Cubs won't let up against Cardinals in potential playoff preview

Cubs won't let up against Cardinals in potential playoff preview

The Cubs won’t put any Cactus League lineups out there against the St. Louis Cardinals this weekend or script out every inning at Wrigley Field for their bullpen.

The Cubs will still have something to play for on Friday — the National League’s No. 1 seed — plus the adrenaline rush from 40,000 fans, the national-TV spotlight on Saturday afternoon (Fox) and Sunday night (ESPN) and the chance to help block their biggest rival from making the postseason.

“It has that kind of potential,” manager Joe Maddon admitted. “But from my perspective, it’s our responsibility to play those games straight up.”

Even with Wednesday afternoon’s ugly 11-1 loss at Coors Field, the Cardinals have so far survived the first two legs of what could be a make-or-break road trip, splitting four games against the San Francisco Giants and taking a series from the Colorado Rockies.

That left the Cardinals (80-72) tied with the New York Mets (80-72) in the second wild-card position, with the Giants a half-game up heading into Wednesday night’s game at Dodger Stadium and what should be a head-spinning finish to this three-team race.

“We haven’t let up at all,” said Jon Lester (18-4, 2.36 ERA), who will start opposite Carlos Martinez (15-8, 3.16 ERA) on “Sunday Night Baseball.” “I feel like every team has something to play for when they play us.

“Every team is trying to be little thorns in our side, make us work and make us grind for our wins. It’s always interesting when you add the Cardinals into the mix. They’re playing for their wild-card spot and a chance to get to the postseason, so I’m sure they’ll definitely bring their A-game.”

The Cubs will use next week to experiment with their late-inning formulas — Tuesday will be Bullpen Night at PNC Park — and rotate their position players against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds with the idea of keeping them fresh for October.

“With all respect to everybody, you got to play these next three games right,” Maddon said. “Not that I don’t trust our other guys, but industry-wide you just want to be able to do that. Plus, we have a day off (on Thursday that) permits us to feel better about the guys getting that rest.

“I’ve been on both sides of it. When you’re on that other side, you definitely want to make sure that the teams that are in contention are playing against the other teams’ (perceived) best.”

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If the Cardinals can survive and advance without feeling the burnout, they could become a dangerous opponent in a best-of-five series.

St. Louis has a powerful lineup, setting an NL record with eight players with at least 15 home runs this season. Seung Hwan Oh (18 saves, 1.79 ERA) is the kind of lights-out closer the Giants desperately need.

Alex Reyes — Baseball America’s No. 7 overall prospect entering this season — is an X-factor. On Saturday, the Cubs will get another look at Reyes, who beat them last week at Busch Stadium by throwing 4 1/3 scoreless innings out of the bullpen, giving up one hit and six walks, flashing his age-22 unpredictability.

“You can’t sleep on the Cardinals,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “You know they’re a good team. They got a lot of history in the playoffs.”

The Cardinals still have their issues. Adam Wainwright (12-9, 4.57 ERA) hasn’t pitched like an ace, and Mike Leake (9-10, 4.54 ERA) hasn’t lived up to his five-year, $80 million contract. Matt Holliday hasn’t played since Aug. 11, when Cubs lefty Mike Montgomery broke his right thumb with a 94-mph fastball. A franchise known for its fundamentals now ranks 25th in the majors in defensive efficiency.

But St. Louis has already split 16 games with the Cubs and would be playing with house money against the best team in baseball in October.

“To be honest, I haven’t (been paying attention to the wild-card standings),” Lester said. “We have a lot going on here. I try to stay in our own little corner, our own little world. Especially with where we’re at, we don’t have anybody at our heels or anything.

“The biggest thing for us is kind of focusing on us. Whoever our opponent is come first round, we’ll be ready to go and prepared. If it is the Cardinals, great, we’ve seen them a lot. We know what they have. If it’s somebody else, we’ll study and we’ll prepare.”

The Cubs could help shove the Cardinals into a long offseason — or give new life to a playoff-tested team that won’t be intimidated by the idea of coming back into Wrigleyville.

“The intensity will be there,” MVP candidate Kris Bryant said. “Any time we play them, it’s a fun series. We get a lot of the Cardinals fans down here. We want to play everybody tough. Certainly, they’re in a playoff hunt, too, so we’re going to do our best to do what we do — go out there and try to win every game.”

Javy Baez leads Cubs to huge win with a little help from Pedro Strop

Javy Baez leads Cubs to huge win with a little help from Pedro Strop

For the second time this season, Pedro Strop has added another chapter to the legend of El Mago.

And for at least the second documented time over the last few years, Strop also helped give Javy Baez the motivation needed to lift the Cubs to victory.

On an 0-2 pitch from Mets reliever Seth Lugo in the eighth inning, Baez smacked a 3-run homer into the right-field bleachers, notching the Cubs shortstop another curtain call and sending the 39,077 fans at Wrigley Field into euphoric bliss.

"That was big. He was so frustrated," said Strop, who picked up his 9th save in the 5-3 victory. "When I was walking to the 'pen, he was so frustrated after that first strikeout [against Jacob deGrom]. He was like, 'He's not throwing fastballs, just sliders!' I was like, 'Bro, it's good that you know that. So go up with another plan. Do your thing. You're gonna win this ballgame.'"

Baez's 100th career homer accomplished exactly that and in doing so, changed the entire tone and tenor of the first weekend of summer on Chicago's North Side.

There's no way the Cubs wanted to go into a four-game set with the contending Atlanta Braves after having just dropped three of four to a hapless Mets team that is melting down inside the clubhouse. It also would've been the Cubs' ninth loss in their 13 games, but Baez's clutch blast helped them salvage a series split and maintain sole possession of first place entering a new week of baseball.

"That's the last thing you want to do is lose another one," said Cole Hamels, who gave the Cubs 7 strong innings, but did not factor in the decision. "... That's the momentum we need to take forth, especially with the series that's coming up."

It also continued one of the strangest/coolest statistical oddities of the 2019 MLB season, given that it came on an 0-2 count.

Baez now has more homers after falling behind in the count 0-2 this year than NINE other MLB teams and nearly half of his homers (9 of 19) have come after getting into the extreme pitcher's count:

What makes Baez so tough on 0-2 counts?

For starters, he's never afraid of striking out, possessing a fearless nature Joe Maddon and other Cubs players have admired for some time.

But Hamels also provided some great perspective on why Baez might be so good in a count when pitchers typically dominate:

"I think that's kinda the difficult part with him — sometimes it can always be 0-2 with him," Hamels said. "Even if you haven't thrown a pitch yet, you treat it like 0-2. If that's just the nature of what pitchers do to him — if it's considered almost always an 0-2 count — he's gonna get really good at it because that's just the way he survives and the way he lives and plays the game. 

"With him though, being a teammate, you just know that he's never out of it. He's trying to hit a homer every at-bat, every pitch. That obviously can make a pitcher think a little bit longer and maybe try to be too perfect and therefore that's why they make mistakes."

The win puts a nice bow on what was otherwise a sloppy weekend for the Cubs, who often looked flat at the plate and made uncharacteristic mistakes on the basepaths and in the field. 

Prior to that homer from Baez, the Cubs had only managed to push across 1 earned run in 13 innings against a Mets bullpen that entered the weekend with a 5.39 ERA and more blown saves than any other team in baseball.

It's the second time in just over a week where the Cubs managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but the last time (Anthony Rizzo's homer off Kenley Jansen last Saturday in L.A.) apparently wasn't enough to spark the team to get back to their winning ways. 

Was this Baez blast enough to wake the team from their midseason slumber and be this year's seminal moment that we all look back on in September? 

While they wait for Kimbrel, Cubs add another intriguing option to bullpen

While they wait for Kimbrel, Cubs add another intriguing option to bullpen

Craig Kimbrel could still make his debut before the current homestand is over, but in the meantime, the Cubs added another intriguing veteran to the bullpen.

Tony Barnette was activated off the 60-day injured list Sunday and Rowan Wick was sent back down to Triple-A Iowa. 

The 35-year-old right-hander has had an interesting career ever since was drafted in the 10th round in 2006 by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of Arizona State University. He spent a couple years in the D-Backs organization but then went to Japan in 2010 to pitch for the Yakult Swallows for six seasons.

Barnette returned to the U.S. in 2016, signing a deal with the Rangers and putting up a 3.50 ERA in 125 appearances for Texas over three seasons. The Cubs signed him over the winter to add another arm to the bullpen mix, but he's been hampered by shoulder issues since spring training.

Barnette actually began a rehab stint with Triple-A Iowa in April initially, but made only four appearances before heading back to Arizona to hit the reset button on his recovery. He restarted a rehab assignment with Iowa on June 1 and has been lights out since — he's allowed only a pair of baserunners (1 hit, 1 walk) in 8.1 shutout innings while striking out 9. 

"Patience is a virtue," he said Sunday morning inside the home clubhouse at Wrigley Field. "It's hard to be patient in this game especially when you're expected to be logging innings at the major-league level. Patience was something that I really had to work on and stay with. Stay patient, trust the process, work with the training staff and make sure I was right and I am."

When the Cubs called Barnette over the winter, he said it was definitely a call he wanted to take — to join a team with World Series aspirations and play in front of the fans at Wrigley Field. Now he wants to answer the call out of the bullpen whenever he gets the opportunity.

Joe Maddon hasn't gotten a chance to see Barnette pitch live much due to the early injury in spring training, but the Cubs manager envisions utilizing the veteran righty as a weapon against opposing right-handed hitters. In his MLB career, Barnette has allowed only a .652 OPS to righties vs. a .780 OPS to left-handed hitters.

"He's a strike-thrower. He attacks the zone. He's kind of a fearless guy," Maddon said. "He's an assertive kind of a guy. He's an attacker, he can put the ball on the ground. He's an aggressive sort. Normally pitch-efficient.

"He's very confident right now. He's feeling really good."

When the Cubs signed him over the winter, Barnette was looked at as another potential under-the-radar option in the bullpen and now that the injury is behind him, he and the Cubs are hoping to make good on that potential.

But the Cubs pitching staff is also getting crowded, with Barnette joining a group of bullpen arms that includes:

Pedro Strop
Steve Cishek
Brandon Kintzler
Brad Brach
Kyle Ryan
Mike Montgomery

At the moment, the Cubs have folded both Adbert Alzolay and Tyler Chatwood into a six-man rotation. But they also have Kimbrel's arrival on the horizon as well as the eventual returns of Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr.

It's unknown how all these pieces will fit together, but Barnette could emerge as a reliable piece for Maddon and the Cubs.