Cincinnati Reds

Cubs could see this heavyweight rematch coming: Bring on the Dodgers

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AP

Cubs could see this heavyweight rematch coming: Bring on the Dodgers

WASHINGTON – Joe Maddon plays mind games and sends messages through the media and sometimes just runs with whatever idea pops into his head.

Maddon turned on a big-picture question from a New York Times reporter in late August, essentially skipping over the comparisons between the 2016 Cubs and the 2017 Dodgers and jumping to how much he would love to face the group on the Sports Illustrated cover labeled as: “Best. Team. Ever?”

Bring it on, Maddon signaled, looking forward to when the defending World Series champs would be at full strength and saying how much he would love that matchup against the Dodgers in October.

Well, here it is, a rematch of last year’s National League Championship Series, Game 1 on Saturday night at Dodger Stadium, Clayton Kershaw and the rest of a $200-plus million team knowing this season will be a failure if they don’t win an iconic franchise’s first World Series title since 1988.

“You have to beat the best to be the best,” Maddon explained this week in the middle of a grueling first-round, five-game series against the Nationals. “You can’t run away from any of this stuff. The question could have been about any team, not just the Dodgers.

“Pick the ’27 Yankees. Pick the ’64 Cardinals, the Big Red Machine, whatever, the We Are Family (Pirates). You just want to believe your guys can match up with anybody. And I want our guys to believe the same thing.”

The Cubs had credibility issues when Maddon made that declaration in Philadelphia during a 3-3 road trip against the last-place Reds and Phillies, part of the same overall pattern that led to a 43-45 first half and Milwaukee’s three-game sweep at Wrigley Field in the middle of September.

From that point, the Cubs buried the Brewers and Cardinals in the division race, going 15-4 to close the regular season and devastating a 97-win Washington team in the playoffs.

“That was brought up to me,” Maddon said, “and all I said was I was just agreeing with the comment. Somebody brought up the Dodgers. They could have brought up the ’27 Yankees. I was not pointing anything out.

“When that was all going on, there was a lot of nonbelievers. We have really, obviously, picked it up in the second half in general, and then I’m using Milwaukee as the benchmark. In 2015, I used the Giants in August as being that seminal moment that all of a sudden it seemed to get right. Since (then), our mental intensity has really been outstanding every game.

“I wasn’t talking about the Dodgers. Somebody else was.”

The Dodgers still have the main elements in place that held the Cubs scoreless for 21 straight innings during the 2016 NLCS — the great Kershaw, lefty curveball specialist Rich Hill, Kenley Jansen imitating Mariano Rivera — but their roster isn’t quite as top-heavy anymore after making a trade-deadline splash with Yu Darvish and developing Cody Bellinger into a 39-homer, 97-RBI force and probably the unanimous NL Rookie of the Year.

While the Cubs felt like they blacked out during a crazy NLDS —  and the team’s West Coast charter flight got diverted to New Mexico on Friday morning — the Dodgers relaxed and set up their pitching after sweeping the Diamondbacks in three games.

“I can’t wait,” said shortstop Addison Russell, whose 2016 postseason could be divided into through (1-for-24) and after (12-for-40) Game 3 at Dodger Stadium. “We’re willing to take on each challenge. I know that we got another big challenge ahead of us against the Dodgers.”

Remember, the Dodgers had to play a one-run elimination game at Nationals Park on Oct. 13, 2016, using Jansen and Kershaw to nail down the final nine outs, the same urgency/desperation the Cubs showed Thursday night in using Jose Quintana and Wade Davis for the last three innings against Washington.

Will the 2017 Cubs run out of gas like the 2016 Dodgers? Can the 2017 Dodgers withstand the pressure and freak-out moments as well as the 2016 Cubs? Stay tuned.  

“They’ve been the best team in baseball since Day 1,” said Jon Lester, last year’s NLCS co-MVP with Javier Baez. “The roles are reversed. We were that team last year — and we moved on — and they’re that team this year.

“But we know going into L.A. that it’s going to be a hard series, regardless. They got a great staff. They got a great lineup, so we got to respect them. Hopefully, they respect us, and it’s a good series.”    

Cubs still finalizing a plan for Jake Arrieta this weekend and beyond

Cubs still finalizing a plan for Jake Arrieta this weekend and beyond

Jake Arrieta will not take the ball Sunday for the Cubs in the final regular season game of 2017.

The Cubs have officially announced Mike Montgomery as the starter for the final regular season game, opting to give Arrieta some rest instead of pushing his hamstring in game action. That also means he may not pitch again until Game 3 or 4 of the National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals and the Cubs have no concerns at the moment that Arrieta won't be ready to go in the postseason.

The Cubs locked up the division Wednesday night in St. Louis, so this weekend's three-game series against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field has a very spring training feel to it.

Arrieta admitted he came back a little too soon on Sept. 21, when he helped the Cubs beat the Milwaukee Brewers with five innings of one-run ball. That was just over two weeks after he walked off the mound in Pittsburgh clutching the back of his right leg.

"I wanted to be out there as soon as I could," he said Friday morning inside the Cubs Wrigley Field clubhouse. "I was able to go out there, but a couple more days would've been nice for recovery. We were in a spot where we needed to win some games and I wanted to be out there to do everything I could to help that out."

Arrieta is planning on throwing a simulated game at some point this weekend and the Cubs will go for a bullpen day Sunday after Montgomery, manager Joe Maddon said.

Arrieta said his mechanics are good, his arm feels fine and his strength is there, so he's not really focused on needing more time in bullpens. He wants to face hitters, but do it more in a controlled environment of a simulated scenario rather than in a live game.

He's still not 100 percent, though he's close.

"Really the only time I feel [the hamstring] is max effort on the mound," Arrieta said. "So it's good to get a couple extra days off, especially in the situation we're in — we're already in the playoffs. 

"Any time you're in the game, put a hitter in there, it's hard to take a step back. Especially at the time, we were still fighting to kinda secure our playoff spot. It's nice now to have a few days just to completely do nothing, work with the trainers, do some stuff for recovery, do some cryo, some hyperbaric chamber, all these different laser lights we have that promote healing and regenerate cell growth. 

"That's kinda what we're gonna focus on the next couple days and then get out there for a sim game and get everything tightened up. But other than that, I feel great. When my time comes, I'll be ready, regardless of when that is."

Arrieta isn't worried about his max effort, knowing he's in control of his body and has enough strength and knowledge to know how to back off his hamstring if need be and rely more on his arm. Like he said, it's not like he's trying to throw the ball through a brick wall.

By taking the rest route, the Cubs also have ruled out Arrieta to start Game 1 of the NLDS in Washington. In fact, the way things are shaking out now, he wouldn't get his first postseason start until Games 3 or 4 back in Chicago on Oct. 9 or 10.

"Part of the deal that we're doing would be to gain more time to make Jake well and then push him in the latter part of the rotation," Maddon said. "So it would not impact the front part of it."

Maddon didn't announce who his Game 1 starter would be in D.C., but Kyle Hendricks may be emerging as the favorite, especially after throwing five shutout innings Thursday against the Cardinals in his final start of the regular season.

However with Arrieta, there is no concrete plan beyond just making sure he gets some rest and back as close to 100 percent as possible.

That will mean at least the one sim game over the next week before the NLDS begins.

"You gotta exert yourself a little bit to make sure that it's well," Maddon said. "That's the tricky part of it - you have to push it a little bit. We're trying to extend the rest period before he does it again.

"And then when he does it again, he's gotta actually go out there and pitch. We'll see. Listen, I don't have any solid answers other than that's what we're thinking about doing right now. 

"We'll see how it all plays out. And then if it plays well, everything's cool. And if it doesn't, then you have to make another plan."

Why rebuilding White Sox have something to play for down the stretch

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AP

Why rebuilding White Sox have something to play for down the stretch

MINNEAPOLIS -- Who says the rebuilding White Sox don’t have anything to play for in September and October?

Of utmost importance is the potential for development of White Sox rookies who have reached the majors, a group that includes Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Nicky Delmonico, amongst others.

But beyond that is another critical aspect: With 30 games left on the schedule after Thursday, the White Sox are locked in a battle for first. At 52-79 overall, the White Sox are well within striking distance of the Philadelphia Phillies for the worst record in baseball and the privilege to make the first overall pick in the June 2018 amateur draft.

Currently, the White Sox own the third-worst record in the majors. The San Francisco Giants — who come to Guaranteed Rate Field for three games on Sept. 8-10 — have the second-worst mark at 53-82 overall. The Cincinnati Reds (56-77) and Oakland A’s (58-75) round out the top five prior to Thursday’s results.

While it’s nowhere close to as significant as winning a division or, there’s little question about how much impact possessing a top pick and the larger signing bonus pool attached to it can have on an organization. Given the early talk about the 2018 draft class, the White Sox appear to be in great shape to add more impact talent to an already loaded farm system.

“It’s a better draft all around from a depth and impact standpoint,” amateur scouting director Nick Hostetler said, adding it’s potentially the best class since 2010.

The potential for adding a top-three talent via the amateur draft could leave White Sox players and coaches and a portion of the team’s fan base at odds for the final month of the season.

With a team full of inexperience, White Sox players are hungry and looking to sew up future roster spots by showing off their talent. The Giolitos and Lopezes and Moncadas are intent upon improvement and highly unlikely to put their own careers in jeopardy in order to secure the franchise a better draft pick. They want to win and do everything they can to make themselves a prominent part of the club’s future.

“Everybody wants to come out, as far as the players are concerned, you want to come out and play to win,” manager Rick Renteria said. “I think the word rebuild adds a connotation of it doesn’t really matter what goes on and it couldn’t be further from the truth. These guys are trying to go out and exemplify what they’re supposed to be as a team and individuals as trying to continue to perform the things that are necessary to win ballgames.”

On the other side of things, many White Sox fans have fully embraced The Tank. They want a high pick so the team can select Seth Beer, Jarred Kelenic or Brice Turang or any other number of players.

One hundred losses and a first pick? Many fans say bring it on.

It’s yet another strange position in a calendar year full of them.

At the same time, this is exactly where the White Sox have been headed all along. You don’t trade Chris Sale and Adam Eaton off a 78-win roster and expect to improve.

General manager Rick Hahn made it clear this spring that the White Sox would keep the big picture in mind all along in 2017. If the White Sox were going to win, they would have to do it with the players they already had. No short-term trades would be made and prospects wouldn’t be rushed to fill voids at the major league level.

Though the White Sox had plenty of zest in the season’s first two months and hung around longer than most suspected they would, Hahn had no qualms about ripping apart the 25-man roster in July with a series of trades.

Still, as much as Hahn might like to hold the first pick come next June, he doesn’t want to sacrifice critical development to get there.

“There’s been no secret made about what we're trying to accomplish as an organization,” Hahn said earlier this month. “That's been clear since well before the start of spring training, and the players have understood the opportunities that are here for them, in the now, based on that long-term approach that we're taking. Again, I can't say enough about the work that Ricky and the coaches have done in terms of preparing this team on a daily basis and making the most out of what they have on a given night on their roster.”

Should make for an interesting month.