Rene Rivera

Cubs closing out the regular season with a spring training approach

maddon_cubs_spring_feel_in_september_slide.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs closing out the regular season with a spring training approach

Hector Rondon chopped Amir Garrett's offering about 15 feet in front of home plate and booked it down the line.

He was initially called out, but was so insistent he beat the play, he stayed on first base and went through the usual Cubs routine after a basehit — waving to the dugout with a bright smile on his face, cracking up his teammates.

Welcome to spring training in September.

Rondon's first career MLB hit was confirmed by a replay, altering the original call on the field by first base umpire Mike Winters.

Rondon's baserunning excursion lasted just one pitch as Rene Rivera — hitting leadoff — into an inning-ending double play. Rondon was then lifted from the game in favor of Brian Duensing for the eighth inning. Cubs manager Joe Maddon didn't want to use any other position players in the game if he didn't have to, so he gave Rondon and fellow reliever Felix Pena an opportunity to hit for themselves Friday.

It was a fun, ridiculous moment in a game that featured a Cubs starting lineup consisting of three catchers (Kyle Schwarber, Alex Avila, Willson Contreras) to start, plus the insertion of Rivera (again, in the leadoff spot) and Taylor Davis (at third base). The starting lineup also featured three second basemen (Ben Zobrist, Tommy La Stella, Ian Happ) playing all over the place.

Happ started at third base for the first time in his professional career (he only had one inning at the hot corner prior to Friday) and moved to center field before giving the Cubs their 91st victory of the season with a three-run homer in the eighth.

Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell and Jason Heyward never made it into Friday's game. Those five regulars will likely be in Saturday's lineup however, after taking back-to-back days off Thursday and Friday.

Maddon talked to Bryant and Co. about playing Friday, but the players opted for a second consecutive day off, while Zobrist and Contreras wanted to get back into action after taking Thursday off.

The Cubs have nothing to play for, as seeding in the NL is already guaranteed and they locked up the division Wednesday night in St. Louis.

"Treat it more like spring training," Maddon said of the regulars playing Saturday, "maybe three at-bats. It doesn't have to be a full game. My plan is to talk to them during the course of the game — how ya feelin'? Do you need another at-bat? You good? Just like you do in spring training. No different than that."

Maddon also continued to treat his pitching staff with the caution and predetermined planning of Cactus League play.

Jose Quintana was perfect through the first 11 hitters of the game, but fell into trouble in the fifth and wound up exiting after only 4.2 innings and 81 pitches. Pena bridged the gap to Rondon in the seventh, who dialed his fastball up to the upper 90s and threw his fourth staright scoreless apperance since returning from a minor elbow injury.

Prior to Friday's game, Maddon telegraphed his managing style for the weekend, saying he hoped to get the main relievers out for an inning or two, but not wanting any guy to approach even 30 pitches.

Jon Lester also doesn't figure to work deep into Saturday's game while Jake Arrieta won't make Sunday's start, resting his ailing hamstring and turning the 2017 regular season finale into a bullpen day for the Cubs.

It's all in an effort to promote rest and limit wear and tear in a series of games that means nothing beyond ensuring the Cubs players are locked in and ready for their NLDS date with the Washington Nationals.

Some good news for Cubs fans: Willson Contreras ‘really close’ to returning

contreras.jpg
USA TODAY

Some good news for Cubs fans: Willson Contreras ‘really close’ to returning

PITTSBURGH – Running a big-league team is dealing with one crisis after another, where the pregame optimism surrounding Willson Contreras gives way to worst-case thoughts about Jake Arrieta within a matter of hours.

But the Cubs were built upon layers and layers of talent, surviving and even thriving while Contreras has been on the disabled list with a strained right hamstring since Aug. 11.  

Ramping up again, Contreras ran the bases during batting practice on Labor Day at PNC Park, another encouraging sign for a first-place team, at least until Arrieta exited his start in the middle of the third inning with a grabbing pain in his right leg.

One positive takeaway from a 12-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates: Arrieta believes this is more of a cramping problem than a serious hamstring injury. And the Cubs are planning to soon send out Contreras on a rehab assignment – assuming a minor-league affiliate is in the playoffs – or get their dynamic catcher up to speed through simulated games.

“He’s really close,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s pretty much it – the fact that they’re comfortable with the leg. Just the fact that the docs and the training staff are comfortable with him running to the point that if he ran in the game, he’s not going to hurt himself. So this is pretty much the last step.”

At this point in the recovery process, Maddon said the Cubs aren’t focused on the catching part of the equation and what the wear and tear behind the plate might do to Contreras: “That’s not an issue right now.”

[MORE: Javy being Javy: Cubs won't change Baez's aggressive style

The Cubs initially framed it as a four-to-six week timetable for Contreras (21 homers, 70 RBI, .861 OPS), who had been an emerging star and the most dangerous hitter in the lineup when he went down with what initially looked like it could have been a season-defining injury.

“I don’t want to place too many expectations on him coming back,” Maddon said. “The other guys have been pretty good. Alex (Avila) and Rene (Rivera) have filled in really well – homers, clutch hits, fine catching, blocking the ball well, handling our staff.

“It’s just another nice piece to have back. (But) of course, listen, this guy was hitting as well as anybody when he got hurt. His energy itself – in the game, behind the plate and how he interacts with the pitching staff – is going to help us.”

Welcome to Chicago: Rene Rivera thrown into the fire on his first day in Cubs' pennant race

rene-rivera-0820.jpg
USA TODAY

Welcome to Chicago: Rene Rivera thrown into the fire on his first day in Cubs' pennant race

Welcome to Chicago, Rene. Now grab your catcher’s gear and get out there.

Rene Rivera arrived at Wrigley Field for the first time as a Cub on Sunday, instantly learning that he was in the starting lineup for the final game of this weekend’s series finale against the Toronto Blue Jays. He’ll be catching a guy that was a Cy Young finalist last season. He’s smack dab in the middle of a pennant race as the defending world champs try to beat out the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals for a playoff spot.

A far cry from when he woke up the day before as a New York Met.

“The Mets, we knew they were going to do some moves there. I wasn’t surprised,” Rivera said Sunday. “Maybe the timing was surprising a bit.

“I’m here. I’ll play whenever I’m in the lineup. If not, I will cheer for my time. I’m happy to do any job, like I’ve been doing the last couple years. I’ll be enjoying my time, hopefully helping the team win in any way I can.”

Rivera has been playing big league ball since 2009, and the Cubs are his sixth major league team. He’s known for his defense and his ability to help out his pitchers, and he’s got eight homers already this season. The Cubs are happy to have him — and his veteran experience — as the time of year becomes increasingly more important.

And Rivera is happy to be here, too. Of course going from the Mets, 19 games out of first place in the National League East, to the first-place Cubs is a nice improvement in situation. But this is also the team his grandfather loved to watch. Rivera shared memories of his grandfather turning on the Cubs, hearing Harry Caray and Steve Stone and cheering on Sammy Sosa back in Puerto Rico.

“I was a kid, I think I was in middle school, maybe later than that. He used to watch the Cubs games down in Puerto Rico. I used to live with him,” Rivera said. “He loved Harry Caray and Steve Stone. I grew up watching the Cubs, so it’s an honor for me to be here. A team he loved so much and now I play for them.”

Time will tell how big a role Rivera will play in this battle for the NL Central crown. He’s essentially a third-string catcher, though that could take a long time to become official, depending on how long Willson Contreras remains on the disabled list.

So with Contreras, who when he went down was the Cubs’ hottest hitter, on the shelf, the team’s catching tandem is Alex Avila and Rivera, both added to this roster within the last few weeks.

While much of the Cubs’ starting staff is rolling right now — Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and even John Lackey have been strong over the past month or more — how will having two new catchers calling games affect the results?

Manager Joe Maddon said the fact that Avila and Rivera have been around — they have a combined 1,281 major league games under their belts — makes the transition a lot easier for everyone involved.

“The veteran part of it really permits acceptance more easily. But still there’s that learning curve involved with it. The other day when (Mike) Montgomery came in, I went over to Alex and explained Montgomery to Alex in detail as much as I could: what his better pitches are, what he does well in different situations, counts, all that. There’s no way Alex could know all that. I know that (Mike Borzello) and everybody have prepped him going into the moment, but he still can’t know all of that.

“The little nuance is going to take a couple times out there, whether it’s in the actual games, catching them in bullpens or just talking to them. That’s the disconnect. But the cache built up being a veteran player, being a very good veteran player with great reputations, both Alex and Rene, that definitely helps their cause.

“I talked to Rene, and he was pretty confident that he’s going to be fine with this whole thing. He’s been around a bit, it’s not his first rodeo. He's very comfortable already, I can just tell that conversationally.”

Rivera said he’s going to work with the other catchers already here to help get the lay of the land.

“When you’re a catcher, the biggest challenge is knowing your pitching staff,” he said. “And that’s one thing that I’m going to work hard at, getting to know everybody, getting the trust of everybody and go from there.

“Willson’s been here, he knows the pitching staff. And Alex has been here for a little bit. We’ll talk about it, try to find the comfort zone, try to call a good game.”

Well, his first crack at it couldn’t have come any quicker.