kansas City! (Free beer if you get that reference!))

As we discussed last week on CTL, I feel Cutler is at the heart of this coaching decision. Since it is very obvious that Emery feels that Cutler is a franchise quarterback it would figure that his new coach feels the same way. (I guess I am out!!) (Sorry, I had to take that. I apologize to any Cutler apologists that I may have offended!) (Seriously, Im not drinking. I usually dont start until Im halfway through one of these! For those of you doing the math, that right, Im on my way to another 2000 word opus. Hold on!)

So for me, you can take any defensive name out of the mix. For that matter, I cant see anyone with prior NFL head-coaching experience either. Im thinking of an existing NFL offensive coordinator. To be specific, Colts assistant Bruce Arians. Arians is an it guy now for the job he did with the Indianapolis Colts, stepping in for Chuck Pagano as head coach as Pagano fought his inspiring battle against leukemia. The Colts 9-3 record under Arians, for the team with the worst record in the league last year, was nothing short of astounding. Arians is a career coach who has spent nine years in the NFL as an offensive coordinator. He was Peyton Mannings first QB coach in the NFL. (I know this means he served under Manning, but who better to learn from?) He also had a successful 5-year stint in Pittsburgh with Ben Rap, excuse me, I mean Ben Roethlisberger, winning two Super Bowls. His downfield type of attack would fit with Cutlers gunslinger mentality. I also think he is smart enough to understand that Jay needs to roll out more to take advantage of his cannon arm and avoid his sometimes awful pocket throwing mechanics. Maybe its just me, but Jay always seems better on the move. Since his career numbers bear that out, you would think at some point his Bears OC would incorporate that into his repertoire.

For all his experience, and success, you have to wonder why, at 60, that Arians hasnt been offered a head coaching job before. You would also have to think, at 60, that he would be amendable to any parameters put on him. That would include my guess that the Bears hierarchy, read that how you want, would like to maintain the coaches on the defensive side of the ball. That would offer defensive continuity to a unit getting a little long in the tooth, not to mention offset some of the Lovie paid vacation costs. Having a new coach that only has to worry primarily about the offensive side of the ball as a 1st time head coach would seem like a no-brainer. Offering a four-year deal as opposed to a three-year one would be one way to ease the pain of forcing coaches on him.

Naturally, Im probably way off base with my thinking, but we know that wouldnt be a first now would it? At least though, I dont think Ive veered off as far as Brent Musburger did during the national title game on Monday. Or was that an Alabama scrimmage? Anyway, as Im finding out, the older you get, the smaller the filter. I cant wait to hear what he says next. Oh, and buy the way, for all of those who are feigning outrage, they could have heard 20 times worse on just about any other channel on TV at that time, so lighten up Francis.

The other big news is the end of the NHL lockout. What? You didnt know about that? Trust me, youre in the majority. Ive had about two conversations a week about in the bar. What the NHL doesnt understand is that its niche entertainment, kind of like the WWE. If its there, people will watch, but in this day and age there are too many other options to fill the sports fans plate. This is especially true in a world where NFL coverage is 247 during the season. Wake me when its over. It is? OK, Ill watch. Funny, but for the real fan, this might work to the better. With the compressed schedule, playoff style hockey, which is what we all watch for anyway, will come sooner since every game will mean that much more. Were going to get 5 months of games anyway, so what was lost or gained? The owners implement a salary cap and then try to find every way to circumvent it? The problem is that there are too many teams, plain and simple. And these lower rung teams are bringing down the leagues financial stability and product quality. Contract teams and keep the 48-game schedule. Now that would be a product that fans would watch, and miss.

Another thing that we could not miss this week was the baseball Hall of Fame vote, or lack thereof. What a big shock. As Ive written many times the ripple effects of the Selig Steroid Era in Major League Baseball are going to be felt for a long, long time. The point this week is that in addition to the lack of any competent oversight of drug enhancement abuse at the major league level, the same can be said for the criterion of baseball writers making the decisions of who gets in or not. I dont know about you, but I find it ironic that many who turned a blind eye during the career of these abusers are now becoming holier than thou.

One argument that gets me going is the blaming of the union for this mess. Of course they are going to protect their own. Duh. But where they ever really pressed on the issue in any negotiation besides the last one? Was there any mention of this during the 94 lockout? Was there? Do you remember Lenny Dykstra back then? And Im only pulling one guy out of a hat. Tons of guys were juicing. Roids in baseball didnt start with McGwire and Sosa in 98. As always the issue was money, not integrity. If the owners pushed the topic as hard as they did financials, this wouldnt be as bad. But in a management culture that had turned its attention away from amphetamines and cocaine until it absolutely had to deal with it, what did you expect? Bonds and Clemens were players for the ages. Unfortunately, besides being abusers, allegedly,(LOL) they played the role of all-time jerks to the hilt. Its easy to accept them not getting in since most fans dont like them anyway. But that isnt whats being judged. As much as it pains me, if there is no proof beyond the smell-test, how can they be denied? Furthermore, if they can be denied on suspicion or unusable evidence, who should be let in? I know Frank Thomas and Jim Thome would appear as non-abuse guys, but can you say thats 100 true? Who knows? Its doubtful for sure, but isnt our judicial system built on that word? Doubt. When everything a fan hears is that most guys were doing it, wouldnt it stand to reason that guys we would never expect would be among them. I would think that to be very reasonable. So how do you just put those two in when they come up with a clear conscience?

What this leaves us with is one big mess. I dont know that Ive heard one cure-all solution that everyone can feel good about. There should be a fair, equitable solution. But that would take some people in very high places taking a public stance that they dont want to be put in. So they leave it to the writers to decide, and so far they are an apprehensive judge and jury coming from some of the things they are writing and saying. This is a time that again calls for decisive leadership and once again in MLB that seems to be sorely lacking.

Thankfully though, this weekend will bring our focus back to where it should be: The NFL playoffs. Divisional weekend is the best of the year with the potential for four great games. Ive been wrong all year, but Ill still give it a go. Ive been rooting for Peyton Manning all year and the genius of John Elway to get him there. Add to that, my now sports-crazed 10-year-old son just bought a Manning jersey with his own holiday bounty as Im typing this and you can guess who Im picking there. In San Francisco, I know that the Niners man-handled New England a couple of weeks ago in the most impressive road win of the year and pounded the Packers in the season opener in Green Bay, but its hard for me to bet against Aaron Rogers with the way he has been playing lately and in the playoffs for his career. Is this the year that Atlanta finally ends their playoff misery? Nope. Once again they run into this years buzz-saw in the form of the Seattle Seahawks. Trust me, that does not make me happy and for once, I hope Im wrong. And in the finale, your choice is Matt Shaub or Tom Brady at home. Is that a choice? Sorry Houston, hes your problem.

And, to leave on a high note, did you know that there is such a thing as Pinterest? Neither did I, but Sammy Sosa does. Judging from what I saw, hes fine without the HOF after his name and, like his choice of bats, he sometimes also makes mistakes with his sweaters.

Winter is coming for Cubs team that looks checked out of 2017

Winter is coming for Cubs team that looks checked out of 2017

Kyle Schwarber took a Babe Ruth swing on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, posed for a moment and dropped the bat out of his follow through, watching that Yu Darvish pitch soar 408 feet out toward the left-center field bleachers.

Those carefree Cubs relievers shown on the video board – wait, was that John Lackey bouncing around? – danced in the bullpen in the first inning. This is exactly what the Cubs wanted: Grab an early lead? Check. Get one of their big boys going? Check. Energize the crowd of 41,871? Check.

That sense of momentum lasted less than the time it takes to buy a beer or go to the bathroom at Wrigley Field, because the Los Angeles Dodgers look like the unstoppable force this October.

Now Wade Davis may never pitch in this National League Championship Series and Wednesday night could be Jake Arrieta’s final start in a Cubs uniform. Winter is coming after a 6-1 loss left the defending World Series champs looking mentally checked out of 2017.

The Cubs played AC/DC and Motley Crue in their underground clubhouse and answered questions about why they believe they can match the 2004 Boston Red Sox who took down the New York Yankee Evil Empire, becoming the only team to come back from an 0-3 deficit since the LCS expanded to a seven-game format in 1985.

But Kris Bryant’s glassy look and bloodshot eyes told a different story, the reigning NL MVP admitting how “draining” those five games felt against the Washington Nationals in Round 1.

“But you kind of expect that around this time when games mean a lot,” Bryant said. “It takes a lot of energy to get ready for these games, and at the end, you feel wiped out. It’s expected.”

But no one could have predicted this lack of buzz in Wrigleyville, which felt less than a lot of midweek games during the regular season. A silence fell over the old ballpark when Andre Ethier – who has three homers across the last two seasons combined – lined a Kyle Hendricks pitch off the video board in right field to lead off the second inning.

Hendricks – who has made 10 postseason starts across the last three years and kept the Dodgers completely off-balance last October on the night the Cubs clinched their first NL pennant in 71 years – watched in the third inning as Chris Taylor crushed another home-run ball that bounced off the roof of the batter’s eye in center field.

“I wouldn’t say we’re running out of gas,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “Every time we step on the field, I feel like we have a pretty good chance of winning. We’re going to come into the clubhouse tomorrow positive and just ready to strap it on.”

The Dodgers will be out for beer and champagne on Wednesday night and the chance to kick back and watch the Yankees and Houston Astros expend all their energy in the ALCS.

Dodger manager Dave Roberts – who pushed all the right bullpen buttons in Games 1 and 2 (eight no-hit/scoreless innings combined) – toyed with the Cubs by letting Darvish hit against struggling reliever Carl Edwards Jr. with a two-run lead and two outs and the bases loaded in the sixth inning.

Darvish showed bunt on all four pitches – and drew a four-pitch walk and slammed his bat to the ground in celebration. The fans booed after Edwards struck out Taylor on three pitches to end the inning.

“We were there just as much as any other game,” said Ben Zobrist, last year’s World Series MVP. “Mentally, there was no letdown. Physically, there was no letdown. It was just a matter of them capitalizing on some mistakes that we made. That’s part of the game. And they didn’t make a lot of mistakes.

“They played better baseball than us tonight. That’s why they got the W.”

The Cubs committed two errors in Game 3 and then had a National-style meltdown in the eighth inning, from Zobrist misjudging the flyball to right field that dropped in front of him, to Mike Montgomery throwing a wild pitch, to catcher Willson Contreras getting crossed up on a swinging strike three, his glove nowhere near Montgomery’s 92.7-mph fastball, which crashed into his right arm and ricocheted into the visiting dugout.

A three-run game became 6-1 – and head for the exits and then the offseason. There was Albert Almora Jr. in the ninth inning, driving a ball into the ivy in left field and sprinting right into lead runner Alex Avila at third base, bailed out only because Kike Hernandez waved his hand to signal a ground-rule double.

At least that made All-Star closer Kenley Jansen work the last three outs, accumulated stress that might benefit the Yankees or Astros more than the Cubs.

“They are done,” an NL scout wrote in a text message. “You can see it in their faces.”

For Cubs, it looks like 2015 all over again as Dodgers ready the brooms in NLCS

For Cubs, it looks like 2015 all over again as Dodgers ready the brooms in NLCS

These 2017 Cubs aren’t who they were back in 2015.

But if the Los Angeles Dodgers, up 3-0 in this NLCS after Tuesday night’s 6-1 win at Wrigley Field, sweep away the Cubs on Wednesday, fans will have trouble recognizing the difference.

Just one defeat away from suffering the same fate the pre-World Series Cubs did two years ago, the similarities are most definitely present, chiefly in that the bats have gone completely silent against an elite pitching staff.

Of course you’ll remember that four-game set with the New York Mets, when a young starting rotation looked like it was entering a decade-long stretch of dominance by carving up the then-upstart Cubs. Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom combined to limit the Cubs to five runs over 20.1 innings in the first three games of that series. The Cubs chased Game 4 starter Steven Matz before he completed five innings, but they still mustered only three runs in an 8-3 loss that completed the sweep. And that bullpen had itself a darn good series, too.

The Cubs hit .164 in those four games and reached base at a grotesque .225 clip.

Flash forward to now, and the Cubs are on the verge of another sweep, their offense experiencing similar problems. The batting average through the first three games is .160, the on-base percentage even worse than it was two years earlier, a nasty .202.

And much like in the 2015 NLCS, the Cubs' biggest boppers are struggling mightily. Kris Bryant was 3-for-14 against the Mets, he's 3-for-12 against the Dodgers. Anthony Rizzo was 3-for-14 against the Mets, he's 1-for-10 against the Dodgers. Kyle Schwarber was 2-for-14 against the Mets, he's 1-for-6 against the Dodgers.

“Of course we expected more,” manager Joe Maddon said after the game. “The Dodgers have pitched well. It’s somewhat surprising. I don't want to use the word disappointing. Our guys are working really hard. They’ve pitched well, hit a couple balls well. But overall, the three games, I guess their relief pitchers have pretty much thrown a no-hitter against us, so they’ve been pretty good.”

It’s true that in three games against the Dodgers, the Cubs already have hit more home runs than they did in the five-game NLDS against the Washington Nationals. But after grabbing early leads with home runs in each of the first three games of this series — off the bats of Albert Almora Jr., Addison Russell and Schwarber, respectively — there’s been little, if any, further damage against a Dodger pitching staff that has looked downright filthy.

The best performance by a starting pitcher came in Game 3, with Yu Darvish turning in the kind of outing the Dodgers envisioned when they made a deadline deal for the former Texas Ranger back in July. Darvish threw 6.1 innings of one-run ball Tuesday, the only real blemish being Schwarber’s first-inning, opposite-field Schwarbomb.

Darvish was so good that in a tight 3-1 game in the sixth inning, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts let his starter bat with the bases loaded. Darvish made his skipper look like baseball’s all-time genius, drawing a four-pitch walk from Carl Edwards Jr. to force in a run. But, of course, what he did on the mound was far more impactful. He kept the Cubs looking outmatched, something that was a common occurrence against that Mets staff back in 2015.

Yes, there are differences. There’s no doubt the squads are two very different groups. And while Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill were very good in their starts, particularly Hill, the Dodgers haven’t featured a string of sensational performances like that Mets team did. Instead, as Maddon mentioned, the Dodgers’ strength has been the bullpen.

After going oh-fer against Dodgers relievers in the first two games, the Cubs finally snapped their streak with two ninth-inning hits against Ross Stripling on Tuesday. But they’re still just 2-for-34 in three games.

But the biggest difference of all between 2015 and 2017? The expectations.

Two years ago, the Cubs had yet to smash that 108-year World Series curse and were fresh off the franchise’s first postseason series win in more than a decade, just the franchise’s second since capturing the 1945 pennant. The Cubs’ second-half surge that season had them playoff party crashers, a much different role than the defending champs.

This time around, the Cubs entered the season as favorites to repeat. The first half was a big disappointment in the eyes of most fans not so much concerned with the effects of the World Series hangover and more focused on getting back to partying in early November. The second half was more like what was expected. And so while the Dodgers — and the Nationals, for that matter — were better regular-season teams, according to the 162-game records, there were expectations on the North Side for the Cubs to do it all over again.

Instead, with one more showing like this by a slumbering Cubs offense against an elite Dodgers pitching staff, the sweep will be completed at Wrigley Field — and it will be 2015 that happens all over again.