Cubs

Game 4 NLCS pitching matchup: Experienced John Lackey vs. naive Julio Urias

Game 4 NLCS pitching matchup: Experienced John Lackey vs. naive Julio Urias

LOS ANGELES — The Game 4 starters for the National League Championship Series couldn't be more different.

It's not so much of young vs. old, though it is that.

Dodgers southpaw Julio Urias just turned 20 and will be the youngest pitcher ever to start an NLCS game.

Cubs right-hander John Lackey turns 38 on Sunday (what would be Game 7 if the series goes that far) and is at the tail end of his 14th year in the big leagues.

Lackey has almost twice as many postseason innings on his resume (131 1/3) than Urias has in his entire MLB career (77 innings, all coming in 2016).

But that doesn't mean the Cubs have the clear advantage in what has become essentially a must-win game with the Dodgers up in the series and the possibility of Clayton Kershaw looming in Game 5.

"Sometimes it can be good to be young," Lackey said. "You don't know what you're getting into. You can just go out there and let your talent take over. And, obviously, he has a lot of that.

"It's a new situation for him. Back then, I was just worried about, you know, not messing it up for the older guys more than anything."

Now Lackey is one of the "older guys," a grizzled veteran who helped nurture some of the Cubs' young players and brought an edge to the clubhouse in a season where the goal from Day 1 has been World Series or bust.

Lackey has cut his teeth on the "Big Boy Games" he has been talking about all season and will get another chance to show off his cowboy style Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium.

They're going to need his edge to get back on track. A Game 4 win would turn the NLCS into a best-of-three series and give the Cubs homefield advantage with Games 6 and 7 set to be played at Wrigley Field.

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Lackey views this start as a new challenge and said he doesn't spend much time looking back at the two championship runs he's been through (in 2002 and 2013).

"I had a long break in between World Series, so you realize how special they are and how hard it is to get there and how meaningful those games are," Lackey said. "They're tough to get to and tough to win.

"At this point in my career, you've got to put in the work, you've got to put in the time. I don't got time to think that far back. I'm thinking ahead, and those are things maybe I'll check out on video when I retire in a few years."

Lackey isn't exactly in the twilight of his career. Joe Maddon said he still sees the same guy he saw start Game 7 of the 2002 World Series for the Anaheim Angels (where Maddon was on the coaching staff) and actually believes the veteran is in even better shape now.

Lackey struck out 8.6 batters per nine innings in 2016, tied for the best mark of his career. And he has won 24 games with a 3.03 ERA over the last two seasons (he spent 2015 with the St. Louis Cardinals).

"He's a cowboy when he pitches," Maddon said. "He goes right after hitters. There's not a whole lot hidden when John pitches."

As for a big start, Lackey believes his experience really only comes into play with the smaller stuff — press conference the day before a start, longer TV timeouts, flyovers and other pregame festivities.

Urias admitted the pressure is always there and that he felt it during his NLDS appearance against the Nationals in Washington — his only postseason action — in which he walked two and allowed a hit in two innings of scoreless work.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he didn't have to talk to Urias after the outing and has confidence in the 20-year-old to deliver in a high-pressure situation.

"He's just so calm and cool," Roberts said. "Some of it plays to the youthfulness, the naïveté, and just not really understanding the gravity of the moment, which is great.

"It's just these guys, the world around them, the noise, they just completely eliminated it. And it's just fun to watch these young guys go. Julio — I have no concerns about him taking the ball."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.