Cubs

Cubs counting on Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant to start producing in playoffs

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Cubs counting on Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant to start producing in playoffs

The Cubs aren’t lucky to be here, not after winning 97 games and surviving baseball’s toughest division. Jake Arrieta turned into Bob Gibson, Kyle Schwarber launched that ball out of PNC Park and a mad-scientist manager kept selecting the right answers for a multiple-choice team.

Raise your hand if you saw Joe Maddon trusting Trevor Cahill (7.52 ERA with the Atlanta Braves) in the eighth inning of a postseason game when he signed a minor-league deal this summer.

But the Cubs are probably fortunate to be in this position — hosting their first home playoff game since 2008 and tied up with the St. Louis Cardinals in this National League division series — without Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant doing any damage.

“We’re looking for them,” Maddon said. “That’s 200 ribeyes between the two of them. That’s really important.”

[MORE: Jake Arrieta emerges as October star and gets locked in for Cubs-Cardinals]

The Cubs can’t play small ball all the way through October. Rizzo and Bryant will have to produce, starting with Monday’s Game 3 at Wrigley Field in what’s become a best-of-three grudge match.

Together, Rizzo and Bryant generated 57 homers, 69 doubles, 200 RBI and 155 walks during the regular season. Combined, the two All-Stars have gone 0-for-21 with eight strikeouts through three postseason games.  

“We’re probably out of our zones a little bit,” Maddon said. “We’re probably playing to what they want us to swing at more than we’re swinging at what we want to swing at.

“To me, it’s expansion of zone, and we’re just not adjusting back to what they’re doing yet. That’s it. Also, I think, to a certain extent they’ve been pressing just a little bit.”

Bryant grounded into seven double plays during 151 regular-season games — and has already done that twice during the playoffs. For what it’s worth, the game’s best rookie has been a far more dangerous hitter at Wrigley Field (21 homers, 1.037 OPS) than on the road (five homers, .693 OPS).

“I’ve hit some balls really hard — just at people,” Bryant said. “In the playoffs, it’s definitely more pitcher-oriented. You always see the pitcher duels. But as an individual, that stuff’s all thrown out the door right now. I could care less if I strike out four times, as long as I’m helping the team win in any way possible. Then I’m doing my job — and that’s our mindset right now.”

[NBC SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

Bryant can beat teams in other ways, deflecting a line drive at third base and making a nifty catch during that wild-card victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. He can handle all three spots in the outfield and runs the bases as well as anyone on the team.

“I have all the confidence in the world,” Maddon said. “We’re facing good pitching. That’s what happens in the playoffs. You see good pitchers on a daily basis. We just have to make our adjustments.

“I have a lot of faith in these guys. I don’t feel they’re fatigued. I feel they’re ready to roll. They’re definitely in the moment.”

And the Cubs couldn’t play so loose and with such confidence without Rizzo’s MVP-level production at first base, clubhouse DJ spinning and we’re-winning-the-division swagger.   

“We have a lot to prove,” Rizzo said. “We haven't proven anything yet. We are young. We have a lot of talent. But we have to go out there and take it.”

Glanville: Ready or not, play ball

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Ready or not, play ball

As my career wound down in Major League Baseball, I found myself caddying a lot. Caddying is just what it sounds like, coming in as needed, helping the talent of the future as a mentor or advisor. It also meant that when you do get the chance to start, you may be facing tough assignments that are spaced out inconveniently for you.

As I did in 2004, I faced some tough pitchers often to protect the next generation centerfielder in Marlon Byrd in Philly. I faced a Rolodex of Cy Young award winners that year (Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine, and others) or All-Stars (Brad Radke and so on), and the other starters were reserved for the young buck.

That was then, but how to be ready with so many unknowns is still an important lesson about being prepared for anything that can come at you. And in baseball, anything will come at you.

Like many players who arrive to the big leagues, they have had a lifetime of being every day players. High school, college stars, or even minor league stars, who were always in the lineup. Then, as the air gets thinner, so does the opportunity to be a starter and the more you may learn about life coming off of the bench.

Addison Russell had a surprise entry into the Cubs-Cardinals game the other day after teammate Javier Baez took a pitch off of the elbow. In theory, it was supposed to be Russell’s “day off” so when he made an error in the field, speculation arose from announcer Alex Rodriguez that he may not have been fully prepared. The implication was that he had shut off his mind to enjoy his day off, and was caught off guard.

Only Russell knows how he felt, but after I spent a career in the National League as perennial starter and bench player, there is no such thing as a day off, especially in a lineup under Joe Maddon, which has emphasis on versatility, flexibility and open-mindedness.

If you are on the bench to start a game, there is an understanding that you may get in the game. At least there should be unless, and this has happened to me, the manager tells you that under no circumstance will you be called in the game. Even then, in the back of my mind, should the game go 15 innings, I could hardly be surprised if a promise may have to be broken.

One time, Phillies manager Terry Francona gave me a day off during a season where I ended up playing in 158 games and leading the NL in at bats. He said to me “it looks like the bat is swinging you.” We were out of it in September, so he could sit me and keep me on the bench. The Cubs do not have the luxury of handing out day spa packages, they are in the race, in fact, many days, they are getting chased.

I only played one partial season in the American League and this was with Texas as Alex’s teammate. After years of National League life, the AL was another planet. Players came off the bench only in matchup situations, the rare pinch run or pinch hit, and maybe for defense (other than road interleague play.). The AL does not have the built in bench call because in the NL, the pitcher hits, a circumstance which opens up many ways you can get in the game.

Like Alex, I was spoiled on years of being a starter, so it did take a little time to know how to get ready for the chance you may come in the game. He was a DH later in his career, so he knew when he was hitting, so he could get loose with a plan. If you don’t have that advantage, usually around the fourth inning or some inning before the pitcher is batting, I would start warming up. Some parks are easier than others to do that. Stretch, hit off of the tee, jog somewhere. And you will have to repeat this each inning you are not used, just in case.

What really bites into your preparation is when something happens very early in the game. This is when you could not get into a stretching routine to be ready because of the timing (Baez injury happened in the 3rd) or you could have skipped your typical pre-game warm up to bask in your day off. Sure, being a pro means being ready but being thrust in a game is still pretty jarring.

Then when you age in the game, you don’t have the bandwidth to be stiff on the bench or you may not ever get loose, so you are (or should be) constantly warming up. I learned a lot as a young player watching veterans like Shawon Dunston, Lenny Harris, and others who came off the bench ready to go. We were all a quick turn away from a pulled muscle.

Baseball is a stop and go sport, outside of the elements of surprise of in game injuries or wild substations, you may get hit by weather like the Cubs experienced last night. When is the tarp coming off? Warm up, sit down, warm up, sit down. It is not the best way to be loose, especially when you are 34, but it is always part of any sport that plays outdoors. You have to put the built-in excuses out of your head because there is a role player performing well despite the obstacles.

As an every day player, you often get out of touch with the reality of coming off of the bench and having to perform. It is challenging for any player to come off the bench no matter what the circumstance, which is what makes pinch hitter extraordinaire, Tommy La Stella, an incredible asset. It is one thing to be loose, it is another to hit a guy throwing a 96 mph sinker.

Baseball is a tough game because it depends so much on rhythm while everything is trying to disrupt it. Errors happen, no matter what, even when you are prepared and at your best. And it is ok to recognize that you may not really be loose, which is a natural occurrence over 162 games. You can’t be totally limber every day after long flights and split doubleheader’s while the body is just being the body. Sometimes you are productive playing through it, some times, you are not.

Yet there are a whole host of players who make a career out of their instant utility. Productive players who are not afforded advanced notice all of the time. Every year, these players help win championships (see David Ross.) Coming cold off the bench, going into games when the starter’s hamstring tightens up. Facing closers who throw 100 mph. Pinch running with a tight hamstring. It happens every single day on every single team. They are as important to winning as having an MVP in Kris Bryant, or a brilliant veteran, like Jon Lester.

So let’s take this opportunity to appreciate these players more instead of only noticing them when a starter has to do what these bench players have always done. Being ready on call.

Cubs in a tight spot with their pitching staff the rest of this week

Cubs in a tight spot with their pitching staff the rest of this week

Well, we got a look at what life is like without Brandon Morrow.

The Cubs closer and the anchor of the bullpen all season was unavailable for the first game of Tuesday's day-night doubleheader due to back tightness, leading to Justin Wilson taking on closing duties in the ninth inning.

The end result was a 4-3 Dodgers win as they rallied for a pair of runs off Wilson on Kyle Farmer's pinch-hit, 2-run, 2-strike, 2-out double just past the glove of a diving Kris Bryant.

Joe Maddon said he obviously would've planned on using Morrow for the ninth inning if the Cubs closer was healthy but due to the back tightness suffered early Monday morning, Morrow is down for both games of the doubleheader (assuming the night game isn't also rained out).

That leaves the Cubs pitching staff in an even tighter spot than they already were as they're currently in a stretch of 14 games in 13 days thanks to Monday's rain/light-out.

Let's start with the bullpen, which will be "raggedy" for Game 2, to quote Maddon, who admitted starter Mike Montgomery would have to be ready to go deep into the game.

Tyler Chatwood was only able to account for 5 innings in Game 1, leaving Steve Cishek to throw 14 pitches, Randy Rosario to throw 10 pitches and Pedro Strop 29 pitches before Wilson tossed 27 in the final frame.

That probably means Strop and Wilson are down for the rest of Tuesday and may make it a bit of a toss-up for either guy's availability Wednesday even with the surprise off-day Monday.

Cishek and Rosario should be able to throw Wednesday for sure and may be able to go in a limited capacity in Game 2 Tuesday.

That leaves Luke Farrell, Anthony Bass, Rob Zastryzny and Justin Hancock as the guys that are completely fresh at the moment. Hancock is up from the minors as the 26th man for the doubleheader and Zastryzny replaced Brian Duensing for this week while the veteran went on the bereavement list.

Without Morrow and with a loss already under the belt to open the Dodgers series, the Cubs bullpen is in a bad way and no scheduled off-day until July 2.

The starting rotation is in a bind, too, as now they'll need a starter for Saturday's game in Cincinnati assuming there are no more rainouts along the way.

With Chatwood's start pushed back to Tuesday instead of Monday, the Cubs now need an extra guy in the rotation.

The Cubs' probable starters for the rest of the week: Jon Lester (Wednesday), Kyle Hendricks (Thursday), Jose Quintana (Friday) and then a question mark Saturday before Chatwood would be ready to throw again on Sunday.

One option could be a "bullpen day" for the Cubs, but given how much they'll need to lean on that unit with the doubleheader and no off-days this week, that seems like a risky option.

The Cubs could also call somebody else up from Triple-A, but the options, such as Jen-Ho Tseng, Alec Mills or Duane Underwood Jr.

Tseng has an ugly 8.21 ERA and 1.79 WHIP in the minors this year and gave up 3 runs on 4 hits in 2 innings in a spot start earlier this season.

Mills has limited big-league experience and had been pretty solid for a while with Iowa, going 3-3 with a 3.39 ERA averaging nearly 6 innings an outing over a 10-start span from late-April to early-June. But he got shelled his last time out (6 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks in 2.2 innings on June 17).

Underwood — the Cubs' second-round pick in 2012 — also had a really nice stretch with Iowa for a while (3.08 ERA over 9 starts from April 14 to May 28), but has regressed in June (14 runs on 18 hits and 7 walks in 13.1 innings).

Either way, this is a really tough stretch for a Cubs team that was just beginning to find its groove and get on a roll.