Cubs

Better than advertised: Where Cubs stand on Memorial Day weekend

Better than advertised: Where Cubs stand on Memorial Day weekend

John Lackey gave one of his dismissive chuckles toward the end of spring training, when asked about the daily pressure of playing for an uber-team/cautionary tale like the 2011 Boston Red Sox and how these Cubs would respond to all the hype.

“I don’t believe in pressure in April and May – I’ve been in October about 10 times, man,” Lackey said. “We got too much talent for those things to not just handle themselves. Joe’s not going to allow any of that to get in here.

“Joe runs a really laid-back clubhouse, but (it’s) business-like on the field. It’s a great mix. If you can’t play for him, you can’t play for anybody.”

Joe Maddon, of course, helped design those “Embrace The Target” T-shirts that literally put bulls-eyes across their chests. And Theo Epstein’s front office purposefully signed veterans with championship experience, whether it’s a big-game pitcher like Lackey or an October-tested hitter like Ben Zobrist.

So far, the 2016 Cubs have actually been better than advertised. After the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend – a traditional mile marker along the 162-game season – this team had the best record in baseball (33-14) and the perception of being a lock for the playoffs. At least according to the projections on Baseball Prospectus (98.3 percent) and FanGraphs (98.9 percent).

• Zobrist remembered how Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays had almost no margin for error while competing in the brutal American League East and dealing with the financial realities of a small-market team. Those experiences of furiously trying to play catch-up brought a sense of urgency to the Cubs.

“I knew the number in my head for April,” Zobrist said. “I know how important it is to get off to a good start, because we had some great teams in Tampa Bay, and if we didn’t get off to a good start, we found ourselves trying to come back the whole rest of the year.

“My number that I was looking at in April is 17. That was the Cubs’ record for wins in April. (I thought): ‘We need to get there. We need to shoot for that.’ We had a shot to get 18, but we got rained out the last day of April. That, to me, said: ‘OK, we’re on the right path.’

“But you got to keep focusing on today, because the moment you start thinking about how great we’ve played is the moment that we stop focusing on what we need to keep doing.”

• If momentum is all about starting pitching, the Cubs have a rotation that leads the majors in ERA (2.56) and has gone 32-for-46 in quality starts. After Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks each remarkably made 30-plus starts last year, the Cubs have relied on that quartet plus Lackey to make every start so far this season.  

“We want to be that backbone,” Hammel said. “I want to be the guy who hands the baton to the next guy. And we have five guys who can do that. Just keep rolling with it.”

It figures to be a weaker market for pitching when trade talks start to accelerate after the June amateur draft, but arms have to be the priority for a franchise so heavily invested in hitters.

Still, as an overall staff, the Cubs lead the majors in batting average against (.205) and opponents’ OPS (.601). And the No. 2 teams in those categories – the Los Angeles Dodgers (.218) and Washington Nationals (.634) – aren’t even that close. Same with the plus-123 run differential – the Red Sox are second in the majors at plus-70.

• It’s been years in the making, but the Cubs finally have one of those Boston-style lineups, leading the big leagues in walks (piling up 223 before any other team crossed the 200-mark), getting on base almost 36 percent of the time and waiting for the weather to heat up this summer at Wrigley Field.

“We have guys that have that chip built in,” Maddon said. “It’s so hard to teach what our guys do, meaning that they are able to look over a pitch. They have this great decision-making (process) at home plate.

“Everybody wants that, but not everybody has that. So most of the time, you either have to draft it or buy it. To just attempt to nurture that through the minor leagues is very, very hard to do.

“Having said that, Addison (Russell) has made great strides because he’s surrounded by it so much (with) all these other guys in the lineup. Addison, just through observation, sees these other guys doing it and he’s much better at not expanding his strike zone.

“For years, everybody’s been clamoring for hitters (who) don’t give in. (But) it’s just a mindset. It’s just who you are. It’s hard to teach. You normally come equipped with it. I don’t know where it begins. But you look at our guys – Dexter (Fowler’s) had it built in. Jason (Heyward’s) had it built in. ‘KB’ (Kris Bryant) – it’s there. (Anthony) Rizzo’s always had it. ‘Zo’s’ always had it, from ever since I’ve seen him.

“A lot of these guys have had that chip. That’s part of their standard equipment.”

• The Cubs are 9-3 combined this season against the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals, two teams that together won 198 games last year. That’s helped the Cubs build leads over the Pirates (4.5 games) and Cardinals (8.5 games) in the National League Central.

The Cubs swept a four-game series against the Nationals in early May at Wrigley Field, walking Bryce Harper 13 times in what felt like a possible playoff preview.

The Cubs have also lost series to the Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers, the types of teams that Maddon had in mind when he created the “Embrace The Target” campaign. 

“What we have to get better at as a team is really finishing off some of the teams that probably aren’t as competitive,” general manager Jed Hoyer said, “and making sure you sweep some of those series and really win two out of three, because they count the same as the games against the Cardinals at the end of the year.”

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.