Cubs

LaHair feels like he can do some damage

744208.png

LaHair feels like he can do some damage

As Alfonso Soriano surveyed the scene, a big smile crossed his face: Yeah, babe, swagger.

Inside the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium, a pack of reporters moved toward Bryan LaHair. The 6-foot-5-inch, 240-pound first baseman filled up the space in front of his locker.

LaHair is measured and polite, and answered questions about the Adam Wainwright fastball he lifted over the left-field fence and into the Cubs bullpen. That grand slam on April 13 helped ruin the day the Cardinals raised their World Series banner.

Swagger may not be the right word, at least not after 230-plus big-league at-bats. But theres an inner calm to LaHair. At the age of 29, he believes he belongs, that hes in the right place at the right time.

You saw it late Monday night at Wrigley Field against Cardinals closer Jason Motte. LaHair fouled off six straight fastballs that were clocked between 95 and 98 mph. That 12-pitch walk in the bottom of the ninth set in motion a 3-2 comeback victory.

I just dont have any fear, LaHair said. Im real confident with two strikes. Sometimes when youre struggling, thats when you lose confidence. But I just feel like I can do damage with two strikes, as much as I can with no strikes.

In that kind of situation, you just got to relax and just breathe and let the anxiety go.

This is what Theo Epstein means when the Cubs president talks about grinding out at-bats. LaHair grew up a Red Sox fan and played high school hoops for J.P. Ricciardi a Moneyball figure and the former Blue Jays general manager at Holy Name in Worcester, Mass.

Entering Tuesday, LaHair had seen 4.11 pitches per plate appearance, second among Cubs regulars and trailing only David DeJesus (4.16), who ranked 11th in the National League.

LaHair has reached base safely in his last 14 games, and hit three of the teams six home runs. He knows he will strike out often, and doesnt expect to walk all that much. Hes just looking for a good pitch to hit hard.

LaHair believes the sample sizes are too small to read too much into the splits against right-handers (13-for-30, .433 average) and lefties (0-for-6 with five strikeouts until Tuesday's heroics).

Im not afraid of left-handers, he said. I feel like any time I come to the plate I can do something. (But) Im onboard. I have a role right now (and) we just accept it and be part of the team.

Nothing against LaHair, but pretty soon fans will want to see Anthony Rizzo, the first baseman of the future whos hitting .373 with seven homers and 19 RBI in 19 games at Triple-A Iowa.

Ive been following him, LaHair said. I know hes doing really well and thats expected. (The) kid can really hit. Theres no doubt about it. I know down there hes been working on some things and trying to make some adjustments for the big-league level.

Ive been there before and hes going to figure that little part out (and) Im sure hes going to have success.

Thats not quite Ryan Theriot having a little fun and telling Starlin Castro: Come and get it. And Rizzo talked in spring training about wanting to be in the same Cubs lineup with LaHair.

Two left-handed bats, a lot of power, (seeing) a lot of pitches, LaHair said. (Thats) definitely a good combo. Its just whenever the right time is.

LaHair hasnt practiced at all in the outfield this year, but thinks it would only take him a few days to get back up to speed if the Cubs ever make that decision (and somehow move Soriano).

But Epstein believes that players whove hit at every level can do it in the big leagues. Its time to see what sort of asset LaHair can become across the next few months.

The guy who last season won the Pacific Coast Leagues MVP award and then went to play winter ball in Venezuela will act like hes been here before.

This is my opportunity, LaHair said. This is something Ive been visualizing my whole entire life. So its like Ive been there a million times. Ive been seeing myself do this for awhile.

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

10-18_wade_davis_usat.jpg
USA TODAY

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

This became a three-ring circus on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Cubs manager Joe Maddon screaming at the umpires, the video board showing the replay of Curtis Granderson’s swing and the crowd of 42,195 booing and chanting “BULLS#$!!”

The Los Angeles Dodgers are still in command of this National League Championship Series, but the Cubs won’t go quietly into the offseason, unleashing All-Star closer Wade Davis for the final two innings of a 3-2 thriller that kept them alive for at least another night.

The Cubs can worry about the daunting task of winning three more elimination games in the morning. Once Davis forced Cody Bellinger into the double-play groundball that left Justin Turner stranded in the on-deck circle and this one ended at 11:16 p.m., he pulled at his right sleeve and buttoned the top of his jersey while waiting for the Cubs to start the high-five line. “Go Cubs Go” blasted from the stadium’s sound  system and fireworks erupted beyond the center-field scoreboard and Davis acted as if nothing had happened.

To put the idea of beating the Dodgers three times in a row in perspective, the Cubs blasted three homers and got a classic big-game performance out of Jake Arrieta and still needed Davis for a heart-stopping, high-wire act.

Maddon already ruled out Davis for Thursday night’s Game 5 after the closer fired 48 pitches – or four more than he did during last week’s seven-out save that eliminated the Washington Nationals. But at least the Cubs will have those decisions to make instead of cleaning out their lockers.

“I don’t know,” Davis said. “We’ll definitely come in tomorrow and get some treatment and go out and play catch and see how I feel.”

It looks like Davis doesn’t feel anything on the mound. Davis didn’t react to Turner chucking his bat and yelling into the visiting dugout after crushing a 94-mph fastball for a home run to begin the eighth inning. Davis didn’t seem bothered by Yasiel Puig flipping his bat after drawing a walk. And Davis never lost his composure while Maddon got ejected for the second time in four NLCS games.

Maddon flipped out at home plate umpire Jim Wolf – and really the entire crew – when what was initially called a swinging strike three on Granderson got overturned and ruled a foul tip.

“Wade doesn’t care about any of that,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “That’s the right guy to have on the mound. With the mentality he has, he’s going to strike the guy out on the next pitch. Obviously with the replay, it’s not easy to keep your composure. But he’s just different. He’s a different animal.”

While the fans at Wrigley Field got loud and turned angry, Davis chatted with catcher Willson Contreras: “I was just trying to think of the next pitch I was going to throw if he ended up staying in the box.”

Davis got Granderson (0-for-4, four strikeouts) swinging at strike four, walked Yasmani Grandal and then blew away Chase Utley with a 95.1-mph fastball, needing 34 pitches to finish the eighth inning. Davis wasn’t finished, using a Kris Bryant bat to hit against Dodger lefty Tony Cingrani, fouling off five pitches before striking out looking at a 94.9-mph fastball.

“Yeah, I gave up there after a little bit,” Davis said with a look that sort of resembled a smile. “He was bringing it pretty good, and I hadn’t seen a baseball in a while coming in like that.”

If the Cubs are going to match the 2004 Boston Red Sox – the only other team to come back from an 0-3 deficit since the LCS format expanded to seven games in 1985 – they are going to need the offense to generate more runs, a great start from Jose Quintana on Thursday night and someone else to run out of the bullpen. Not that Davis is ruling himself out for Game 5.

“Go get some sleep and then come in tomorrow and start getting ready,” Davis said.

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

It’s not Jake Arrieta getting greedy and the Cubs being cheap when he holds up another jersey in a different city this winter, smiling for the cameras while super-agent Scott Boras watches the press conference unfold, marketing an ace to a new audience.

Even Arrieta admits that if he had Theo Epstein’s job, he would do the exact same thing, letting it play out until a 30-something pitcher hits the free-agent market. And Epstein wouldn’t have left the Boston Red Sox and taken over baseball operations at Clark and Addison if he didn’t believe in the need for change, to get outside the comfort zone and test yourself.

It’s just business, but this still felt very personal on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Arrieta probably making his last start in a Cubs uniform while the defending World Series champs survived an elimination game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Three straight trips to the National League Championship Series might have spoiled Cubs fans to the point where standing-room-only Game 4 tickets were selling for $60 on StubHub less than an hour before the 8:01 p.m. first pitch.

By 10:13 p.m., the crowd of 42,195 started booing when manager Joe Maddon popped out of the dugout in the seventh inning to take the ball from Arrieta after 111 pitches. It turned into a standing ovation as Arrieta walked off the mound and tipped his cap, his shaved head set against a mountain-man beard.

“Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye,” Arrieta said after a dramatic 3-2 win, surrounded by reporters at his locker. “It’s a thank you, obviously. I still intend to have another start in this ballpark.

“If that’s where it ends, I did my best and I left it all out there. But we’ve won four in a row plenty of times this year. And there’s no reason we can’t do it again.”

So many times, Arrieta has been worth the price of admission, must-see TV through two no-hitters and those two World Series games he won on the road last year against the Cleveland Indians. None of this would have been possible without the Cubs finding a winning lottery ticket in that Scott Feldman flip deal with the Baltimore Orioles on July 2, 2013.

“I took a little bit of extra time in between pitches,” Arrieta said, “just to look around, foul pole to foul pole, behind home plate, just to relish it and take it in. You got the fans on their feet, pulling on the same side of the rope. It breeds some added energy.

“I had that mindset of I’m going to do everything in my power to get it to tomorrow.”

Arrieta’s pitches dart and dive in directions that even he can’t always control, but he has guts, swing-and-miss stuff (nine strikeouts) and the ability to work through traffic. He gave up five walks, hit Chase Utley with a pitch and watched as Cody Bellinger hammered a ball off the video-board ribbon in right field for a third-inning homer.

But lefty reliever Brian Duensing backed Arrieta up with two outs and two runners on in the seventh inning, forcing Bellinger to lift a flyball into shallow left field, keeping it a 3-1 game and setting the stage for a two-inning Wade Davis save.

“Jake was amazing,” Davis said. “He was throwing Wiffle balls, it looked like. Guys were just swinging at balls that started in on the zone and finished a foot off the plate. He’s just got some amazing stuff.”

For perspective on how far this franchise has come, just look at the lineup from Arrieta’s first spot start as a Cub, the second game of a July 30, 2013 doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field:

David DeJesus, CF
Junior Lake, LF
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Dioner Navarro, C
Luis Valbuena, 2B
Starlin Castro, SS
Cody Ransom, 3B
Cole Gillespie, RF

The Cubs actually sent Arrieta back to Triple-A Iowa for two more starts that summer, part of a mental/mechanical reset and the service-time calculus that would delay his free-agency clock by a year.

By 2015, Arrieta’s raw talent and natural confidence converged with a young, inexperienced team that caught fire in the second half, his Cy Young Award campaign fueling 97 wins and the momentum for chairman Tom Ricketts to authorize a spending spree on free agents that almost totaled $290 million.

"That was pretty special,” Maddon said. “I've never witnessed on the field that kind of consistent performance from a pitcher. It was other-worldly, right down to the wild-card game.

“My God, you pretty much knew if you scored one or two runs, you're going to win that night somehow. I don't know how this is going to look moving forward. But I know one thing, man, that one year of watching him play was different. It was a throwback to the ‘60s kind of pitching (I watched) as a kid.

“He's special – his work ethic and who he is and how he goes about his business. He's a very special young man.”

But Arrieta really isn’t in the mood to wonder if this is the end scene to this chapter of his life.

“There’s a little thought of that, yeah, because you never know,” Arrieta said. “But at the same time, now that the game’s over, it’s out of sight, out of mind. The thought process for me now is to be ready if I’m needed.”