Cubs

Joe Maddon wants Cubs to take the fight to NL Central

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Joe Maddon wants Cubs to take the fight to NL Central

Aroldis Chapman blew away Mike Olt with four straight fastballs. The first one hit 99 mph. The next three clocked 100 mph. Game. Over.

That’s how the dominant, mysterious Cincinnati Reds closer sent everyone home on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, closing out a 3-2 victory over the Cubs. Welcome to the National League Central.

It’s not as glamorous as the old American League East that made Theo Epstein a legend throughout New England for taking down the Evil Empire. Or Joe Maddon a big celebrity for transforming the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in their David and Goliath story against the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

But this division features five teams that are going for it now, and the Cubs manager knows what that means for Jorge Soler and Arismendy Alcantara and eventually Kris Bryant and Javier Baez.

“You have to beat the best to be the best,” Maddon said. “So I love when your own division is very, very competitive. I think young players get better sooner because they got to show up every day. Otherwise, you will be embarrassed.

“When you’re playing good teams, you really have to show up, and I think our division’s going to really draw that out of our young players.”

[MORE: Cubs can't hide Jon Lester's throwing issues]

Jake Arrieta learned that the hard way with the Baltimore Orioles. Arrieta blossomed after that change-of-scenery trade in July 2013, taking two no-hitters into the seventh inning against the Reds last season.

“Nothing is going to be handed to you,” said Arrieta, who retired the first nine Reds before a three-run fourth inning. “You’re having to face guys that are the best of the best, day in, day out, series after series. So, yeah, you have no choice but to grow up quick, or else you’re going to be shipped out.

“Playing that level of competition really escalates your development. It has to. Because if you want to survive there, you have to find ways to get it done.

“We’re in the thick of it right here in the Central. It’s no slouch.”

Except for that one inning, Arrieta (1-1, 1.98 ERA) again looked like a frontline guy against the Reds (5-3). But the only offense this lineup could generate came from pinch-hitter/No. 3 catcher Welington Castillo, who hit a two-run homer off ex-Cub Kevin Gregg in the eighth inning. The Cubs (4-3) ran out of late-game magic against Chapman, falling out of first place.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Epstein’s front office and veteran players viewed as short-term assets have talked about the urgency of getting off to a good start the last few years, so the team wouldn’t get blown up at the trade deadline.

Now, the Cubs hope to be buyers on July 31, and 25 of their first 31 games come against Central opponents.

“The start is just so essential, especially when you’re in a really competitive division,” Epstein said. “We put ourselves in a big hole the last few years. I think we have more talent this year and we have a more realistic chance to go do some damage and really compete.

“(But) focus on getting off to a good start. It’s so important in this division.”

It’s not necessarily the same as going into Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium.

But everyone knows about the St. Louis Cardinals and their 11 World Series titles. The Reds have made the playoffs three times since 2010. The Pittsburgh Pirates are coming off back-to-back seasons winning a wild card. The Milwaukee Brewers spent 159 days in first place last season.

“You got to take charge of your division,” Maddon said. “You have to ascend within your division. Nobody’s going to be just giving us anything here. Not at all. We have to go out there and take that momentum. We have to take our place within the division. As it should be.”

Kris Bryant is ready for fatherhood '[I was] put on this earth to be a dad'

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USA TODAY

Kris Bryant is ready for fatherhood '[I was] put on this earth to be a dad'

Suffice to say Kris Bryant is budding with anticipation for becoming a father.

Bryant and his wife, Jessica, are expecting their first child — a baby boy due in April. During Friday night’s Cubs-Padres broadcast, the third baseman shared his excitement for fatherhood with reporter Taylor McGregor

“I think this is really what I’ve been put on this Earth to do, is be a dad,” Bryant said, laughing. “Obviously I play baseball pretty good, but I’m just so excited [for] this new journey with my wife and my family. Honestly, I think this is going to be one of the best years of my life.”

Bryant’s son is due shortly after Opening Day, but the Cubs will play two spring training games in Las Vegas — Bryant’s hometown — on March 7-8. He told McGregor one of Jessica’s last doctor’s appointments is around the same time, so Bryant will get one last visit in before Baby Bryant is born.

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How Dusty Baker inspired former Cub Adam Greenberg after scary head injury

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AP

How Dusty Baker inspired former Cub Adam Greenberg after scary head injury

Adam Greenberg’s baseball career was cut short by a scary head injury 15 years ago. But with the help of Dusty Baker, he found the motivation to transition to his post-baseball life.

Greenberg made his MLB debut with the Cubs on July 9, 2005, and Baker called upon the then 24-year-old to pinch-hit in the ninth inning against the Marlins. On the first pitch Greenberg saw in the big leagues, Marlins reliever Valerio De Los Santos hit him in the back of the head with a 92-mph fastball.

Greenberg was concussed from the incident, suffered from vertigo and vision problems, and battled depression. The Cubs released him in 2006 and he caught on with the Royals and later the Dodgers in 2007 — which is when Baker reappears in the story. From MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart:

A couple of years following the incident, in 2007, Baker got a letter from a fan requesting a baseball card be signed. In the letter, the person told Baker that Greenberg had been released by the Royals and his baseball career was in jeopardy. Baker tracked down Greenberg and left him the voice mail that served as his motivation for a post-baseball life.

“It was so genuine and from the heart,” Greenberg said. “It put me in tears the first time, but it was the motivation and inspiration I needed to get up and keep going. And since then, he’s been somebody that’s been near and dear to me."

It's unfortunate Greenberg couldn’t experience a long big-league career, but Baker inspired him and helped him move forward post-baseball. According to McTaggart, Greenberg started a nutrition company and sold it 10 years later. He also ran for state senate in Connecticut in 2019 and is currently a baseball analyst for the ACC Network.

Greenberg’s career effectively ended moments after it began, but 2005 wasn’t the last time he stepped in a big-league batters’ box. In 2012, fans started an online petition to get him one last at-bat — and his career came full circle. The Marlins signed him to a one-day contract on Oct. 2, 2012, and he pinch-hit that same day against the Mets.

Greenberg struck out on three pitches, but Baker’s voicemail left a mark on his life. Seeing him enjoy success outside of baseball is as heartwarming as it gets.