Cubs get 'schooled' against the defending World Series champs


Cubs get 'schooled' against the defending World Series champs

SAN FRANCISCO — This is supposed to look and feel like a dress rehearsal for October, the Cubs trying to erase the San Francisco Giants from the wild-card picture and ride this momentum out of a one-game playoff.

So the Cubs wrote off Wednesday night’s 4-2 loss at AT&T Park as a learning experience, even as they slipped to 7 1/2 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the division and three games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for home-field advantage in a wild-card game.

“Our young guys are being schooled a bit,” manager Joe Maddon said afterward. “And I love it. It’s a good training ground for down the road this year.”

Maddon basically shrugged and looked at the big picture. This ended a streak where the Cubs had won six in a row and 21 of their previous 25 games. The Giants are still running 6 1/2 games behind the Cubs for the second wild card, though they could still get into the tournament by winning the National League West.

And no one should count out an organization with the talent, the nerve and the guts to win three World Series titles in five seasons.

“We have some really inexperienced people that are learning on the fly right now,” Maddon said. “So there’s nothing to be worried about or talk negatively about. We’re learning.”

[MORE CUBS: Starlin Castro believes this Cubs season has made him stronger]

Maddon pointed to Kyle Schwarber’s at-bat against Javier Lopez with runners on second and third and two outs in the seventh inning. Giants manager Bruce Bochy brought the veteran lefty in to face the rookie lefty. Lopez threw four fastballs clocked between 83 and 85 mph and struck Schwarber out swinging to end the threat and preserve a two-run lead.

“I just had to get him up in the zone,” Schwarber said. “I didn’t get him up in the zone. I was swinging at pitches down. (I) wasn’t taking very good swings at the pitches I want to. It goes back to me having to slow down the situation and not let that change the way I feel in the box.”

The Cubs might have been shut out if Jake Peavy and Buster Posey hadn’t got tangled up on Schwarber’s infield pop-up in the first inning. Posey, the franchise catcher, backed away while Peavy fell onto his back, not far from the pitcher’s mound. That allowed Schwarber, the unconventional leadoff guy, to hustle for a double and later score on Kris Bryant’s two-out, two-run single up the middle.

The Cubs are trying to hold onto their runaway-train feel and still have that regional Sports Illustrated cover. They at least look sturdy enough to make that morning’s Baseball Prospectus postseason odds (96.9 percent) hold up.

But like any contending team, the Cubs still have issues. The night before, Maddon sounded a little annoyed after having to use five relievers in a game where the Cubs had an eight-run lead and Jake Arrieta on the mound.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs go outside the box with Kyle Schwarber at leadoff]

At a time when Maddon likes to be aggressive with his bullpen, Kyle Hendricks buckled in the sixth inning against a San Francisco lineup missing Brandon Crawford, Hunter Pence, Joe Panik and Gregor Blanco.

The Giants broke open a 2-2 game when Brandon Belt lined a ball that flew past diving center fielder Chris Denorfia for a leadoff triple. Posey then blasted a ball into the right-center field gap for an RBI double. Kelby Tomlinson added another RBI double by driving another ball into the right-field corner.

Hendricks (6-6, 4.11 ERA) gave up two runs in the first inning, and two more in the sixth, finishing with six strikeouts against three walks.

“Kyle was still throwing the ball really well,” Maddon said. “And then you look at the options right there, and I thought he was the best option in that particular moment.

“He was still in pretty good shape, I thought. I didn’t see any like lack of or decline in his stuff.”

Up next is Madison Bumgarner, last year’s World Series MVP, on Thursday afternoon in San Francisco, followed by Clayton Kershaw, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, on Friday night at Dodger Stadium.

“We’re getting tested,” rookie shortstop Addison Russell said. “That’s what we came here (for).”

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

As the Cubs peruse over their list of managerial candidates, one name reportedly made a strong impression following his interview with the team.

According to NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan, Astros bench coach Joe Espada left the Cubs front office “exceptionally impressed” following his interview on Monday.

Espada, 44, has spent the last two seasons as Astros bench coach following three seasons as Yankees third base coach. He is one of MLB’s more sought after managerial candidates this winter and one of three known external candidates for the Cubs’ opening, along with Joe Girardi and Gabe Kapler.

Former Cubs catcher and current front office assistant David Ross has been the presumed front runner for the Cubs' opening. But based on Kaplan’s report, Espada clearly has given Epstein and Co. something to think about, which makes sense, considering Espada is coming from an innovative Astros organization.

Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference that there’s no timeline for the Cubs’ managerial search. However, MLB prefers teams to not make big announcements during the World Series, which kicks off on Oct. 22. Thus, the Cubs may not make an announcement for little while longer, though this is purely speculation.

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The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs


The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

If anybody thought the Cubs' 2019 season was a roller coaster, it was nothing compared to what Brad Wieck has gone through this year.

Wieck — the 6-foot-9 left-handed reliever — went from a cancer diagnosis to a Padres cast-off and wound up finishing the year carving through the heart of the Cardinals order in the eighth inning of a must-win game in late-September for the Cubs.

Wieck began 2019 with a testicular cancer diagnosis in January and underwent surgery shortly after. That left him playing catch-up all spring training, unable to lift, run or throw off a mound for a month after the surgery. He only ended up facing live hitters twice before the regular season started and was never able to recover with the Padres, putting up a 5.71 ERA in 34.2 MLB innings. 

Then the Cubs came calling.

While the rest of Cubdom was understandably occupied on Trade Deadline Day celebrating the Nick Castellanos move, Theo Epstein's front office made a smaller move with the San Diego Padres. And Wieck wasn't even the central focus of that trade, as more of the emphasis was on the departure of Carl Edwards Jr. — a polarizing figure in the Cubs bullpen the last few seasons, including throughout the 2016 World Series run.

Yet Epstein's front office didn't treat Wieck like a throw-in. From Day 1 with the organization, the Cubs handled the southpaw more like a first-round draft pick.

Right after the trade, Wieck was immediately assigned to Triple-A Iowa, where he made a pair of appearances against the Tacoma Rainiers. From there, he was invited to Chicago to meet with the Cubs front office and throw a bullpen off the Wrigley Field mound.

"So I got here and they had a whole presentation of what my current curveball looked like and what they would like the shape of it to look like and so we just started messing around with grip," Wieck said. "I went to a spike curveball grip and we got in the lab and we started throwing it more and we came up with consistent break of what we thought was gonna be a better break than the curveball that I had.

"Just trial and error, honestly. We just looked at Rapsodo stuff and saw what spin efficiency is doing and spin rate and trying to get my curveball spin to replicate the exact opposite of my fastball. That's what our goal was."

That led to a trip to the "Pitch Lab" in Arizona where Wieck worked with Josh Zeid, the Cubs' pitching analyst, to continue to mess around with the new curveball grip and add a new, consistent weapon to his arsenal. 

If the term "spike curveball" sounds familiar, it should. It's become the unofficial pitch of the Cubs (you know, if organizations defined themselves by just one pitch). Rowan Wick — Wieck's former roommate in the Padres system — broke out as a trusted big-league reliever in large part because of the emergence of his spike curve. Craig Kimbrel throws one and also taught the pitch to Yu Darvish, who added it to the plethora of options already at his disposal. 

Wieck's time in Arizona was about getting comfortable with the new pitch and not worrying about facing hitters or pitching in a game. After a couple weeks in the desert, the Cubs threw him back out on the mound in Iowa, where he made four appearances before getting the call to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September. 

Right off the bat, we got a look at that spike curve and there is no doubt it can play at Wrigley Field, especially when the shadows roll in:

Just like that, a new weapon was born and Wieck developed more confidence in that reshaped curveball.

"I like that they're forcing me to throw it more because I've been a fastball-heavy pitcher my whole life," Wieck said. "I trust my fastball with my life. To have a catcher get back there and make you throw it, that's really good."

The Cubs' confidence in Wieck also grew as the month went on. He emerged alongside his buddy Wick as vital pieces of the late-season bullpen while Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler dealt with injuries. It got to the point where Joe Maddon kept Wieck in to face the Cardinals' big boppers (Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — both right-handed hitters) with a 1-run lead in the eighth inning on that final homestand. We all know how that game ended (Kimbrel served up homers on back-to-back pitches for another gut-wrenching Cubs loss), but Wieck did his job and proved he's far more than just a lefty specialist.

This fall was the first time Wieck had been a part of a playoff push and that outing against the Cardinals was only the 46th MLB appearance of his young career. Moving into 2020, the 28-year-old southpaw looks to be one of only a few arms penciled into the Cubs bullpen. 

The Cubs had their eyes on Wieck for a while before they were able to trade for him and they don't plan on rolling out a big presentation for each acquisition or ask every new arm to start throwing a brand new pitch or completely remake one of their existing pitches. This was a unique situation, but it's one that already paid dividends in a short period of time and could help set up the bullpen for the future. 

It's also another indicator that the "Pitch Lab" can work, as Wieck joins Wick and Kyle Ryan as products of the Cubs' new model they hope to fine-tune and grow. Epstein will hire a director of pitching for the organization this winter and the Cubs are hoping to change the narrative surrounding their shocking lack of pitching development under this front office. 

In Wieck's case, it was a group effort from the Cubs — the front office, research and development department, big-league coaching staff (led by pitching coach Tommy Hottovy), the pitching analytics unit based in Arizona and minor league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara all teamed up to make it happen for the tall lefty in only a month's time.

It's a model the organization will attempt to duplicate moving forward, beginning this winter.