Clinch party will move to Wrigley after Cardinals beat Cubs: 'It's inevitable'

Clinch party will move to Wrigley after Cardinals beat Cubs: 'It's inevitable'

ST. LOUIS — This ended the media-driven hypothetical question about whether the Cubs and their fans would rather see the team clinch in front of their rivals — and force the St. Louis Cardinals to watch part of the celebration and clean up the clubhouse mess afterward — or end the division race at Wrigley Field.

“I don’t think (anyone) cares,” outfielder Dexter Fowler said after Tuesday night’s 4-2 loss at Busch Stadium. “It’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when.”

The magic number is still stuck at three, meaning the eventual party will now shift to Wrigleyville, where the earliest the Cubs could wrap up a National League Central title would be Thursday night against the Milwaukee Brewers.

Assuming Jon Lester — the big-game pitcher the Cubs invested $155 million in, selling the lefty on the idea he could be on the mound for a historic World Series win — beats the Cardinals on Wednesday afternoon at the end of this three-city road trip.

“I don’t want this to sound bad, but we haven’t done anything yet,” Lester said. “The Cardinals won 100 games last year. No matter what you do during the season — it’s nice, it’s fun, it’s the process and you go through it — but what matters here is another month. That’s where we put our handprint on a season and (show) what this team really is capable of doing.

“We’re having a great time. We’re playing really good baseball. But what this team is going to be remembered for is next month.”

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This initially looked like last year’s playoffs, the Cubs knocking out Jaime Garcia with the Cardinals already down 2-0 and the bases loaded in the second inning. But Alex Reyes — Baseball America’s No. 7 overall prospect entering this season — bailed out Garcia by striking out Kris Bryant swinging to end the threat.

Reyes — an effectively wild and supremely talented rookie — allowed only one hit while giving up six walks across 4 1/3 scoreless innings. Overall, the Cubs (92-52) wasted Fowler’s leadoff home run to begin the game, going 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position and leaving 10 men on base.

The Cardinals (76-68) are still battling for a wild-card spot. Jason Hammel (14-9, 3.60 ERA) held a powerful lineup in check for stretches (nine strikeouts), but got burned with two pitches. Aledmys Diaz answered with a momentum-shifting, two-run homer into the left-field seats in the second inning. And Brandon Moss launched the go-ahead, two-run homer over the right-field wall with two outs in the sixth inning.

“Yeah, we had our opportunities,” Hammel said, “but the game is not going to wait up and give you any breaks. Move on to tomorrow.”

There is just enough institutional memory and bad blood between these two franchises — and general Cardinal Way fatigue and embrace-the-target resentment toward the Cubs around baseball — that it would have been interesting to see what a clinch party would have looked like with the Gateway Arch as the backdrop.

“For the guys that were around when they were getting beat up all those years,” second baseman Ben Zobrist said, “it probably means a lot to be (this close to clinching) against this team in St. Louis.

“For those of us that are new to the team, it’s still just (the idea) you have to take care of business in your division to be able to win the division. Yeah, it would be nice, but I think if we do it at home, that would be nice, too.”

Fowler shrugged his way through a short postgame interview at his locker and said: “It’s inevitable at this point.”

Mike Montgomery nearing a return after minor shoulder injury

Mike Montgomery nearing a return after minor shoulder injury

MESA, Ariz. - We haven't seen Mike Montgomery throw off a mound yet this spring, but that should be coming very soon.

The veteran southpaw was dealing with some shoulder stiffness at the start of camp and was slightly delayed because of that.

But Montgomery has been throwing on flat ground of late, including another session Wednesday that went well.

He said his arm feels "perfect" after the recent work and the plan from here is to throw a bullpen off the mound Friday. The Cubs will want him to go through a couple sessions on the mound and then a couple live bullpens against hitters before getting into a game, so Montgomery is behind schedule this spring, but not by much.

The 29-year-old said he initially felt the shoulder stiffness a couple weeks ago during a throwing session on his own. He said it wasn't a big deal and normally would've powered through it, but felt no need to push it before spring training even began.

It was just a matter of trying to do too much too soon, Montgomery said. He was excited and wanted to keep throwing because he loved the feel he had snapping off his curveball right at that moment, so wanted to keep getting more reps the same way hitters want to take swing after swing.

"This isn't like basketball, where you can take 1,000 shots in a row if you wanted to," Montgomery said.

The swingman is entering his fourth season in a Cubs uniform and is being counted on as a valuable piece of the pitching staff. He gave the Cubs a huge boost in the middle of last season, joining the rotation when Yu Darvish went down to injury.

Montgomery wound up making 19 starts and 19 relief appearances last year and was projected to start the season as the long guy in the bullpen and next man up in the rotation if injuries strike.


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Javy Baez is going to make sure the Cubs learned their lesson last fall

Javy Baez is going to make sure the Cubs learned their lesson last fall

MESA, Ariz. — Javy Baez has a way of holding his teammates accountable without throwing anybody under the bus.

That's because he's always internalizing it, pointing the thumb first and then the finger.

2018 will go down as Baez's true breakout, finishing second in National League MVP voting and almost singlehandedly keeping the Cubs afloat at various times during a trying season.

But he wasn't only successful on the field. Baez is also finding a way to lead the Cubs — both by example and with his words.

After the Cubs were stunned by the Rockies at Wrigley Field for the NL Wild Card-Game last fall, Baez stood at his locker and held court for a half-hour, passionately discussing how the team needed a better sense of urgency from Day 1. He made similar comments before the game, showing a little fire when talking about how the Cubs need to stop worrying about anything outside the clubhouse and just focus on what they do.

Long before Theo Epstein or Joe Maddon talked about "urgency" and "edge," it was Baez's voice that echoed through the Cubs locker room. And he backed it up with his play all year long, including driving in the Cubs' only run in that lone playoff game.

"After the season was over, after the last game, we started saying what we were missing," Baez said Tuesday at Cubs spring camp. "It kinda bothered me because that's what this game is — to make adjustments and get better.

"We waited for the season to be over to look at it and to try to make adjustments when there was no tomorrow. I think this offseason, we had a lot of time to think about it to see how we're gonna react this year."

And how will they react? How will Baez make sure the Cubs learned their lesson last fall?

He knows he can't do it alone.

"I think it's the little things," Baez said. "Last year, one example — I didn't run full speed to first base. I used to get back to the dugout and nobody would say anything. This year, I'm sure if I don't do it, someone hopefully would say something. It's not to show you up, it's to make our team better."

It's a brand new year, and Baez looms as probably the biggest X-factor on the Cubs. If he can build on last year's MVP-level season, the Cubs are in a fantastic spot with regards to their lineup as Kris Bryant is back healthy and the other young hitters are potentially taking a step forward after refocusing and making adjustments over the winter.

Baez is emerging as a vocal leader and he certainly has the skillset and talent to back up his words.

But will he be able to duplicate his 2018 numbers or even expand upon them? Even as he led the league in RBI while hitting 34 homers, scoring 101 runs, stealing 21 bases and posting a .290/.326/.554 slash line, Baez still has plenty of room for development.

For starters, he has work to do on his plate discipline and he knows that. 

"I'm just trying to get more walks," he said. "Obviously people are talking about my walks and strikeouts. It's only gonna make me better if I walk more and see the ball better.

"Obviously I hope [to maintain that MVP level]. I'm trying to have a better year than last year."

Over the last two seasons, Baez has walked only 59 times vs. 311 strikeouts. And of those 59 free passes, 23 were intentional, which means the star infielder's "natural" walk rate is only 3.19 percent in that span. For perspective, the worst walk rate in the big leagues since the start of 2017 is Dee Gordon with 2.7 percent. No other qualified hitter had a walk rate lower than 3.3 percent.

Joe Maddon always says whenever Baez figures out how to organize the strike zone better, he can turn into Manny Ramirez as a hitter

But even beyond that, 2018 was a great learning season for the 26-year-old. He now has a better understanding on how to keep from wearing down at the end of a long season and came into camp looking even stronger.

"I kinda did get a little tired because a lot had to do with running the bases — I was trying to get 30 [stolen] bases and in the first half, other teams started spreading word about me on the bases," Baez said.

"I was kinda working a little bit more and I had a little bit of pressure on me. I was trying to do too much in the last month. Just trying to make an adjustment on that."