Cubs

Before and after: What a difference for red-hot Cubs at Wrigley Field

Before and after: What a difference for red-hot Cubs at Wrigley Field

Wrigley Field started shaking again once Addison Russell connected on a 95-mph Jumbo Diaz fastball, watching it take flight and disappear into the bleachers in left-center. 

It felt that way last October, when the Cubs eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals from the playoffs, and that atmosphere left the crowd of 40,882 wanting more late Monday night. Russell emerged from the dugout, raised his blue helmet and twirled around for the curtain call in the eighth inning after that go-ahead three-run homer.

With one quick swing from Russell — the 22-year-old shortstop who can dance like Michael Jackson — the Cubs could christen the Celebration Room in their tricked-out new clubhouse.

“I knew it was gone,” Russell said after a 5-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds. “I normally don’t pimp home runs. But Opening Night, we’re down, the occasion called for it.”

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What a before-and-after snapshot of this franchise, the comparisons between a locker room that would have felt cramped and out of date for a high school team. Or the ballpark where overhyped prospects used to get buried. Or the stadium operations that became a national joke when enough toilets didn’t work on Opening Night last year.

Amid a $600 million construction project and the hum of a scouting-and-player-development machine, Wrigley Field is becoming a place that works and the Cubs have morphed into a team that expects to win every night. Even when Brandon Finnegan takes a no-hitter into the seventh inning.

“You’re trying to believe in those promises,” said Jon Lester, who got a quality start no-decision and looks visibly more comfortable in the second season of a six-year, $155 million megadeal. “It was just really trying to listen and believe in the upside of all these guys that have never played in the big leagues.”

Lester knew Cubs executives Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod from their time together with the Boston Red Sox and had to take the leap of faith Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and John Lackey didn’t in joining an instant contender.

“I believed Theo,” Lester said. “To get where we were last year — to get to 97 wins — I think kind of panicked Theo a little bit. I don’t think he really expected that.

“But to give those guys a winning season — and get to the playoffs and get that experience under their belt — (has) relaxed these guys a little bit and allowed them to just go out and play baseball.

“They know how to deal with the expectations now. It’s just about going out and performing.”

[MORE: Late Cubs fireworks turn one-time no-hitter to wild comeback win]

At this time last year, Russell and eventual National League Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant hadn’t made their big-league debuts yet, meaning they won’t become free agents until after the 2021 season, the same time frame the Cubs have All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo under club control.

Even the layout of the room — with blue mood lighting next to wood-paneled lockers and a Cubbie logo on the ceiling — symbolizes this youth movement.

“Being a circle unites teammates, creates a sense of equality,” Epstein said. “There’s no premium locker that’s greater than anyone else’s. There’s no corners to hide in. Everyone’s equal.”

Where the Cubs used to drop a net from the ceiling to help get pinch-hitters ready in the middle of a game, they now have a batting cage, The Jake Arrieta Pilates Room, a hyperbaric chamber, infrared/steam saunas, a lunch room stocked with organic food and an NFL-style tunnel leading them onto the field.

The end goal isn’t winning the clubhouse arms race and being 6-1 during the second week of the season. But a franchise that used to talk a good game is seeing actual results. Wrigleyville will keep rocking.

“The clubhouse fits our identity,” Epstein said. “We believe in young players and the clubhouse has kind of a young, energetic, fun feel to it. But it also has everything that you would ever need to improve yourself. That supports the growth mindset that we try to have for our players.

“Every new device under the sun is in there. You want to try to have the best facilities to go along with the best team, which is obviously what we’re trying to build. And there’s only one way you get there. It’s by proving it on the field.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Ryne Sandberg: Part 1

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Ryne Sandberg: Part 1

Luke Stuckmeyer sits down with Cubs legend Ryne Sandberg for a wide-ranging conversation centered around the infamous "Sandberg Game."

Ryne gives insight into his feelings upon being traded to the Cubs (2:00), and discusses the reason he ended up with the No. 23 (5:00). Plus, how the 1984 season changed everything and raised his personal expectations sky-high (9:00) and the "Daily Double" dynamic between him and Bob Dernier (16:00).

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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'He belongs here': What to expect from top prospect Adbert Alzolay's first major league start

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USA Today

'He belongs here': What to expect from top prospect Adbert Alzolay's first major league start

A big part of the Cubs’ MO during the Epstein Era has been the team’s reliance on veteran pitchers. Whether it’s Jon Lester’s cutter, Cole Hamels’ changeup, or Jose Quintana’s sinker, it’s been a while since other teams have had to step into the box against a Cubs starter without much of a scouting report. On the surface, uncertainty from a starting pitcher may sound like a bad thing, but it’s that same apprehension that makes Cubs’ prospect Adbert Alzolay’s first major league start so exciting. 

“There’s energy when you know the guy’s good,” Joe Maddon said before Tuesday’s game. “There’s absolutely energy to be derived. But there’s also curiosity. Let’s see if this is real or not. I think he answered that call.” 

The good news for Alzolay and the Cubs is that much of the usual baggage that comes with one’s first major league start is already out of the way. All of the milestones that can get into a young pitchers head -- first strikeout, first hit, first home run allowed, etc -- took place during Alzolay’s four-inning relief appearance back against the Mets on June 20th. 

“I want to believe that that would help,” Maddon added. “It was probably one of the best ways you could break in someone like that. We had just the ability to do it because of the way our pitching was set up, and I think going into tonight’s game, there’s less unknown for him.”

It also helps that Alzolay will have fellow Venezuelan countryman Willson Contreras behind the plate calling his first game. There’s even a sense of novelty from Contreras’ end too. 

“[Catching someone’s debut] is really fun for me,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s a big challenge for me today. I’m looking forward to it. I’m really proud of Alzolay, and I know where he comes from - I know him from Venezuela. It’s going to be fun.”

Tuesday's plan for Alzolay doesn’t involve a specific innings limit. Maddon plans to let the rookie go as long as he can before he “gets extended, or comes out of his delivery,” as the manager put it. On the mound, he’s a flyball pitcher with good control that works quickly. Expect to see a healthy dosage of 4-seamers that sit in the mid-90’s alongside a curveball and changeup that have both seen improvements this year. 

Against the Mets, it was his changeup was the most effective strikeout pitch he had going, with three of his five K’s coming that way. It’s typically not considered his best offspeed offering, but as Theo Epstein put it on Monday afternoon, “[Alzolay] was probably too amped and throwing right through the break,” of his curveball that day.  

It’s obviously good news for the Cubs if he continues to flash three plus pitches, long the barometer of a major league starter versus a bullpen guy. Even if he doesn’t quite have the feel for all three yet, it’s his beyond-the-years demeanor that has those within the organization raving. 

“The confidence he showed during his first time on the mound, as a young pitcher, that’s a lot,” Contreras said. “That’s who he can be, and the command that he has of his pitches is good, especially when he’s able to go to his third pitch.”