Cubs

Cubs: Jason Motte thriving with the pressure back on

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Cubs: Jason Motte thriving with the pressure back on

Jason Motte thrives in the sort of scenario Pedro Strop faced Wednesday night: A one-run lead, the game on the line and a packed crowd of nearly 38,000 on its feet ready to erupt for a win over a heated rival.

The Cubs didn’t have Motte available to preserve a 5-4 ninth inning lead after the 33-year-old right-hander pitched both games of Tuesday’s doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals. So manager Joe Maddon turned to Strop, who blew the game when Jhonny Peralta ripped a 1-2 fastball into the left field basket for a go-ahead two-run home run.

While Motte isn’t the Cubs’ official closer, it was a spot he likely would’ve found himself in had he not pitched in those two games the day before.

Motte is three years removed from leading the National League with 42 saves for a Cardinals team that lost the NLCS to the San Francisco Giants in seven games. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2013 and is finally finding the success he enjoyed a few years ago, though it’s not because he’s cleared a physical hurdle.

Instead, Motte’s return to pressure-packed situations — be it in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning — has him feeling like himself again.

“I was kind of up and down with when I got in and when I didn’t get in and stuff like that (last year), and this year it’s more of a consistent thing in some roles that I’m used to,” Motte said. “… You get that adrenaline going, you get other things going and you kinda get things going a little more to see where you are.”

[MORE: Cubs feel the sting after Cards deal gutting defeat]

Coming off Tommy John with the Cardinals last year, Motte was mostly used in early-inning or blow situations and posted a 4.68 ERA. Of the 110 batters he faced, 94 came in what Baseball-Reference.com characterizes as low-leverage spots. It’s not a coincidence that opposing hitters had a .921 OPS against Motte in those low-leverage plate appearances.

Motte’s ability to thrive on adrenaline allows the Cubs to be flexible and not pigeonhole him into a defined role as a closer or setup guy. His strikeout of Washington’s Anthony Rendon with the tying run on second came in the seventh inning June 4 and was critical in the Cubs’ 2-1 win over the National League East leaders. In Game 2 against St. Louis on Tuesday, Motte gave up three hits and a run but was able to work his way out of that self-inflicted jam to nail down his fifth save of the season.

With the Cubs, Motte is limiting opposing hitters to a .178 batting average, a .527 OPS and hasn’t allowed a home run in high-leverage situations.

“It speaks really a lot about his ability to slow things down and not get caught up in the moment in a negative way,” Maddon said. “That’s, right now, among all of his best features is that, the fact that he’s able to process that moment without permitting it to overwhelm him.”

[MORE: Maddon comfortable with Bryant, Rizzo in Home Run Derby]

The Cubs bullpen may not have much star power, at least until Rafael Soriano gets his arm strength back and joins the group sometime after the All-Star break. But it’s a group that has a 3.15 ERA, fourth-best in the National League, and its 2.29 mark over the last 30 days is the second-best in baseball — even despite Strop’s high-profile blown save Wednesday night.

Motte’s resurgence — he’ll enter the Crosstown series with 2.97 ERA — and ability to negotiate those tough outs and innings has been a big reason for the overall success of the Cubs’ bullpen.

“I love those situations,” Motte said. “That’s what I did before surgery and that’s my goal after surgery to get back pitching in those situations. I didn’t know where I was going to be or who I was going to play for but (I wanted to) have a manager having that confidence in me that he’d want to put me in those situations.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 10th, 11th homers in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 10th, 11th homers in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa is heating up, but even a red-hot Sosa doesn't automatically equal wins for the Cubs.

Slammin' Sammy notched his first multi-homer game in 1998 in a 9-5 loss to Kevin Millwood and the Atlanta Braves. Sosa drove in 4 of the Cubs' 5 runs on a solo shot in the 4th inning and a three-run shot in the 8th. 

Sosa tallied 830 feet of homers in the game, with his first blast going 410 feet and the second shot measured at 420 feet.

The big game bumped Sosa's overall season slash line to .337/.411/.551 (.962 OPS) with 11 homers and 35 RBI.

Fun fact: Mickey Morandini hit second for the Cubs in this game and went 4-for-4, but somehow only scored one run despite hitting just in front of Sosa all game. That's because Morandini was caught stealing to end the 3rd inning, leaving Sosa to lead off the 4th inning with a solo blast.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: If Cubs somehow miss the playoffs will Joe Maddon's seat start heating up?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: If Cubs somehow miss the playoffs will Joe Maddon's seat start heating up?

David Haugh (Chicago Tribune), Nick Friedell (ESPN.com) and Patrick Finley (Chicago Sun-Times) join David Kaplan on the panel.

The guys discuss Welington Castillo’s 80-game PED suspension, the Cubs struggles and if Joe Maddon could be on the hot seat if the Cubs somehow miss the playoffs in 2018.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: