Cubs

Behind the scenes at Wrigley: A Giant comeback launched a new generation of Cubs

Behind the scenes at Wrigley: A Giant comeback launched a new generation of Cubs

The Cubs dreaded the idea of facing Johnny Cueto in an elimination game, with Madison Bumgarner lurking in the bullpen and all that anxiety creeping into Wrigley Field.

The San Francisco Giants seemingly had all the elements to turn a dream season into a nightmare – dominant pitchers, steady defenders, a lineup stacked with disciplined hitters and the deep reservoir of confidence from winning three World Series titles since 2010.

“We did not want to see Game 5,” manager Joe Maddon admitted at the winter meetings. “I thought facing Cueto in Game 5 would be the most difficult thing we had to do. I thought it was necessary that we won Game 4 in San Francisco to progress as well as we did. I was more focused on that win than anything else.”

More than 2,000 miles away from AT&T Park, Alex Suarez was a little distracted that night, sitting with his wife, Abby, at Prentice Women’s Hospital on Northwestern’s downtown medical campus, awaiting the birth of their first child.

The two first met while working for the Cubs. Suarez played at the University of Tennessee with future major-league players like Chase Headley, Luke Hochevar, Julio Borbon and J.P. Arencibia, starting out as an intern in baseball operations in 2008 and rising to be the assistant director of player development and international scouting.

Abby, who’s now the executive director of the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, had worked on the multilayered presentation to Jon Lester during his recruiting visit before Thanksgiving 2014, when Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer sold their vision of what the free agent could be on the field, in the clubhouse and in the community.

Lester, who beat lymphoma as a young pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, uses his platform to fundraise for pediatric cancer research. Even with that $155 million contract, he still had an antenna for negative feedback and how the team would be portrayed in the media, using it all as motivation.

“We got 103 wins,” Lester said, “but the Giants were supposed to beat us.”

That first-round series appeared headed toward a Lester vs. Cueto rematch as San Francisco lefty Matt Moore shut down the Cubs, allowing one earned run through eight innings and handing a 5-2 lead to a shaky bullpen that led the majors with 30 blown saves.

“We were watching the game,” Suarez recalled this week. “When things got serious in about the seventh inning, that’s when we realized: ‘Oh, wow, this baby is going to come quick.’ And then my focus shifted.

“At that point, in my head, I’m thinking: ‘OK, we got a game tomorrow. We’ll face Cueto.’ And my son probably would have been born sooner had my wife not wanted to wait in between outs to push.”

Suarez laughed over the phone: “She’ll probably kill me for saying that. But, yeah, I was focused on her. And she was watching the game.”

With his bilingual background and hybrid roles in international operations and the farm system, maybe Suarez should have seen this coming from the relentless lineup that mounted an epic comeback against five different San Francisco relievers.

Suarez helped expand the pipeline former Cubs executive Oneri Fleita started to build in Latin America. It produced the elite prospect (Gleyber Torres) surrendered in the Aroldis Chapman trade and the chest-pounding rookie catcher (Willson Contreras) who delivered the game-tying, two-run, pinch-hit single in the ninth inning.

Suarez’s father, Alex, owned the indoor hitting facility in Miami that the Cubs used as an offseason staging ground for some of their young hitters like Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora Jr. An under-control Baez knocked Hunter Strickland’s 99-mph fastball back up the middle for a 6-5 lead over the Giants.

When the Cubs needed a translator for the sensitive conference call in late July as a precondition for closing that blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees – to address a 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy – Suarez became a point man for chairman Tom Ricketts, Epstein, Hoyer, Chapman and agent Barry Praver.

Chapman unleashed 13 ninth-inning fastballs – all 99 mph or faster – to end the even-year myths about a Giants team that couldn’t land the superstar closer at the trade deadline. Future Hall of Fame manager Bruce Bochy told CSN Bay Area at the winter meetings: “I’m not going to lie. In all my years, that’s the toughest game I’ve ever had to bounce back (from).”

While a Giant comeback launched a new generation of Cubs, fueling optimism that ending 1908 would only be the beginning for the team that finally won the World Series.

“It had a lot to do with the fact that they had grown up in this organization,” Suarez said. “So from the day that they got here, they were exposed to the fact that: ‘Hey, it’s going to happen. And you’re going to be a part of this.’

“When Theo and Jed and Tom took over the team, as an employee, you got that sense: ‘Hey, these guys are pretty serious about winning.’ And even as an employee, you start believing it. You start saying ‘When It Happens’ and some of the mantras that we’ve used over the last five years.

“These guys mentally were (so) prepared, I think, by implementing certain things, such as a mental-skills department, and having these guys being able to visualize that moment and seeing themselves in that moment. It was almost like second nature to them.

“They were probably way less experienced (than those) ’07 and ’08 teams. (But) it was like a perfect mixture of veteran guys that knew how to handle our young guys and bring them back on track when they needed to.

“And the young guys that were confident – not arrogant, not cocky – confident in their abilities and the fact that they wanted to be a part of something special.

“Once we (got to the playoffs in 2015), you just saw a different focus. Like we’ve been there, we know what we have to do now. And I think Joe had a lot to do with that, in terms of harnessing that emotion and coming up with his own little ways of getting these guys to compete while having fun.

“(But) it all starts with the culture that was created at the top.”

Cub fans will reflect at Christmas time, remember this team and treasure their memories from the playoff whirlwind. Maybe they will think about the people who didn’t get to see it happen, or how they will someday explain to their children what it used to be like to be a Cub fan.

Daniel Jacob Suarez was born on the night of Oct. 11, 2016.

“It was crazy,” Suarez said. “We were in the labor-and-delivery room watching the game. And he was literally born while we were celebrating on the mound or (on the field).

“Obviously, this is probably the most amazing year I’ve ever been a part of professionally and personally. But if there was one word to describe it emotionally, it would be rollercoaster. No doubt.”

Beginning Thursday night, CSN Chicago will replay all 11 playoff wins, part of a programming block that will run through the day after Christmas, featuring sit-down interviews with Cubs personnel, a look back at the championship parade and Grant Park rally and fresh content on CSNChicago.com.

More stories from Behind the scenes at Wrigley

Behind the scenes at Wrigley: Cubs winning World Series hit longtime scout Sam Hughes 'like a tidal wave'

Joe Maddon goes after Sean Doolittle's delivery: ‘That's exactly what I was told Carl can't do’

Joe Maddon goes after Sean Doolittle's delivery: ‘That's exactly what I was told Carl can't do’

The Cubs finished Saturday's loss at the Nationals under protest after Joe Maddon saw what he believed to be an inconsistency in how illegal pitches are being called.

Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle came in to close the game out in the ninth with the Nats up 5-2. After one pitch, Maddon went to the umpires to complain. This dragged on throughout the inning.

Maddon didn't like that Doolittle's delivery involved him pausing and potentially even touching the ground in the middle of his wind up before coming home with the pitch. To Maddon, it was clearly an illegal pitch and he was fired up because that's something Carl Edwards Jr. got called for earlier in the season. By comparison, Edwards' version may be more deliberate, but Maddon thinks it is the same thing.

"That's exactly what I was told Carl can't do," Maddon said postgame in a video posted by ESPN's Jesse Rogers. "There's no judgment. If he taps the ground, it's an illegal pitch, period. There's nothing to judge. You can judge whether he did or not. It's obvious that he did, or if you can't tell that then there's something absolutely wrong."

Maddon and the Cubs protested the game as a result. If they win the protest, the game would be restarted with one out in the ninth, when Maddon notified the umpires of the protest.

Doolittle was less than amused by Maddon's protest.

"I have no qualms against Doolittle," Maddon said. "He's great, but they took it away from our guy so for me to sit in the dugout and permit that to happen while they stripped us of that ability earlier this year with Carl, how could I do that? You can't do that. I got to say something."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.

Jon Lester's hot streak comes to an end at Nationals

lester-518.jpg
USA TODAY

Jon Lester's hot streak comes to an end at Nationals

Jon Lester was on a heck of a run since coming off the IL in late April, but it came to a screeching halt on Saturday.

Lester had by far his worst start of the season at the Nationals in a 5-2 Cubs loss. He labored through his start, giving up five runs in 4 1/3 innings.

Lester gave up 10 hits, which matches the most he has given up since joining the Cubs. He gave up a fair number of hits in his last two starts, but was able to avoid trouble on the scoreboard. Lester gave up nine hits in 6 2/3 innings against the Brewers last time out, but only gave up an unearned run. On May 7, Lester gave up eight hits to the Marlins, but only allowed two unearned runs in six innings of work.

This time, Lester couldn’t stay out of trouble. Brian Dozier got the Nats on the board with a solo shot in the second and then the wheels came off in the third.

To open the third inning Lester gave up six straight hits. The Nats got three runs that inning and then added another in the fifth, when Lester departed the game.

Since Lester came off the IL on April 25, he had allowed just one earned run (four runs in total) in 24 2/3 innings. During that stretch, he had 25 strikeouts against just two walks. His ERA fell to 1.16, which would have led all of baseball if he had enough innings to qualify. It’s at 2.09 after Saturday’s loss.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.