Cubs

Despite 100 wins, Cardinals couldn't slow Cubs' momentum

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Despite 100 wins, Cardinals couldn't slow Cubs' momentum

The night of July 8 feels like ages ago after the Cubs blasted the St. Louis Cardinals out of the National League Division Series in four games.

The Cubs had the Cardinals on the ropes that unseasonably chilly day at Wrigley Field, leading 5-4 heading into the top of the ninth. A win would’ve secured a series victory and firmly stamped the Cubs as contenders in the NL Central. Instead, Jhonny Peralta ripped Pedro Strop’s two-out, two-strike pitch into the left field basket for a ninth-inning, go-ahead, two-run home run that served as a reminder of why the Cardinals haven’t missed the playoffs since 2010.

St. Louis went on to win 100 games and its third consecutive division title, teeing them up to — somewhat unfairly, given the 90-win New York Mets and 92-win Los Angeles Dodgers — face the winner of the NL wild card game. “The Cardinal Way” meant sustaining injuries to ace Adam Wainwright, outfielder Matt Holliday and first baseman Matt Adams didn’t negatively affect the club’s win total at the end of the year.

But something changed when the Cubs rolled into Busch Stadium on Labor Day. The Cubs scored 20 runs and took two of three games that week, then over a weekend at Wrigley Field later in September plated 16 runs in another series win. As it turns out, those six games were a sign of things to come in the postseason.

“I think they've been playing with a lot of confidence, and obviously they finished the season that way,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “There are a lot of things going in a good direction for that team. You've got a lot of talent, no question. You had some pitching that stepped up tremendously, and everybody kind of finding their role and some of the younger guys kind of taking those big roles.

“You could see that this team was going in the right direction and feeling good about themselves heading into the playoffs.”

[MORE: Cubs finish Cardinals with Javier Baez starring in Addison Russell's absence]

While the Cardinals absorbed those key injuries in the spring and summer, losing catcher Yadier Molina and right-hander Carlos Martinez down the stretch turned out to be difficult to overcome. Molina in Game 3 aggravated the sprained left thumb he suffered Sept. 20 when Anthony Rizzo slid into his glove, so the Cardinals were forced to play Game 4 without their seven-time All-Star catcher. Veteran right-hander John Lackey was ineffective on short rest in Game 4 as well — and maybe this series would’ve gone differently had Martinez, who faded a bit down the stretch but still had a 3.01 ERA, been available.

Instead, after beating the guy the Cubs spent $155 million to lure to Clark and Addison in Game 1, Cardinals pitching allowed 10 home runs and the offense couldn't keep up over their final three games of the season.

“It was just unfortunate,” Matheny said. “This is a team that was as impressive to watch from day one as any team I've ever been around, and just a collection of skill and fight and character and just all the way across the board from the veteran guys leading to the young guys figuring out a way to contribute. It was a special group.

“You know, that's always hard to walk away from.”

The Cardinals will return to St. Louis and attempt to figure out what went wrong over four games when so much went right over 162. Matheny’s decision-making can be nit-picked — like why left-hander Kevin Siegrest, against whom left-handed batters had an .811 OPS in the regular season, was allowed to give up game-clinching home runs to Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber Tuesday — and the Cardinals’ inability to beat Jake Arrieta despite forcing his shortest start since June can be lamented.

But the Cardinals saw the Cubs building momentum as the regular season progressed, and perhaps there’s room in the discussion for allowing that a good team was beaten by another good team in a short series.

[MORE: Baby boomers again power Cubs' win over Cardinals, berth in NLCS]

Welcome to life in the NL Central, where the Cardinals, Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates were arguably the three best teams in baseball this year. The Cubs dispatched the Pirates in the wild card game, then needed four games to knock out the division champions and demonstrate that, like the Cardinals, they deserve to be considered among baseball’s elite.

“They proved it this series,” Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong said. “The young guys came up, they stepped up. They did what they needed to do to win. Seeing the talent they have, you realize we’re in for a tough series and the Pirates are the same. It’s going to be like this next year.”

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

With the Milwaukee Brewers about to kick off the NLCS, many Cubs fans and pundits have taken to comparing them to the 2015 Cubs.

At first glance, it's easy to see why — they're in the playoffs for the first time as something of an underdog and "surprise" team — but that's not the recent Cubs squad we should be comparing the 2018 Brewers to.

This Milwaukee team is a lot more like the 2016 Cubs.

Here's why:

1. They're not a surprise.

Nobody expected the 2015 Cubs to win 97 games and wind up in the NLCS. They were expected to compete very soon, but everything went right in a red-hot August, they rode Jake Arrieta's right arm to the NLDS and then toppled the Cardinals to get to the LCS, where they ran into the brick wall that was Matt Harvey and and the Mets pitching staff.

The 2018 Brewers are not — and should not be — a surprise. Anybody who was caught off guard by this team being so good hasn't been paying much attention. The Brewers were leading the NL Central in 2017 for much of the year before a late-season fade that coincided with the Cubs' late-season surge.

This Milwaukee squad was always supposed to be one of the top teams in the NL in 2018 and they really hit their groove in September to chase down the Cubs. Still, it took a Game 163 to force a changing of the guard atop the division.

2. They greatly improved expectations with a big free-agent OF signing over the winter.

The Cubs had Jason Heyward in between 2015 and '16. The Brewers had Lorenzo Cain.

Cain has provided quite a bit more offense in the first season of his 5-year, $80 million contract but both Cain and Heyward provided leadership in the clubhouse and elite defense in the outfield in the first years with their new teams.

3. The Brewers have the NL MVP.

This one's an easy comparison to make, though Cubs fans will hate it.

Christian Yelich is this season's NL MVP. Sorry, Javy Baez fans. "El Mago" had a great season, but it's impossible to give the award to anybody but Yelich.

Yelich winning the league's most coveted accolade would be another perfect tie-in to the 2016 Cubs, who had Kris Bryant take home NL MVP.

4. They have a dominant LHP out of the bullpen.

Josh Hader has been doing his best Aroldis Chapman impression in 2018 as an absolutely dominant southpaw out of the bullpen. Unlike Chapman, Hader's spent all season with the Brewers, but like Chapman in '16, Hader will be leaned on heavily for multiple innings throughout the rest of the playoffs.

5. They picked up some valuable in-season assets.

The 2016 Cubs dealt for Chapman, but they also traded for reliever Joe Smith and called up Willson Contreras in the middle of the year, who provided a spark for the offense.

The 2018 Brewers have acquired plenty of valuable assets along the way this season from Mike Moustakas to Jonathan Schoop to Erik Kratz (more on him later) to Gio Gonzalez. But one of their most important additions (especially in October) was the promotion of top prospect Corbin Burnes, a flame-throwing right-hander who posted a 2.61 ERA in 30 regular-season games and allowed only 1 hit in 4 shutout innings in the DS.

6. They're on a mission with a chip on their shoulder.

The 2015 Cubs had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder as they attempted to take down the divisional powerhouse that was the St. Louis Cardinals. But again, they were a surprise contender - even within that clubhouse (especially early in 2015). But after falling short in the NLCS, the Cubs retooled over the winter and came back with one goal in mind - to win the World Series.

It was a goal they accomplished. We'll see if the Brewers will be able to do the same, but they certainly came to play in 2018 with a chip on their shoulder and the ultimate goal of winning the final MLB game of the year.

The Brewers didn't lead the division from Day 1 and weren't able to coast into October, but they still wound up with homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

7. They have journeyman catcher who is winning over fans' hearts.

This is a fun one.

The 2016 Cubs had David "Grandpa" Rossy who still elicts deafening cheers whenever he's shown on the giant video board at Wrigley Field. The 2018 Brewers have Kratz, who has become a fan favorite recently and was mic'd up for the final out of the NLDS.

Ross was 39 when he helped lead the Cubs to the 2016 World Series and Chicago was his eighth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey. Kratz is 38 and on his ninth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey.

In fact, Ross and Kratz are so intertwined, they've already been compared to each other by MLB.com.

But the major difference is Kratz has zero postseason playing experience until a week ago. Will he be able to ride off into the sunset with a championship ring on his finger the way Ross did?

We'll have an answer to that over the next few weeks in the final chapter of the Brewers' 2018 season, though Cubs fans surely wouldn't be too happy to see their division rivals celebrating with a World Series parade just 90 minutes north of Wrigley Field.

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

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USA TODAY

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

The Cubs just lost one coach with hitting coach Chili Davis getting fired. Another opening on Joe Maddon's coaching staff could also open up.

According to report from MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan, bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed with the Rangers on Thursday.

Rangers farm director Jayce Tingler was the first candidate the club interviewed, but Hyde and Astros bench coach Joe Espada were also interviewed.

The 45-year-old Hyde has been with the Cubs since 2014. He was a bench coach in 2014 under Rick Renteria before moving to first base coach from 2015-17. This past season he moved back to his original role as bench coach.

He played four seasons in the minors for the White Sox.

The Rangers job opened up when Jeff Banister was fired on Sept. 21. Banister won AL Manager of the Year in 2015 and guided the Rangers to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016, but couldn't get out of the ALDS either year. A 78-84 season in 2017 was followed by an even worse 2018, which led to his firing late this season.