Cubs

How Cubs see Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez and all the other pieces fitting together

How Cubs see Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez and all the other pieces fitting together

Ben Zobrist is a three-time All-Star and a World Series MVP with a $56 million contract, no-trade protections and enormous respect inside the clubhouse. Zobrist is secure enough to admit that the Cubs will need to play Javier Baez more this year, even if it means shifting back to more of a super-utility role.
 
Baez became a breakout star as the Cubs won their first World Series title since 1908, starting all 17 playoff games at second base, making highlight-reel plays look routine, turning tagging into an art form and showcasing his confident personality. Baez has no doubt that he should be an everyday player.
 
The Cubs are built with depth, flexibility and the 162-game marathon in mind. A potential six-man rotation – with the Brett Anderson deal becoming official on Thursday – and a collection of versatile defenders should help keep them fresh for October (and lead to inevitable grumbling about messing with routines and timing).
 
After a winter where he faced repeated questioning about the way he managed Games 6 and 7 in the World Series, Joe Maddon will again have to massage egos, entertain/inform/distract the media and not lose sight of the big picture. Bench coach Dave Martinez and pitching coach Chris Bosio should at least expect to have some difficult conversations with frustrated players, putting out fires before it gets back to Maddon's office.
 
Zobrist vs. Baez will be one of countless variables when Maddon sits down at a Starbucks and writes out the lineup on his iPad.
 
"There's all kinds of stuff going on there," Maddon said. "Of course, you've got to keep everybody involved. (With Kyle) Schwarber being well, you look at Schwarber a lot in left field. And then you look at Javy at second base with Zo. You can even think about Zo in the outfield in right when you want to put Jason (Heyward) in center.
 
"I'm not worried about that right now."
 
In part because the Cubs went through this in spring training last year, when Dexter Fowler shocked the baseball world by taking a one-year, $13 million guarantee and showing up at the team's Arizona complex.
 
"It was kind of right around this time last year that we started having sort of more serious dialogue with Dexter about possibly coming back," general manager Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention in mid-January. "Up on the white board in my office, we all sat around and tried to figure out the playing time.
 
"We had (Jorge) Soler up there. We had Schwarber up there. We had Heyward up there. And (with) Dexter, we were trying to figure out how we could get him enough at-bats.

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"We kept saying: ‘If all the guys are healthy, it's going to be tight, but we can figure this out. And that's going to be Joe's problem.'"
 
By Game 3, Fowler and Schwarber had crashed into each other in Chase Field's left-center gap. The violent collision forced Schwarber to get major surgery on his left knee, setting the stage for a dramatic World Series return.
 
"It's a great lesson on depth," Hoyer said.
 
Zobrist will turn 36 in May and already has a World Series ring from the 2015 Kansas City Royals. He's a patient switch-hitter with contact skills and the ability to play all over the infield and outfield for a team that will be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, tailoring lineups for the opposing pitcher and setting specific defensive alignments behind that game's starter.
  
Beyond the 39 homers and 102 RBI, Kris Bryant won last year's National League MVP award with his strong defensive play all over the field, allowing Maddon to get more and more creative with his lineup decisions and in-game adjustments. Bryant, Heyward, Jon Jay, Albert Almora Jr. and Matt Szczur have the athleticism to play center field this season. Schwarber and Willson Contreras have experience in the outfield and behind the plate.
 
Maddon watched Baez develop last year and again brought up the idea of awarding a Gold Glove to a super-utility guy. When figuring out where to play Baez defensively – at least before that spectacular playoff performance – Maddon would take into account that game's starting pitcher and information from The Geek Department and try to figure out where the ball should be hit most often.
 
"He does some things on the field that you just don't teach," third base coach Gary Jones said. "He's one of the most instinctive guys that I've ever been around in my 30-plus years in this game. He just does things on the field that make you go: ‘Wow.'"
 
That's why Zobrist understood Maddon's decision to let Baez take over second base in October and early November.
 
"I'm going to talk about rest from Day 1," Maddon said. "I really think it's important, whether it's pitchers or position players to really be aware of giving guys rest.
 
"Zo's another year older. The last two years, he's played very deep into the year. (And) it's a long spring training with the WBC (World Baseball Classic) going on. Just try to get a pulse of everybody, where they're at, what you think they might need.
 
"Like last year, we were all worried about how we were going to figure out the outfield – and then two guys run into each other in Arizona. All of a sudden, it takes care of itself. I don't want that to happen that way. But I really believe that we'll be able to parcel the work out, based on conversation and just giving guys rest."

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

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USA Today

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Joe Maddon needed Mike Montgomery to get through at least six innings given the circumstances presenting the Cubs' manager before Game 2 of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Not only were the Cubs short a man in the bullpen (thanks to Brandon Morrow’s pants-related back injury), but Maddon had to use four relievers — including Pedro Strop for two innings — after Tyler Chatwood managed only five innings in Game 1 earlier in the afternoon. 

So when Montgomery — who had only thrown over 100 pitches once in the last two and a half seasons before Tuesday — saw his pitch count sit at 40 after two innings, and then 63 after three, he knew he needed to regroup to avoid creating a mess for the Cubs’ bullpen. 

What followed was a start that, statistically, wasn’t the most impressive of the five Montgomery’s made since re-joining the Cubs’ rotation earlier this year. But it was an important start in that the 28-year-old left-hander didn’t have his best stuff, yet didn’t give in to a good Dodgers lineup. And holding that bunch to one run over six innings was exactly what the Cubs needed in what turned out to be a 2-1 extra-inning win. 

“Especially when you don’t have have your best stuff, you always gotta — that’s when you really learn how to pitch,” Montgomery said. 

It’s also the kind of start that could be a major point in Montgomery’s favor when Maddon is presented with a decision to make on his starting rotation whenever Yu Darvish comes off the disabled list. Knowing that Montgomery can grind his way through six innings when his team needs it the most without his best stuff only can add to the confidence the Cubs have in him. 

Montgomery didn’t have his best stuff on Tuesday, issuing more walks (four) than he had in his previous four starts (three). He threw 48 pitches between the second and third innings, and only 25 of those pitches were strikes. Of the nine times the Dodgers reached base against Montgomery, six were the result of fastballs either leading to a walk or a hit. 

Even though the Dodgers were able to bother Montgomery a bit on his fastball, Maddon said that’s the pitch of his that’s impressed him the most over the last few weeks. 

“He never got rushed,” Maddon said. “In the past he would seem to get rushed when things weren’t going well, when he spot-started. Overall, fastball command is better — even though he was off a little bit tonight, the fastball command still exceeds what I’ve seen in the past couple of years on a more consistent basis. The changeup, really, good pitch. He got out of some jams but I think the fact that he knows where his fastball is going now is the difference-maker for him.”

Darvish will throw a simulated game on Wednesday after throwing two bullpen sessions last week. Maddon still doesn’t have a timetable for the $126 million right-hander’s return, and said he’s not entertaining what to do with his rotation until Darvish comes off the disabled list. But Maddon did mention Montgomery’s relative lack of an innings load — the most he’s thrown in a season in 130 2/3, which he did in 2017 — as a reason to perhaps not rush him into a permanent starting role the rest of the season. Going to a six-man rotation is a possibility, too, Maddon said. 

But the over-arching point is this: Montgomery will remain in the Cubs’ rotation as long as he keeps earning it. That can be the product of strong outings in which he has good stuff, or games like Tuesday in which he shows the Cubs the kind of resiliency most starters need to get through a full season. 

“I pitch well, good things happen,” Montgomery said. “I’ve always thought that. Opportunities, you just gotta make the most of them.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

For the second time in 1998, Sosa went back-to-back games with multiple home runs. After going yard twice on June 19 of that season, Slammin' Sammy again sent two balls into the bleachers on June 20.

He singlehandedly beat the Phillies that night, driving in 5 runs in a 9-4 Cubs victory.

But that wasn't the most impressive feat of the day from Sosa. His second homer was actually measured at a whopping 500 feet! It was the longest of the season, but not the longest of his career. On June 24, 2003, Sosa hit a homer at Wrigley measured at 511 feet.

The back-to-back big games raised Sosa's season OPS to 1.083 with a ridiculous .685 slugging percentage. He began June 1998 with a .608 slugging percentage.

Fun fact: Kerry Wood struck out 11 batters in 7.1 innings on June 20, 1998 to pick up his 7th big-league victory. As Wood marched to the National League Rookie of the Year that season, he finished with a 13-6 record and 233 strikeouts in only 166.2 innings for a career-high 12.6 K/9 rate.