Cubs will pay their respects to Dexter Fowler at Wrigley Field

Cubs will pay their respects to Dexter Fowler at Wrigley Field

ST. LOUIS – Dexter Fowler is in such a unique situation that he might get standing ovations at Busch Stadium and Wrigley Field this season.

The Opening Night sellout crowd of 47,566 stood up for Fowler before his first at-bat on Sunday, hoping he can have the same impact on the St. Louis Cardinals as he did with the you-go, we-go Cubs. The Cardinals wanted more energy, athleticism and presence at the top of their lineup and made Fowler an offer he couldn't refuse at five years and $82.5 million. The first snapshot became a 4-3 walk-off win over the defending World Series champs.

Fowler will be busy when the Cubs get their World Series rings on April 12, but he has stayed in contact with club president Theo Epstein and his old teammates. Look for the Cubs to do some sort of public acknowledgement (video board tribute?) and give Fowler his championship bling when the Cardinals visit Wrigley Field in early June.

"I've been talking to Theo about it," Fowler said. "We'll see. I think it's probably my first trip back there."

There are no hard feelings, because Fowler finished his mission in Chicago and earned the security of a long-term deal, while the Cubs wanted to groom Albert Almora Jr. as a center fielder and preserve some financial flexibility for their young hitting stars and pitching reinforcements.

"Dexter is the type of guy that looks good no matter what he wears," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "I tried to bash on him. I was like: 'Man, you kind of look good.' He's obviously a good friend. He's always going to be a good friend. But when we're between the lines, we got to keep it professional."

Just like his old teammates, Fowler has gotten the same kind of thank-yous from total strangers.

"Coming over here, you still have Cubs fans that tend to like me," Fowler said. "They understand the nature of the game, besides the 12-year-olds that are cussing me out."

On Twitter?

"Yeah, on Twitter, Instagram, the whole nine, they're cussing me out, but that's fine," Fowler said.   

Fowler says these things with a smile on his face and an attitude that got a lot of attention from the Cardinal brass and in the St. Louis media. Fowler being a spring-training DJ during the team stretch and batting practice disrupted The Cardinal Way.

"They've welcomed me with open arms," Fowler said. "I felt like we had to turn up a little bit. I just wanted to come out here and be myself. You guys all know how I am. It was too quiet."

Fowler sparked the Cardinals in the third inning with an infield single off Jon Lester. Fowler raced to third base when Javier Baez couldn't pick up a probable double-play ball he lost in a white rotating ad behind home plate. Fowler scored his new team's first run of 2017 on Matt Carpenter's sacrifice fly to right field, looking like something out of The Cubs Way.

Manager Joe Maddon won't reveal the updated version of the "you go, we go" message that he used to send to Fowler, saying it's too X-rated with new leadoff guy Kyle Schwarber. But Fowler will always be part of The Team that will live forever in the hearts and minds of Cubs fans.

"What he did the last couple years for us, this is his opportunity to make it good for his family for the rest of his life," Maddon said. "Good for him, man. We'd love to have him. I'd love to be saying (that to him). But I'm really happy for him and his family."

Cubs' Craig Kimbrel rises to the moment in 'sharp' outing against Brewers

Cubs' Craig Kimbrel rises to the moment in 'sharp' outing against Brewers

Cubs reliever Craig Kimbrel stuck with what was working. He pounded the strike zone with one high fastball after another against Manny Pina. Kimbrel was rewarded with a strikeout to end the inning.

In the Cubs’ 4-3 loss to the Brewers on Friday, Kimbrel pitched a shutout ninth inning to give his team the chance to rally. Instead, the Cubs’ bats went cold. But the stadium lights illuminated Kimbrel’s progress.

“He looked really good,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I’ve been trying to find a spot for him, and the feedback has been great every time I talk to the pitching guys, and his bullpens and the work he’s put in. I think you saw that tonight. The ball was exploding out of his hand really well. Some bad swings. Looked sharp.”

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It should be noted that the spot Ross found for him was in a one-run game. Kimbrel, who entered the season as the Cubs closer, at least temporarily lost that job after a string of rough outings. The Cubs blamed mechanical issues.

On Friday, Kimbrel didn’t allow a hit with the game on the line.

One of the biggest developments for Kimbrel is that he’s now throwing his curve ball for a strike, therefore not allowing opposing hitters to simply gear up for a fastball.

The third pitch he threw on Friday was a curve ball. Avisail Garcia already had two strikes on him, and then he fouled off a curve at the bottom of the strikezone.  Kimbrel sat him down with a high fastball clocking in at almost 98 mph.

“I don’t think he was far off (all year),” Cubs starting pitcher Alec Mills said, “and I think tonight he started putting a few more things together, fastball up in the zone and some good curve balls. It was good to see, for sure.”

As Kimbrel’s teammate, Mills may not be speaking from a position of objectivity. But he knows pitching, and he said he’s been excited about Kimbrel’s fastball all year.

“Even that first inning in Cincinnati,” Mills said. “The ball was coming out really good. It was electric. It was more like the Craig that I remember from past years.”

The Kimbrel from past years was a seven-time All-Star from 2011 to 2018, the year he won the World Series with the Red Sox.

But from 2017 to 2019, the average speed of Kimbrel’s fastball dropped from 98 mph to 96mph. It has remained right around 96 mph this year. On Friday, Kimbrel was locating it more effectively, while his curve ball helped put batters off balance.

Kimbrel still walked a batter – he stopped short of overpowering. But even against the one batter he walked, Justin Smoak, Kimbrel got ahead in the count early. He threw two curve balls for strikes. The first Smoak watched. The second he whiffed.

One outing isn’t a guarantee that Kimbrel will win back his role as closer. But it does show that the positive feedback Ross is getting translates into games. And that Ross is ready to trust him in close games. 

“I'm still going out there trying to compete,” Kimbrel said earlier this month.

On Saturday, he sure did.



Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

As if things weren’t already going well enough for the Cubs during this strange, short season of baseball in a pandemic, now the baseball gods are dropping gifts into their laps.

The Cardinals’ lengthy shutdown because of a coronavirus outbreak has the Cubs’ arch rivals restarting their season Saturday in Chicago with a patched-up roster and eight games over the next five days, including five games against the Cubs.

And although that means the relative hardship of two doubleheaders for the Cubs in three days, all five of those games Monday through Wednesday are against a decimated Cards roster that won’t have the front end of its rotation for any of the games.

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They catch the Cardinals at their weakest point of the early season a week after catching an otherwise formidable Cleveland team at a moment of clubhouse crisis involving protocol perps Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger.

That one resulted in a two-game sweep by a combined score of 14-3.

This one already has resulted in all 10 games against the Cardinals now being scheduled for Wrigley Field.

Combine that with the three road games against the White Sox next month, and it means that the team with baseball’s best record on the field, the perfect record in player COVID-19 testing and no significant injuries to key players so far will play 60 percent of its games within its Chicago bubble if the Cubs and MLB pull off the full 60-game season.

If the Cubs were positioned any better to make the playoffs, they’d already be there.

“You can look at it that way if you want,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “We’re just doing our thing.”

No other way to look at it from here. Have you seen the rest of the schedule?

The Cubs have 43 games left, including 29 within a National League Central Division that doesn’t include another .500 team three weeks into a nine-week season. Nine more games are against the Tigers and White Sox.

The best team on the schedule is the Twins, and all three of those games are at home and not until the second-to-last weekend of the season.

With all due respect to Ross and his fear of “bad juju,” the Cubs can’t lose.

“It’s still early on,” the manager said.

Nothing’s early in a 60-game season. And the Cubs already have matched the hot starts of their 2016 and 1908 World Series champions.

“We’ve still got a long ways to go in the season,” Ross said.

The Cubs did have to scratch Tyler Chatwood from his scheduled start Friday night because of back tightness. And Kris Bryant has missed the last two games because of a sore finger after rolling his wrist trying to make a diving catch in left field in Cleveland Wednesday.

But Alec Mills looked good in short-notice replacement duty Friday until a rough four-pitch (and three-run) sequence in the sixth. And Chatwood might be ready for one of Monday’s games — or possibly one of Wednesday’s.

“Things falling in our favor?” Ross said. “We’re playing good baseball, and that should be the focus for me and not the other stuff.”

Granted, they still have to play the games. Granted, Bryant wasn’t available off the bench with the bases loaded in the eighth Friday, and Josh Phegley struck out instead.

And, yes, they actually lost a game to the Brewers Friday night.

But if you still don’t believe the baseball gods are stirring the Cubs’ pot so far this season, you weren’t paying attention in the ninth inning when Craig Kimbrel struck out Avisail Garcia swinging at a 98-mph fastball to start the scoreless inning and Manny Piña swinging at a 96-mph fastball to end it.

What closer problem? Bring on the Cardinals, right?

These guys might not lose another game.