Cubs

The Dodger moves that directed Cubs toward the NLCS

The Dodger moves that directed Cubs toward the NLCS

Joe Maddon remembers driving his RV from Pennsylvania through Virginia when Andrew Friedman broke the news over the phone that he would be leaving the Tampa Bay Rays for a president’s job with the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

That triggered the escape clause that Alan Nero, Maddon’s Chicago-based agent, had negotiated into the manager’s contract, getting a concession from a small-market franchise that would never pay top dollar for talent. Maddon initially didn’t even know the opt-out existed. 

That chain of events from October 2014 helped shape the National League Championship Series that begins Saturday night at Wrigley Field. Maddon and his wife Jaye hosting Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer at an RV park on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The Cubs firing Rick Renteria, who’s now resurfaced on the South Side as the White Sox manager. Friedman trying to meld the best parts of Tampa’s lean operation with Guggenheim Partners money and a Dodger Way of developing homegrown talent. 

“Andrew and I are really good friends,” said Maddon, who got his own five-year, $25 million contract. “I was really happy for him. Because being the age that he is – getting that opportunity to go to a market like that – I knew how much he wanted to do something like that. It was a perfect fit.”
 
The Plan? It’s more like Controlled Chaos. This industry is too volatile and too competitive to follow some five-year plan and automatically go from 101 losses in 2012 to 103 wins this year. Humans play the games – not robots. Epstein’s front office laid out the scouting-and-player-development philosophies and worked within the financial parameters while chairman Tom Ricketts supported a long-range vision. But Maddon arriving like a lightning bolt shows some of the randomness and how the Dodgers shaped this Cubs team and what should be a must-see NLCS: 

• Only Epstein had the juice and the credibility to sell this teardown to Cubs fans and the Chicago media after winning two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox. Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts – who played at Rancho Buena Vista High School in California with Cubs executive Jason McLeod – helped cement that legacy with his famous stolen base against the New York Yankees during an epic comeback in the 2004 American League Championship Series. 

• While pursuing Jon Lester, the Cubs worried about the Dodgers jumping into the bidding war and becoming the new Yankees. A highly placed Red Sox official predicted the Dodgers would try to make Lester an offer he couldn’t refuse during the 2014 winter meetings. 

But Lester doesn’t exactly have a Hollywood personality. Friedman wanted to build a roster around depth and flexibility. And the Cubs wouldn’t hesitate to do that six-year, $155 million megadeal all over again with their Game 1 starter. 

• If Lester doesn’t win a Cy Young Award this year, it might go to Game 2 starter Kyle Hendricks, a prospect the Cubs acquired in a buzzer-beater deal at the July 31, 2012 deadline. Remember, Ryan Dempster clung to his hard-earned no-trade rights, hoping to play with Ted Lilly at Dodger Stadium. 

Dempster said the Cubs put him on the phone with Ned Colletti – the Los Angeles general manager at the time – to hear that wasn’t going to be an option. The Cubs had already seen a trade with the Atlanta Braves collapse (Randall Delgado) and finally closed the Hendricks deal with the Texas Rangers.

Baseball America listed seven pitchers on its top-10 list of Dodger prospects in 2012: Zach Lee; Allen Webster; Nathan Eovaldi; Chris Reed; Garrett Gould; Chris Withrow; and Josh Lindblom.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

• To market short-term assets like Dempster – and mold young talents like Hendricks – the Cubs have leaned heavily on the pitching infrastructure built with the help of ex-manager Dale Sveum and coaches Chris Bosio, Lester Strode and Mike Borzello.

That sophisticated game-planning system has roots in Borzello’s time on Joe Torre’s staff, working with Dodgers catcher/future Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. Applying Ausmus’ principles and taking it to the next level helped create value for pitchers like Scott Feldman and Jeff Samardzija, who got flipped for a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta), an elite setup guy (Pedro Strop) and an All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell).

• Imagine the Dodgers lining up Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman to face the Cubs in a must-win NLCS game.

Either the Dodgers made the correct zero-tolerance statement on domestic violence, or their high-powered front office didn’t do nearly enough homework on Chapman, or a Hollywood franchise didn’t want to deal with the PR fallout. Whatever combination of factors led to a deal with the Cincinnati Reds falling apart during the winter meetings, Chapman wound up with the Yankees, serving a 30-game suspension to begin this season, getting traded to Chicago and changing the entire look of this Cubs bullpen in October.

“He’s fit in seamlessly with the rest of the group,” Maddon said. “With us, he’s been outstanding. And I only can judge or gauge him by my interaction with him. And it’s been really good.”

Craig Kimbrel struggles again, Cubs lose heartbreaker: ‘Today is not an easy day’

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AP

Craig Kimbrel struggles again, Cubs lose heartbreaker: ‘Today is not an easy day’

After two consecutive tough, one-run losses, the Cubs showed plenty of fight on Saturday against the Cardinals. And yet, it still ended with what could be described as a knockout punch.

“We needed the 16-ounce gloves for that fight right there,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said postgame. “We had the right guy there at the end. You talk about two shots to the jaw —like poom-poom — and they got the win.”

For the second time this weekend, Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel was victimized by the long ball. With the Cubs leading 8-7 in the ninth, Kimbrel surrendered solo home runs to Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong on consecutive pitches, giving the Cardinals a 9-8 lead — ultimately the game’s final score.

“Today is not an easy day,” Kimbrel said postgame. “First and second pitch of an inning, [I] felt like I made two competitive pitches that I wanted to, and it went out.

“It’s just frustrating, that’s the only thing I can say.”

Saturday’s loss all but eliminates the Cubs from NL Central contention, as their tragic number is down to two with seven games left. They’re also 2.5 games back of the Brewers for the last Wild Card spot, pending the outcome of Milwaukee’s matchup with the Pirates on Saturday.

The result is obviously all that matters, but it’s not like Kimbrel left two meatballs over the heart of the plate. Molina’s home run came off a 97-mph fastball that was up and out of the strike zone, while DeJong hit a 96-mph heater that was up in the zone.

“First one was out of the zone, second was up,” Kimbrel said. “Thought it was a good pitch to the hitter, based on what I saw. They just put the barrel on it, and it went out.

“I was pumped out there, I was excited, felt like I had good stuff. And then right there off the bat with two home runs. Frustrating.”

Kimbrel returned to the Cubs on Thursday following a two-week stint on the injured list with right elbow inflammation. With the minor league season over, the 31-year-old couldn’t go on a rehab assignment, though he did throw a simulated game on Tuesday.

However, Kimbrel insisted that his recent outings have nothing to do with his health. In fact, he said that he feels great.

“I feel great right now. I mean, my last two outings I’ve felt great,” he said. “I just didn’t get the results I wanted, the results I need to have to do my job.”

“He’s had ample time to build his arm strength back up, and it was nothing wrong with his arm strength,” Maddon said. “After [the homer runs], he made some really good pitches at the other guys.”

One of the tougher parts of Kimbrel’s last two outings is that they’ve followed rallies by a Cubs offense that has been inconsistent in September. Thursday, they scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth to tie things up before passing the ball to Kimbrel.

After surrendering two runs in the seventh inning Saturday, the Cubs put up two runs of their own that inning, retaking the lead. That lead didn’t hold, but the Cubs still are confident in their closer.

“Of course,” Maddon said. “We were at that point where we’ve built the game towards him, and I want to continue to do so. I thought his stuff was actually better today than the other day.

“It felt really good about the moment right there, the way we fought back, him coming in the game, had already been in one game, has had ample time to get it back together. It was kind of surprising.”

“Craig’s a Hall of Fame closer. He’s got a track record for a reason,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “He puts in the work. We all see it.

“He’s an amazing guy in the clubhouse. We have his back. It’s tough. I know he feels bad, but he’s a competitor and he’s a champion and he’ll bounce back.”

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Cubs playoff race: Hope on life support after another disastrous meltdown

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USA Today

Cubs playoff race: Hope on life support after another disastrous meltdown

The Cubs took the field Saturday afternoon with only a 21.3 percent chance of making the postseason.

That number will certainly go down after another epic meltdown in a season full of disastrous moments.

Just five days earlier (after Monday's win), the Cubs had a 76.7 percent chance of October baseball.

But that's what five straight losses will do, especially when the other teams in the race keep on winning. They still couldn’t get back to their winning ways Saturday despite a hard-fought effort in a wild 9-8 loss that saw seven lead changes.

The Cubs are now 6 games back in the division and 3 games out of the final playoff spot in the National League with only seven contests remaining.

"Obviously it sucks," said Javy Baez, who struck out to end the game. "But we are really close to the other teams. We just gotta play our game — try to get hot in the last two series and see what happens when the last game is over."

"It doesn't matter how you lose at this time of the year," Anthony Rizzo said. "It sucks. A loss is a loss. Especially with seven games left. It sucks." 

Quick thoughts

—Kimbrel’s disastrous weekend

This is not what anybody had in mind when the Cubs addressed their biggest weakness and signed Craig Kimbrel to a three-year deal in early June.

In his first 19.2 innings as a Cub, the closer on a Hall of Fame trajectory surrendered 9 home runs — the latter two coming on back-to-back pitches in the top of the ninth inning Saturday.

Called on to protect a 1-run lead, Kimbrel could only watch in disbelief as Yadier Molina sent his first pitch into the left-field bleachers and Illinois native Paul DeJong followed suit on the very next offering.

"It's tough. it is," Rizzo said. "Craig's a Hall of Fame closer. He's got a track record for a reason. He puts in the work. We all see it. He's an amazing guy in the clubhouse. You don't want to ever see anybody give up runs. We have his back. It's tough. It feels bad, but he's a competitor and a champion and he'll bounce back."

Kimbrel spent most of this month on the injured list with right elbow inflammation, but returned Thursday only to give up the lead and get saddled with the loss in the 10th inning after the Cubs had just pulled off an epic 3-run rally in the bottom of the ninth to send the game to extras.

Kimbrel now has a 6.53 ERA in 23 games with the Cubs this season.

—Javy suits up

Baez scored the tying run as a pinch-runner Thursday night, but his at-bat to end the game Saturday was his first plate appearance since breaking his left thumb three weeks ago. 

He struck out against Cardinals closer Carlos Martinez to end the game and admitted it was a tough at-bat given the layoff.

"It was hard, especially with him out there throwing 100 mph," Baez said. "It's tough, but you gotta give it a try and try something for the team."

Baez said he hopes to be able to start the game Tuesday for the Cubs in Pittsburgh.

"I've been feeling good," he said. "It's still bothering me a little bit, but I would do anything to help my team. We're in a hard situation right now that we gotta win games and if not, we'll be out of the playoffs. We're in this together. If we're gonna give everything, we're gonna give everything together. I'm trying my best to come back before the regular season is over. It's been a quick process, so hopefully I'll keep getting better and after the day off, I'll probably be out there."

—The winds of change

At first pitch Saturday, the wind was blowing straight out at Wrigley Field at 17 mph. That proved to be a huge factor in the game.

Each team felt the benefit of Mother Nature, with Marcell Ozuna somehow golfing this very low 0-2 pitch from Kyle Ryan into the bleachers in the top of the seventh inning for a go-ahead blast:

The Cubs’ big boost from the wind came on Tony Kemp's signature moment with the team in the bottom of the inning (though this game won’t be remembered for his heroics).

After Ben Zobrist had doubled with one out, Kemp was sent up to the plate as a pinch-hitter and appeared to strike out, only to get new life when it turned out a balk was called. He hit the next pitch in the air to center field — deep enough to at least get Zobrist home from third as the tying run — but it wound up carrying just a few rows into the bleachers for an enormous, game-changing home run.

The Cubs had been waiting for their baseball luck to turn and I think it's safe to say the balk call qualified, though it ultimately proved to only set the stage for even greater heartbreak for the fanbase.

—Brad Wieck's big moment goes for naught

Kemp wasn't the only player to deliver his signature moment with the Cubs Saturday afternoon.

Wieck was called on to protect the 1-run lead in the eighth inning of a crucial, Game 7-esque contest Saturday — just like everybody predicted back when the Cubs traded for him on July 31. Despite walking the leadoff hitter and plunking Tommy Edman, Joe Maddon left Wieck in the game to face the heart of the Cardinals order — righties Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — even though veteran Steve Cishek had been warming up in the Cubs bullpen.

Goldschmidt flied out to left field and Ozuna struck out, giving Wieck a huge boost of confidence and setting the Cubs on the path for a much-needed victory before the ninth-inning meltdown.

—Oh, that's where the offense was hiding...

Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson certainly helped out with back-to-back-to-back-to-back walks after Nicholas Castellanos' double in the first inning.

The team that scored only 1 run on 9 hits in Friday's ballgame then plated 3 runs on just 1 hit in the first inning of Saturday's contest.

Baseball, man.

The Cubs generally had a solid approach at the plate all day, drawing 6 walks and slugging 7 of their 10 hits for extra bases.

Rookie Nico Hoerner delivered a clutch go-ahead homer in the bottom of the sixth, his third longball of the homestand after hitting just 3 homers in 75 minor-league games this year.

—What bum ankle?

This weekend series hasn't gone the way the Cubs wanted, but Anthony Rizzo's shocking return to the field and subsequent play has been one of the consistent bright spots.

After a nasty-looking sprained ankle that was originally thought to keep him out for the rest of the regular season, Rizzo returned to the Cubs leadoff spot just 20 minutes before Thursday's game and he even provided a homer in that contest before the Cardinals pulled out a victory in the 10th inning.

In 11 plate appearances over those three games, Rizzo reached in six of them, including three hits Saturday. He even hustled out a double in the second inning, sliding into second on that injured ankle and trying to give his team a spark.

—Q's about Q

What is going on with Jose Quintana. He hasn't made it through 4 innings in any of his last three starts and has gone more than a month since pitching at least 6 innings (Aug. 18).

He's now given up 18 earned runs and 25 hits in 13.2 innings this month - good for an 11.85 ERA and 2.19 WHIP.

Quintana was a rock for the Cubs in the rotation for the first five months of the season, but he's taken a sharp turn in the wrong direction at the absolute worst time. His struggles are even tougher to swallow when taken alongside Cole Hamels' last couple months of injuries and ineffectiveness.

At the moment, Quintana would be in line to start the first game in St. Louis next weekend, but the Cubs could always utilize the off-day to change up their rotation a bit.

Brewers update

The Brewers beat the Pirates Saturday night and are 3 games up on the Cubs for the final playoff spot in the National League.

Nationals update

The Nationals beat the Marlins and have a 4-game lead on the Cubs and are 1 game up on the Brewers for the top Wild-Card spot.

What's next?

The Cubs finish their 2019 regular season home slate Sunday afternoon, though some serious storms are projected to hit Chicago.

If they are able to play, will this be the final game at Wrigley Field in 2019? If they're not able to play, the Cardinals have a game Monday night while the Cubs are off, so the makeup would have to be pushed back to Sept. 30 if it still holds weight for the playoff race.

Yu Darvish takes the hill for the Cubs against Miles Mikolas. Catch all the action on NBC Sports Chicago or the My Teams app, with pregame live beginning at 12:30 p.m.

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