Cubs

Extra wild card plays right into Epsteins hands

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Extra wild card plays right into Epsteins hands

MESA, Ariz. Theo Epstein envisions Wrigley Field in October, sellouts night after night, year after year, until theres a parade down Michigan Avenue.

That was part of the lure in leaving the Boston Red Sox for a presidents job with the Cubs. There are game-changers on the horizon at Clark and Addison, potential stadium renovations and monster television deals that should pump up revenue and fuel an annual contender.

But the landscape changed immediately on Friday with the announcement that Major League Baseball and the players union had agreed to add an extra wild card in each league for 2012 and beyond.

The goal always has to be to win the division, Epstein said. When you set out, thats the only sure-fire way to get in and now it comes with a significant added advantage of getting to avoid single-game elimination.

We still set out with the same goal of winning the division, but clearly it makes the bar of qualifying for postseason play lower and more attainable for teams that are kind of in that building phase. Its a good thing.

Epstein is trying to create another sustainable model. The Red Sox won 95 games or more six times during his nine seasons as general manager. When they reversed the curse in 2004, winning their first World Series in 86 years, they did it as a wild card. Its all about getting in the tournament.

We got more chances now, outfielder Alfonso Soriano said. We have a lot of talent here, so I think if everybody stays healthy and we play the game the right way, well be fine.

The players arent supposed to wear their (Bleep) the Goat T-shirts anymore. Instead, theres more of a quiet optimism around camp, because no one on the outside thinks theyll contend. They know they wont be playing with bulls-eyes on their backs.

I think everybody in here believes that we can win the World Series, pitcher Randy Wells said. If you didnt, then you shouldnt be here. If you do have a season where you can get hot at the right time, and jump in that extra wild card, itll help anybody.

The fans and the media dont think this is the year the Cubs will win their first World Series since 1908. This season will be about identifying core players for a championship contender.

Epstein didnt like how Billy Beane revealed all those industry secrets in Moneyball. But Epstein generally agrees with the Oakland As executive in that the playoffs can be a crapshoot.

But there are things that you can do to increase your chances in that tournament, Epstein said. Like being healthy, being rested, being prepared, advance scouting your tails off to make sure youre better prepared than the opponent.

(Its) having a really strong top of your rotation, a really strong closer, a really strong defense, certain things that sort of show up even more in the postseason than they do over the course of 162 games.

The postseason is less of a meritocracy than the regular season. (But) there are still things that you can do to hedge your bets.

Thats an insight into how Epstein plans to build this organization. The Moneyball references misrepresent Epstein because hes so heavily invested in scouting and believes in character and chemistry, intangibles that are supposed to help form The Cubs Way.

The self-proclaimed band of idiots in 2004 had guts, grinders and huge personalities: Curt Schilling; Pedro Martinez; Johnny Damon; David Ortiz; Jason Varitek; Kevin Millar; Bill Mueller; Keith Foulke; even Manny Ramirez before the fall.

Big games and big spots always boil down to players stepping up (and) overcoming adversity and performing, Epstein said. A lot of factors go into that. Theres always some randomness in the results. But (it helps) when you have guys who are really motivated and play as a team.

This is my personal experience. Ive seen guys who have come through in big spots when its more for the team and for themselves. (If) you have a bunch of guys who go out there playing as individuals, I dont know how many of those teams end up having a lot of success.

Then again, Epstein thought of the in-fighting on teams in the 1970s and 1980s that still won titles, like the As and New York Yankees: So I dont think you can draw any bright lines.

All that history attracted Epstein to the North Side, but his views on baseball can also be cold and calculating. The odds just got a little better at the casino. An extra wild card will play right into his hands.

As much as Im a traditionalist (and) a purist, its hard to argue with this, Epstein said. It seems to be the right move at the right time for the game.

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

Smiling came easy for Anthony Rizzo as stood at his locker and fielded questions in a robin-egg blue T-shirt that read: "positive vibes."

This was roughly a half-hour after he went through the high-five line telling all his teammates the 12-11 victory was a "season-defining win" for the Cubs.

Who knows if it will really be that big of a "W" for this ballclub in the midst of what has been an up-and-down season to this point, but there has certainly been no shortage of positive vibes around the clubhouse lately.

One thing's for certain: The Cubs will wake up Thursday morning in sole possession of first place again as the Cardinals lost to the Brewers in a rain-shortened game in St. Louis.

Yu Darvish and the Cubs bullpen squandered a 6-2 lead and then a 10-9 lead. Yet the offense picked up the slack, smacking 14 hits, including Kris Bryant's game-winning two-run blast in the bottom of the eighth inning.

"We haven't won a game like that really all year, I don't think," Rizzo said. "They scored 9 runs in the fifth to seventh innings. Teams don't really win when that happens. Just a good, hard-fought, never-quit win."

Rizzo is right: The Cubs haven't won a game in which they allowed at least 11 runs since Sept. 2, 2017 when they beat the Braves 14-12.

The Cubs have claimed 14 of 17 games at home since the All-Star Break and are now 43-19 at Wrigley Field this season - a winning percentage approaching .700 to combat the .390 winning percentage on the road.

So is it a season-defining victory?

"That's what Rizz told me," Bryant said. "We were high-fiving there and Rizz told me this is a season-defining win. I mean, I can't disagree with him. It's one of those games where you don't feel like you're gonna win just because you take a lead and then you're giving it back, but we came out on top. 

"Definitely some good momentum. We're playing good at home here, obviously and just gotta roll with the records at home and on the road."

Early on, it looked to be a night where the Cubs would cruise to victory behind Darvish, who came into the game red-hot and had settled into a rhythm after serving up a two-run shot to the third hitter of the game.

But that wasn't the case, as Darvish served up four homers overall and Derek Holland and Tyler Chatwood combined to allow 4 runs while notching just two outs as the first arms out of the bullpen.

Before the game, Joe Maddon talked again about how he felt like the only way the Cubs would be able to pull away in a tight NL Central race would be if the offense got into a groove and for one day at least, they were certainly firing on all cylinders.

The only starter who didn't reach base safely at least twice was Kyle Schwarber, and he drove in 3 runs on a homer and a groundout in which he hustled down the line to avoid a double play. Darvish even chipped in with an RBI single in the second inning.

Yes, it was a good win. Yes, the Cubs can go to sleep feeling content and wake up feeling hopeful.

But the only way this becomes a "season-defining win" is if the next five weeks play out like they hope. There have been several wins before Wednesday that seemed like they could propel the Cubs - including the finale in Cincinnati on the last road trip where Bryant once again came through with a clutch late homer. And every time, the team failed to keep the good times rolling for an extended period.

This is all a moot point if the Cubs come out and look flat this weekend or fail to carry any momentum onto the road.

"We'll find out," said Maddon, who has been in this game for nearly four decades. "I mean, I've been involved in those seminal moments and all of a sudden, things switch. 

"I'll tell you one thing though - I liked the method at the plate. Nobody was grinding sawdust; everybody was up there nice and chill and were getting good hacks on good pitches. ... I liked that. That's what we need to get to that point."

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Before the Cubs hosted the San Francisco Giants on Day 2 of American Legion Week, Willson Contreras was out in left field running and working out his injured right hamstring.

The All-Star catcher hit the injured list earlier this month after hitting a line drive to the gap against the Milwaukee Brewers. 

That was two-and-a-half weeks ago and the Cubs initially tabbed the Grade-2 hamstring strain as a roughly four-week timeline. But team president Theo Epstein said Wednesday Contreras is not nearing a rehab stint.

"He's in what our trainers are calling the aggressive strengthening phase of his rehab, which is building up the hamstring strength now that he's gotten through the initial injury," Epstein said. "Always what comes with that is the strength deficit that you have to really be mindful of building back up so that you don't risk reinjuring it when you get back to full baseball activities. 

"You're gonna see him on the field a lot more over the next few days and hopefully soon he'll be progressing to baseball activities. He's not on the cusp of starting a rehab assignment or anything like that. He hasn't really progressed to baseball activities yet, so that will be the next step."

The minor-league season wraps up in the first couple days of September, so Contreras won't have much of an opportunity to get game at-bats and innings at catcher if he isn't able to head on a rehab stint soon.

But the Cubs won't rush it with one of their most important players. Contreras was hitting .275 with 19 homers, 57 RBI and an .890 OPS in 87 games before the injury.

In his absence, the Cubs have been pretty well covered with Victor Caratini and Jonathan Lucroy splitting duties behind the dish.

Lucroy - acquired Aug. 8 after being released by the Los Angeles Angels - is hitting .333 with a .798 OPS in 7 games and has impressed with his work as a game-caller and veteran presence. Caratini continues to put up quality at-bats while building on his breakout campaign.