Cubs

David Ross' movie gets a perfect ending with World champion Cubs

David Ross' movie gets a perfect ending with World champion Cubs

CLEVELAND - At first, it looked as if David Ross' "storybook season" was going to end on a horrendous note.

After entering Game 7 of the World Series in the middle of the fifth inning, the veteran catcher - playing in the final game of his career - committed an error on the very first batter he was on the field for, throwing Jason Kipnis' swinging bunt into the stands down the first-base line.

A couple pitches later, Ross couldn't block a wild pitch that wound up bouncing so far away, two Indians runs came around to score.

Just like that, the Cubs' 5-1 lead had evaporated into a tense 5-3 cushion.

"That's not how it was scripted," Ross said.

Of course, Ross then stepped up the next inning and drilled a solo homer to center field off Indians dominant reliever Andrew Miller, becoming the oldest player to homer in a Game 7 in baseball history.

Miller had previously given up just one earned run in 25.1 postseason innings entering Game 7.

A good three hours after his homer, Ross was still trying to process it.

"I cannot believe I homered," said Ross, who also played with Miller in Boston. "I honestly can't. Off Andrew Miller, too - one of the nastiest guys I've ever faced and caught.

"The guys kept coming up to me while I was trying to focus on catching and they're like, 'Dude, you just homered in Game 7 off Andrew Miller!' I'm like, "Stop telling me that! I can't think about that right now.'

"And then in the celebration, [Eric] Hinske, who is an ex-teammate of mine and our assistant hitting coach, said 'Yeah, I can't believe you homered. I was crying on the bench. I couldn't get my emotions in check.'

"It was a special night."

What a way to send Ross out - ending a 108-year championship drought in what may be the greatest baseball game ever played.

Ross, 39, believes he has grasped the magnitude of what these Cubs accomplished and what a World Series championship means to the fanbase and the city.

"What a storybook ending for an unbelievable 15- or 16-year career, whatever he's had," Jon Lester said. "You always dream about it. I hope we're all fortunate enough to win a World Series in our last year when we announce our retirement."

That word - "storybook" - has been thrown around by Ross and his teammates over the last few weeks. 

Ross was the starting catcher in the first World Series victory at Wrigley Field since 1945, when he and Lester kept the Indians at bay in a thrilling 3-2 victory in Game 5.

That could've been it - the last time Ross took the field in his career.

But Lester made himself available out of the bullpen for Game 7 and that's right where Joe Maddon went when he took starter Kyle Hendricks out of the game with two outs in the fifth inning.

And the game ended with the Cubs carrying Ross of the field on their shoulders like a remake of "Rudy."

"Everything has been so storybook," Ross said. "I feel like I've been in this movie that's been happening since spring training personally and with this group. You can't write what's gone on.

"I caught a no-hitter. Best team in baseball - first time I've ever been a part of a team over 100 wins."

When the Cubs signed Lester, they also brought Ross in as a package deal, and not just because he was Lester's personal catcher.

Ross helped institute a culture change in the Cubs clubhouse, acting as a steady veteran presence for all the young talent getting its first taste of life in the big leagues.

It's worked, as the Cubs have won 215 games since Ross signed, including five playoff series and, of course, one World Series.

"With David leaving, he's taught us so much," Kyle Schwarber said. "I wish that we could have that guy for another five years because he was very important to our clubhouse and to our team."

Ross had his best offensive season since 2010 and if his teammates want him back, would he ever rethink his retirement proclamation?

"I mean, how do you come back after this?" he said. "I would kick my own you-know-what after this. My family, my wife, these guys what a treat. I'm so, so lucky. 

"I'm gonna come back, but I'm gonna come back just to get that ring. I'm gonna come back just to heckle [Anthony Rizzo] from the seats near first base. 

"I'm gonna come back every once in a while just to enjoy a wonderful city that has treated me so nice."

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

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USA TODAY

Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

The Cubs have made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

Friday, the Cubs announced they've signed right-hander Daniel Winkler to a one-year deal worth $750K. The deal is a split contract, meaning Winkler will earn a different salary in the major leagues than if he gets sent to the minor leagues. He has one minor league option remaining. 

Winkler, an Effingham, Ill. native holds a career 3.68 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.176 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 117 games (100 1/3 innings). He spent 2015-19 with the Atlanta Braves, undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2014 and another elbow surgery in April 2017. The Braves dealt him to the San Francisco Giants at the 2019 trade deadline for closer Mark Melancon.

Winkler posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 big league games last season and a 2.93 ERA in 30 minor league games. His best MLB season came with the Braves in 2018, as he made a career-high 69 appearances and posted a 3.43 ERA, striking out 69 batters in 60 1/3 innings.

The Cubs entered the offseason in search of bullpen upgrades following a rough 2019. That search includes finding pitchers who may not have long track records, but qualities demonstrating their ability to make an impact at the big-league level. In this case, Winkler possesses solid spin rates on his cutter, four-seamer and curveball, meaning he induces soft contact and swings and misses.

“We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference, “which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

The Cubs were successful in unearthing arms last season, acquiring Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck from the Padres in separate deals. They recently acquired Jharel Cotton from the Oakland A’s in a similar buy low move.

Not every pitcher will be as successful as the Wi(e)cks were last season, but the Cubs must continue making low-risk bullpen moves. At the best, they find a legitimate relief arms; at the worst, they move on from a low-cost investments.

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