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Cubs put the pressure back on Cardinals with Jake Arrieta up next

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Cubs put the pressure back on Cardinals with Jake Arrieta up next

ST. LOUIS – You should already know this by now, but these aren’t the same old Cubs. They might be too young and too inexperienced to win it all this year, but don’t pretend they’re too tight or too tense to wreck the St. Louis Cardinals’ playoff hopes.   

The tortured-history stuff and handle-the-pressure storylines are tired now, good space-fillers for the national media, but not really rooted in reality anymore.     

The Cubs escaped Busch Stadium with a split after Saturday’s 6-3 Game 2 victory, the end of a champagne-soaked road trip that saw them beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild-card game and grab the momentum in this historic best-of-five division series.    

“We don’t plan on coming back here,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “We can’t. We plan on playing a good game on Monday. Obviously, we’re very confident. But we want to do this now.”

[MORE: Cubs capitalize on Cardinals mistakes, even up NLDS]

Cardinal Nation had already been looking for the flaws beneath a 100-win team, and now the St. Louis lineup will have to deal with a modern-day Bob Gibson on Monday at Wrigley Field.

Jake Arrieta is ready and waiting for Game 3, and it’s been 11 weeks since the Cubs lost a “Snake” start, when it took Cole Hamels throwing a no-hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Did all the pressure just shift back onto the Cardinals?

“It’s going to be a tough task,” Arrieta said. “But the same goes for us. This is kind of what we envisioned at the start of the season. And now we’re here.”

At times, the Cardinals looked like the Cubs during the dark days of the rebuild – rattled, indecisive, in a hurry. This is how the Cardinals beat teams inside Busch Stadium, playing small ball when necessary, pouncing on mistakes and staying cool under pressure. 

Jaime Garcia’s brain freeze led to five unearned runs in the second inning. The Game 2 starter fielded Kyle Hendricks’ sacrifice bunt, turned away from the play at home plate and threw wildly to first base, maybe giving Cubs fans Matt Garza flashbacks. 

Garcia ultimately left the game after two innings with what the Cardinals called a stomach virus, creating more questions about an iffy rotation that’s already been hit with injuries.

[RELATED: Cubs reaping the benefits of Manny Ramirez's influence on Jorge Soler

The Cubs are still a flawed, interesting team without much margin for error in the postseason. But they have the perfect manager in Joe Maddon, who always uses his pregame news conferences to send messages to his team, believing his words filter back into the clubhouse.   

“The fans should always worry,” Maddon said before Game 2, repeating back the end of the question. “It’s always the prerogative of a fan to worry. I absolutely believe in that. That’s what barrooms are for. That’s what little forums are for online in this 21st-century stuff. The fans should always worry. I’m always about fans worrying. Go ahead and worry as much as you’d like.

“From our perspective, we have to just go out and play the game like we always do. I’m here to tell you, man, I just can’t live that way. The line I’ve used is I don’t vibrate at that frequency. It has nothing to do with anything. It really doesn’t.” 

It’s not like the Cardinals – with those 11 World Series titles and so much muscle memory in the postseason – will concede anything against Arrieta or fold because the Cubs manager enjoys being The Most Interesting Man in the World in the interview room.

But the Cubs won’t get down if the Cardinals take an early lead in Game 3 or played scared if they do have to come back here for a do-or-die situation on Thursday at Busch Stadium.  

“The process is fearless,” Maddon said. “If you want to always live your life just based on the outcome, you’re going to be fearful a lot. And when you’re doing that, you’re really not living in a particular moment.

“I’m 60, I’ll be 80, and if by the time I’m 80 20 years from now I’ve just been worried about outcomes, I’m going to miss a lot. So you’ve really got to get involved in the process. And from our players’ perspective, that’s all I talk about. I’ve not even mentioned about winning one time to these guys during this whole time.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!] 

“It’s just about…if you take care of the seconds, the minutes, the hours in a day take care of themselves. So for our fans back home, please go ahead and be worried. That’s OK. But understand that from our perspective in the clubhouse, we’re more worried about the process than the outcome.”

Think it will be loud in Wrigleyville on Monday? After sitting through five straight fifth-place seasons and paying some of the highest ticket prices in baseball, Cubs fans haven’t watched a home playoff game in seven years. 

The Cubs haven’t won a playoff game at Wrigley Field since the beginning of the 2003 NLCS against the Florida Marlins. 

The Cubs have been playing at Clark and Addison since 1916 and have never clinched a playoff series at Wrigley Field.

“Well, there’s never been a team like this before,” Rizzo said. “We have something here – something special – so we just got to keep it going.”

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

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Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: