Cubs

How the stars aligned for Cubs: Rizzo, Bryant, Arrieta, Maddon

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How the stars aligned for Cubs: Rizzo, Bryant, Arrieta, Maddon

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Cubs took over Disneyland territory and made a Los Angeles Angels cast headlined by Mike Trout and Albert Pujols feel like The Other Team.

The Arizona Diamondbacks might not be an afterthought on Thursday night at Chase Field, but the Cubs have no other choice except to “Embrace The Target” for the next 160 games. Sweeping the Angels by a 15-1 aggregate score and hearing fans sing “Go Cubs Go” on their way out to the parking lots showed what could be ahead this season.

Before the Cubs became Revenants on a Sports Illustrated cover, the last time they played at Angel Stadium of Anaheim was June 4-5, 2013. That’s a jumping-off point for how the stars aligned for what had been a star-crossed franchise.

• Anthony Rizzo: During the first offseason for the Theo Epstein administration in Chicago, the Cubs looked at Pujols and Prince Fielder and pictured the first basemen on a stock chart. The front-office projections had Rizzo’s performance eventually rising to the point where he would pass Pujols and Fielder as they inevitably declined in their later years.

The Cubs still don’t have the kind of TV contract that led the Angels to splurge on a 10-year, $254 million megadeal for Pujols at the 2011 winter meetings. One month later, Cubs executives who knew Rizzo from their time together with the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres looked beyond his struggles at Petco Park, giving up hard-throwing/injury-prone pitcher Andrew Cashner.

Rizzo may never come close to matching what Pujols did for the St. Louis Cardinals (two World Series rings, three MVP awards) or finding the level of consistency that allowed the future Hall of Famer to earn 10 All-Star selections and hit 40 homers in his age-35 season last year.

But Rizzo is clearly the player to build around now — at a fraction of the cost — while Pujols tries to stay healthy and transition into being a part-time designated hitter. Rizzo is a Gold Glove-level defender coming off a 31-homer, 101-RBI season, and the team has taken on his personality, striking the right balance between goofy and serious.

“We’re really hungry,” Rizzo said. “If anyone in this clubhouse is thinking about the World Series right now, we’re in the wrong spot. We need to think about tomorrow, winning the game (and) dominating April.”

[MORE: After all the hype, Jon Lester ready to roll with Cubs]

• Kris Bryant: Before Darwin Barney batted leadoff on June 5, 2013 in Orange County, the Cubs had already eliminated University of North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran from consideration for the No. 2 overall pick they couldn’t whiff on, leaving two pitchers and a fast-rising hitter still in the conversation.

As the draft unfolded the next day, the Houston Astros selected Stanford University right-hander Mark Appel with the top pick, giving the Cubs their shot at the University of San Diego slugger who led the nation in homers, runs scored, walks and slugging percentage.

Jon Gray — the University of Oklahoma right-hander who dropped to No. 3 — put up a 5.53 ERA in nine starts for the Colorado Rockies last year. The Astros packaged Appel (5.12 ERA in the minors) in the Ken Giles trade with the Philadelphia Phillies this winter. Houston had already acquired Moran — the sixth overall pick who spent last year at the Double-A level — from the Miami Marlins in the Jarred Cosart trade at the 2014 deadline.

Meanwhile, all lines are open at Bryzzo Souvenir Co.

“This could be a very special thing that we have here,” said Bryant, already an All-Star third baseman and a Rookie of the Year. “But we just really need to focus on this year and not really get too ahead of ourselves. There are so many things that can happen in this game. We’re here focusing on today.”

• Jake Arrieta: The pitching infrastructure that just helped shut down Trout and Pujols (0-for-15 with five strikeouts) had already been in place by June 4, 2013, when sign-and-flip guy Scott Feldman got a tough-luck no-decision in a one-run loss to the Angels.

Five weeks later, the Cubs sold high on Feldman (7-6, 3.46 ERA) and shipped him to the Baltimore Orioles in a trade for change-of-scenery pitchers Arrieta and Pedro Strop.

Arrieta’s unconventional workout routine/nutrition regimen has been covered at length, and there are almost two full seasons left to place over-under bets ($200 million) on how much super-agent Scott Boras will get his client in free agency.

But in listening to a Cy Young Award winner explain how to attack the Angels, it’s also clear how much Arrieta enjoys thinking about his craft and preparing for each start. Meaning there are intangible benefits to his presence and reasons to believe he will keep performing at a high level.

“Trout’s a guy who is exceptional at hitting the ball down in the zone really well for power,” Arrieta said, “both to the pull side and to right-center field. So you got to move the ball away from him and into him — to kind of keep him from getting extended — and elevate from time to time. Remaining unpredictable is really big against guys like him (and) Pujols (who) hit the fastball well.

“I expect to pitch this way every time I take the mound. Obviously, once the ball leaves your hand, you can’t dictate the results. But I expect to execute at a pretty high percentage. If I execute — and pound the strike zone with my stuff and keep them guessing — I have a pretty good opportunity to have another good year.”

[SHOP: Gear up for the new season, Cubs fans!]

• Joe Maddon: The Cubs lucked out when Andrew Friedman bolted from the Tampa Bay Rays after the 2014 season and took a president’s job with the Los Angeles Dodgers, allowing the star manager to use the escape clause in his contract.

But Maddon still knows the groundskeeper by name in Anaheim and appreciates what he learned during his three-plus decades in the Angels organization. Places like Gene Autry Park and Idaho Falls — and the long climb to the top — shaped him into the perfect ringleader for this circus.

“I really trust our players,” Maddon said. “When you talk about pressure and expectations, understand it’s spread out among the whole group. It’s not just on one guy. We have so many good players here. A lot of them have been through the baseball wars before where they’ve been very successful. We’re going to have our rough moments. (But) we have the ability – mentally, physically – to fight through those moments.

“If you factor in everything, experience, talent level, motivation — because all of them want to be here to become part of the first team that wins the World Series for the Cubs in a long, long time — there are so many good things here to repel pressure and expectations.”

Cubs optimistic Javy Baez avoided serious injury on hit-by-pitch

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AP

Cubs optimistic Javy Baez avoided serious injury on hit-by-pitch

ST. LOUIS — Cubs nation can breathe a sigh of relief for now.

The team announced Javy Baez has a left elbow contusion after taking a 90 mph fastball off it in the third inning of Sunday night's game. Baez will still undergo X-rays to be sure there is nothing more sinister at play, but for now, it looks as if he has avoided serious injury.

Still, this is not what the Cubs wanted to see.

The Cubs entered play Sunday night having gone 24-12 since getting swept out of St. Louis in the first weekend of May. They were feeling good about themselves, starting to get their mojo back and playing more like the team everybody expected.

And then Baez took a fastball off the left elbow:

After a couple minute delay, Baez was led off the field and Addison Russell came in off the bench to replace him at first base.

The 25-year-old was in the midst of a breakout season for the Cubs, sitting 5th in the National League with 46 RBI and on pace for a near 30-30 seaosn (33 homers, 29 stolen bases). 

He had slowed a bit (.175 average, .502 OPS in June) but still gives the Cubs so much energy and versatility on a daily basis with his ability to move around the infield and lineup.

If the Cubs are going to be without Baez for any length of time, it could be a huge blow to a team that was just hitting its stride.

Yadier Molina is sad and Cubs fans have a new favorite GIF

Yadier Molina is sad and Cubs fans have a new favorite GIF

ST. LOUIS — The game was over and Yadier Molina knew it.

As Ian Happ turned on Sam Tuivailala's two-strike pitch in the 7th inning, Molina crumbled to the ground in defeat.

Happ's two-out double gave the Cubs a 4-3 lead they did not relinquish in a 6-3 victory Saturday night at Busch Stadium.

The Cubs had to claw back all night against the Cardinals, fighting to tie the game at two separate spots before Happ's breakthrough off Tuivailala.

Molina couldn't contain his disappointment:

Molina is a common target of ire from Cubs fans in the heated rivalry with the Cardinals, so you can bet his #SadFace led to some glee in the Chicago fanbase (just look at the comments on that Tweet):

The 35-year-old catcher just returned recently from a nearly month-long stint on the disabled list when he took a foul tip off a Kris Bryant swing to the groin on Jordan Hicks' 102 mph pitch the last time the Cubs were in town.

Molina has drawn 3 walks and has a single in this weekend's series with the Cubs, but he also committed a miscue in Friday's game, when he threw wild to first base on Jon Lester's squeeze bunt.

The Cubs are now 24-12 since they were swept in St. Louis on the first weekend of May.