Jon Jay

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.”

This October is less climatic than the last, but no less filled with joy. #familyfirst

A post shared by Dexter Fowler (@dexterfowler) on

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.”

Max Scherzer's dominance has forced Joe Maddon to do something he hates with NLDS Game 3 lineup

Max Scherzer's dominance has forced Joe Maddon to do something he hates with NLDS Game 3 lineup

The Cubs released Joe Maddon's lineup for Game 3 of the NLDS against Max Scherzer and the Nationals, and like the skipper foreshadowed, there's a bit of a surprise.

Javy Baez is not in the lineup against the Nationals ace, with Ben Zobrist manning second base and Jon Jay playing center field as the "extra lefty" Maddon mentioned Sunday.

Here's the entire lineup behind Jose Quintana for his postseason debut:

1. Jon Jay - CF
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Willson Contreras - C
5. Ben Zobrist - 2B
6. Kyle Schwarber - LF
7. Jason Heyward - RF
8. Addison Russell - SS
9. Jose Quintana - P

The impetus behind Maddon's lineup changes is Scherzer, as the likely NL Cy Young winner is absolutely dominant against right-handed hitters, holding them to a .136 average and .425 OPS while 46.9 percent of the at-bats have ended in strikeouts.

That's a tough matchup for any right-handed hitter, but especially Baez, who swings at so many pitches outside the zone even when he's locked in. Baez is 0-for-5 with three strikeouts in his career against Scherzer.

Lefties, meanwhile, are hitting .215 with a .692 OPS against Scherzer and have accounted for 16 of the 22 homers he's given up this season.

Maddon explained his thought process:

"Scherzer. That's just Scherzer, just purely the fact that he's so oppressive against right-handed hitters. More than anything, that's it. 

"I don't like to play the game without Javy on the field. I said that from the first time I saw him in spring training in 2015. I said, 'Man, we're a better team when he's on the field,' and I do; I love having him out there.

"For right now, if we can build some offense and grab a lead and switch to the defense in the latter part of the game, that's what we're going to try to do today."

That's something Maddon has done quite a bit in his time in Chicago, from inserting Chris Coghlan in the three-hole in 2015 to removing Schwarber for defensive replacements on a regular basis throughout the last three years.

Maddon could've opted to go with Tommy La Stella in Monday's lineup, as the left-handed-hitter infielder is 3-for-6 lifetime against Scherzer with a double, triple and homer. That would've kept Heyward in center and Zobrist in right field, like the Cubs lined up in Game 1 against right-hander Stephen Strasburg.

Instead, Maddon went with Jay — who is 1-for-8 lifetime against Scherzer — in a move that stabilizes the starting defense a bit more than if La Stella was in the lineup. La Stella will instead be Maddon's top pinch-hitting option off the bench, able to be inserted into a premium spot in the game.

The Cubs faced Scherzer just once in 2017, when he gave up one run in six innings in a 6-1 Nationals victory on June 27 in Washington. In his career, Scherzer is 3-1 with a 2.92 ERA in six starts against the Cubs.

The question will be how long Scherzer can last in Monday's game, just 8 days after suffering a hamstring "tweak" in his last start of the regular season. Scherzer said it was just muscle weakness in the hamstring and expects to be able to throw 100 pitches if need be.

Quintana has never faced the Nationals and only three players on their roster have ever seen him — catcher Matt Wieters is 2-for-3 while veterans Howie Kendrick and Adam Lind have combined to face Quintana 21 times, collecting seven hits in those appearances.

Here's how the Nationals will line up behind Scherzer, the same order they've had in the first two games:

1. Trea Turner - SS
2. Bryce Harper - RF
3. Anthony Rendon - 3B
4. Daniel Murphy - 2B
5. Ryan Zimmerman - 1B
6. Jayson Werth - LF
7. Matt Wieters - C
8. Michael A. Taylor - CF
9. Max Scherzer

Illinois native Tanner Roark is slated to throw Game 4 for the Nationals, but he may be the long man for Washington if Scherzer is unable to go deep into the contest. 

Cubs feel the pressure will be on Nationals to prove they can deliver in playoffs

Cubs feel the pressure will be on Nationals to prove they can deliver in playoffs

In a post-curse world, the Cubs could get swept out of the playoffs this October and still get a standing ovation walking off Wrigley Field. They would keep hearing thank you from the fans throughout the winter – and really the rest of their lives – and show up for spring training next February as the heavy favorite to win their division for the third year in a row.     

That might be the only area where the Cubs have a clear edge over a Washington Nationals team with a rotation up for Cy Young Award consideration, a lineup built around MVP candidates, a bullpen completely remodeled before the trade deadline…and zero postseason series wins since the franchise relocated from Montreal in 2005.  

That track record of regular-season success and playoff failures could change the entire psychology of the best-of-five National League Division Series that begins Friday night at Nationals Park. If the Cubs aren’t exactly playing with house money, they also won’t feel the same weight and desperation in trying to make history, repay generations of fans for their loyalty and secure their legacies.

“I definitely think there’s probably a little bit more pressure on them,” Ben Zobrist said after Tuesday afternoon’s workout at Wrigley Field. “They haven’t been out of this first series yet. And I think that obviously they’re very motivated to try to do that. They know it’s a very, very big moment for them and their organization.”

Spending 179 days in first place this year – after winning at least 95 games and division titles in 2012, 2014 and 2016 – means this question hangs over the Nationals: But can you do it in the playoffs?

Ex-Cubs manager Dusty Baker doesn’t have a contract for next season, which you think would be a slam-dunk decision about a natural leader who’s won 1,863 regular-season games – and only one NL pennant in 20-plus years.

Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant’s friendly rival from growing up in Las Vegas, will become a free agent after next season and loves trolling on social media, teasing the idea of signing the biggest contract in the history of professional sports and forming a super-team with KB in Wrigleyville.   

[MORE: Cubs still exercising extreme caution with Jake Arrieta

Where the $155 million investment in Jon Lester has already paid for itself, the Nationals can’t expect to wring that many more All-Star seasons out of Max Scherzer’s seven-year, $210 million megadeal before the inevitable breakdown.  

Yet another Scott Boras client, Stephen Strasburg, is seven years removed from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow – and in the first season of a $175 million contract extension that runs into 2023 (and contains deferred money through 2030).  

The decision to shut down Strasburg in September 2012 – as inclusive and well-meaning as it may have been – created a perception of an organization with a sense of entitlement.

Strasburg, the likely Game 1 starter while Scherzer deals with a right hamstring issue, has made one playoff start in his entire career, a five-inning loss at home to an even-year San Francisco Giants team that would win the 2014 World Series.

“For us, it’s still a big moment,” Zobrist said. “We plan on doing this for a long time to come. You basically have a team that’s up and coming and really trying to make their mark for the first time in the postseason. And you got a team that has proven they’re exciting to watch and knows how to win.

“We want to become the dominant force in Major League Baseball.”

Zobrist changed the culture around the Cubs after winning the 2015 World Series with the Kansas City Royals, turning down the Nationals to sign a four-year, $56 million contract and come home to Illinois. (The Nationals shrewdly pivoted and signed the new Mr. October, Daniel Murphy, who killed the Cubs when the New York Mets swept them out of the 2015 NL Championship Series.)

Zobrist became the World Series MVP after the Cubs dug out of a 3-1 hole against the Cleveland Indians, winning an unforgettable 10-inning Game 7 on the road.

“A mind once stretched has a difficult time going back to its original form,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You just have a better feel or understanding of the situation you’re going into. You are, in a sense, slightly more comfortable with it and (know) what it feels like.

“Once you’ve done it before, you’re not as intimidated by the moment.”

It’s not just muscle memory from 2016. The Cubs could lead off Game 1 with a veteran hitter who played in 58 postseason games with the St. Louis Cardinals and earned a World Series ring with their 2011 team (Jon Jay) and end it with an All-Star closer who notched the final out of the 2015 World Series for the Royals (Wade Davis).

“It’s huge,” Jay said. “Every year you do this, you get a little more familiar with family stuff and friends and everything that entails with the media. It’s a brighter stage and it all gets magnified. Everything’s bigger.

“Every year you do this, it’s an experience you get better and better at.”  

Or the anxiety can keep growing and growing. After more than a century of disappointment, the Cubs have completely changed their identity, no longer facing the same old questions or bracing for something to go wrong.   

“In Bryce Harper’s opinion, they’re the favorites,” said Anthony Rizzo, the face-of-the-franchise first baseman. “In (Cody) Bellinger’s opinion, the Dodgers are the favorites. You just got to go out and play.

“We’ve been there. We’ve done it. We’ve had a lot of different scenarios. We’ve been up games. We’ve been down games. We’ve been up in the series. We’ve been down in the series. We’re as battle-tested as you can get going into the playoffs.

“But it’s all about if that bounce is going to go your way, if you’re going to get the big hit or if you make that big pitch in the big moment."