Cubs

Jorge Soler's perfect throw home saves day for Cubs

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Jorge Soler's perfect throw home saves day for Cubs

Miguel Montero caught a quick glimpse as Tony Cruz chugged toward home plate and suspected the Cubs had a shot to make a play. From their vantage points, Dexter Fowler and Trevor Cahill were far more confident about Jorge Soler’s chances.

Meanwhile, Clayton Richard missed most of it from the bullpen.

But what occurred in a 57-second span in the sixth inning on Tuesday night and again several minutes later wildly altered the Cubs’ fortunes. 

Soler first saved the day when he squashed a game-tying St. Louis Cardinals rally with an outfield assist and Anthony Rizzo capitalized on the momentum swing with a solo homer three batters later. The Cubs rode the two plays and a Kyle Schwarber homer to a 6-4 victory in Game 4 to complete an upset of the Cardinals in the National League Divisional Series. The victory advanced the Cubs to the NL Championship Series, which begins Saturday in either Los Angeles or New York.

“I saw (Cruz) was still out there, so I’m like ‘All right, let me go back and see if I can make this play,’” Montero said. “But it was actually a good throw. Probably didn’t have too much on it. But it was a good throw.

“We killed the rally right there and Rizzo was able to hit another homer so it was huge.”

[MORE: Jake Arrieta on Cubs: ‘Nobody wants to play us right now’]

The Cardinals’ sixth-inning recovery against Cahill had the ability to dash the Cubs’ postseason hopes in an instant. While there wasn’t a critical error to extend it like in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS or the seventh inning of Game 5 in 1984, St. Louis was on the verge of a comeback that could have sunk the Cubs. Instead of completing the upset in four games, the Cubs could have had to head back to St. Louis for a winner-take-all Game 5 on Thursday.

Down 4-2, Jason Heyward led off the sixth with a single against Travis Wood. Jhonny Peralta then greeted Cahill with another single to silence the sellout crowd of 42,411. 

Cahill responded with strikeouts of Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong to bring the crowd back to life. He also jumped ahead of Cruz— a late addition to the lineup after Yadier Molina was scratched because of a thumb injury — 1-2 in the count only for the backup catcher to cue a 95-mph sinker into right field for a two-out RBI single. Pinch-hitter Brandon Moss then looked as if he may bring the Wrigley crowd to its knees when he ripped a 0-1 changeup to right for a single. Not only did Peralta score the tying run, the slow-footed Cruz headed for home to try and put the Cardinals ahead. 

“I was like ‘Uh oh,’ ” Cahill said.

But as the play developed, Cahill realized the Cubs might be headed for the dugout as Soler quickly collected it on a hop. 

“Soler has a cannon,” Cahill said.

Without hesitation, Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo waved Cruz home, a call manager Mike Matheny agreed with.

“We needed to test the outfield,” Matheny said.

[RELATED: At Wrigley, Cubs become baseball's biggest party and best story]

Fowler wouldn’t have made the same choice as Soler has what Baseball America described as “an easy plus arm.” He figured Soler had a great shot to nab Cruz.

“With his arm, I don’t think you can go right there,” Fowler said. “But they had to make a choice.”

So did Montero. 

Catchers always have to evaluate whether or not there is a chance to make a play on a throw home or if they should run up to cut off the throw and avoid any chance of the ball skipping past.

Bench coach Dave Martinez said it was a no-brainer for Montero because of where Cruz was and because it was Soler. His voice hoarse from yelling and jersey soaked with champagne, Martinez said he had confidence in Soler because they work on similar plays on a daily basis.

“You pretty much know you’ve gotta let the ball go and we’ve gotta take a shot,” Martinez said. “I knew if (Soler) came up with it we’d have a good chance.

“It was a perfect throw.”

Once Montero peeked down the line, he decided to back up. Soler’s throw perfectly one-hopped and in one motion Montero caught it and tagged Cruz with plate ump Mark Carlson immediately calling Cruz out.

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The Cubs were optimistic they escaped a potential landmine but had to wait to see if Matheny would challenge the call. The momentary pause caused Richard, who stopped warming up to watch the throw, to rapidly start throwing again because left-hander Matt Carpenter stood in the on-deck circle.

“We didn’t know if it was going to get reviewed or not so I had to keep on throwing,” Richard said. “Unfortunately, I missed everything.”

Once the replay showed, Matheny knew he couldn’t win a replay challenge and backed down. The crowd roared to life and the Cubs headed off the field with Cahill both upset and relieved.

“(Soler) absolutely saved my ass,” Cahill said. “I was really upset I gave up the lead, they tied it up on me.”

Three batters later, Rizzo made it moot with a solo homer off Kevin Siegrist to put the Cubs ahead for good. While Montero called the play huge, he’s not sure the Cubs would have reached that point had it not been for the base runner. Moss’s single took a late, high hop on Soler, which slightly slowed down the right fielder’s momentum and affected the throw.

“Probably didn’t have too much on it,” Montero said. “But it was a good throw.

“Good thing it was Cruz running, another catcher. Catchers, we are really slow.”

Cubs Mailbag: Will Kris Bryant play more at third or in the outfield next year?

Cubs Mailbag: Will Kris Bryant play more at third or in the outfield next year?

Some guys pump iron with personal trainers, eat kale salads and recoup in cryotherapy machines to make room for the gluttony of the holidays. Not me. I'm getting into shape for Thanksgiving the old fashioned way - by carrying the weight of some heavy questions from Cubs fans. So, strap on the old feedbag and let's dig right in.

Q: Do you think the Cubs get Harper? - @intensify

Luke Stuckmeyer: First of all, way to intensify the situation. This question might be in every Cubs mailbag we have until Harper finally finds a home. I'll give you my best guess. Bryce can really mash some taters and the Cubs could obviously use another big bat from the left side. I just don't think they are going to dive *that* deep into the holiday spirit. I'll say 75/25 that he ends up somewhere else. I think another team trying to make a splash will spend an insane amount of money to make Harper the face of their franchise. The Cubs already have three of those players in Bryant, Rizzo and Baez.

Q: Will we see Kris Bryant as a 3rd baseman or in the outfield next season? - @kimsrad

LS: Yes and yes. I think Joe Maddon will use Kris Bryant in both places. Expect the Cubs to have a more consistent batting order next year, but the lineup flexibility will continue in the field. I do think Bryant will play more game in LF than he will at 3B. The Cubs have always envisioned this is where Bryant might eventually end up at some point. I'd like to see former Cubs prospect Josh Donaldson return to the franchise via free agency for a few years and let Bryant take over full-time in left. We'll see how free agency unfolds, but regardless I see more outfield games for KB moving forward.

Q: What do you consider more important, a good top of the lineup hitter or a lockdown closer? - @tscott119

LS: Great question! In my opinion these are the two most important needs for the roster this offseason. I'll vote for the closer because a good dessert is always more important to a great meal than a good appetizer. A true lockdown closer helps shorten the game in the postseason and with Morrow's injury concerns, I want to see the bullpen beefed up. Help the starters by shortening the game. That said, leadoff hitter is still the second most important area of need on this team. The Cubs have been trying to find an answer to this riddle since Dexter Fowler left. So, I'd like a helping of each this offseason.

Q: Are the Cubs going to bring Jesse Chavez back? I sure hope so! #Cubs - @LindsTeach1386

LS: This goes perfectly with the last question. "Build the Bullpen" would be one of my themes of the winter and Chavez was terrific in Cubs uniform with a 1.15 ERA. He throws strikes and the Cubs also need that from relievers, too. He's told teammates that if he's not wearing a Cubs uniform next season he hang up the cleats after 11 seasons. I think he'll be back and it shouldn't be "too expensive."

Q: I'm asking Santa for a Schwarber jersey for Christmas. Does the big guy in the red suit need to put in a good for Schwarbs? #Cubs - @mommymack23

LS: For the record, I think Kap usually wears blue suits. I'd ask for the shirsey. Schwarber's name will be mentioned a lot this winter.

Q: Has this era of Cubs players peaked? - @spiceycentipede3

LS: I don't think so. It will be tough to ever top an historic 2016, but I believe there are more championships in this core group. This is still a young team and a healthy Kris Bryant can completely change the lineup. Now, let's see if Javy can take another step after an outstanding season and if Willson Contreras can bounce back as the best catcher in the NL. Theo preaches that player development isn't always linear in baseball. I hope he's right!

Well, that's six questions. One for every heaping helping that this turkey plans to take down on Thanksgiving. Thanks for all the great questions. Have a great and safe holiday next week. 

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

Do the Cubs envision Ian Happ as a vital piece of their future or the organization's best trade asset?

What about Kyle Schwarber? Albert Almora Jr.? Victor Caratini? 

We might not get surefire answers to these questions this winter, but we'll at least get an indication in a pivotal offseason for this quartet. (The Cubs already know what they have with their other young position players apart from maybe Willson Contreras, but it's nearly impossible to find another catcher in the same stratosphere as Contreras in terms of physical tools and potential).

The Cubs are at a crossroads of sorts with the development of these four players (and others) as they try to retool for another run at a championship in 2019 after a disappointing end to 2018. There's urgency for production in the lineup and not simply potential and the growing pains that coincide with young players.

So how do the Cubs determine if they should sell stock on players like Happ, Schwarber or Almora when it's still unknown who — or what — they are as players?

"Through evaluation and through a lot of discussion with our most trusted evaluators and the people around the players every day," Theo Epstein said last week at the GM Meetings. "And through conversations with the players, too. Honest discussions about their weaknesses.

"I don't want to generalize, but many players follow a path where they come up from the minor leagues and have some immediate success and as the league finds out more about them, the league makes an adjustment. I've never seen a major-league environment that's more ruthless than the one that exists today. We're going right to a player's weakness, quickly finding it, exploiting it and staying there until they adjust back.

"You have to have honest conversations about the area where players need to improve in order to have the types of careers that they want to have in order to help us win the way they want to help us win. And seeing how players react to that and the plans they come up with and the work ethic to make those adjustments and the trace record to make those adjustments — all that stuff really matters."

We know the Cubs don't operate with any "untouchables" (as was reiterated in a very high-profile way over the last week), but that's also all about how important the word value is.

The Cubs have zero interest in selling low on guys like Schwarber, Almora or Happ because those are three players they've held conviction on for years as first-round draft picks to top prospects to impact players in the big leagues. 

But it's also entirely possible another team around the league values Schwarber more than the Cubs do and offer Epstein's front office a deal that's too hard to pass up. Sure, Schwarber's 2018 was something of a disappointment, but he also drastically increased his walk rate, cut down on strikeouts and improved his defense. Oh yeah, and he'll still only be 26 in March.

We could run the same exercise for Almora, Happ and Caratini, but the main takeaway here is that the evaluations of these players are incomplete as they're still very young/inexperienced with potential.

But if the Cubs trade any of those three guys this winter, it's not necessarily an indication of doom for the player. It's more about finding the right time to pull the trigger.

"That's the nature of it," Epstein said. "Trades happen in this game. A lot of times when trades are made, it doesn't mean you've completely given up on a player. A lot of trades are more about what you're receiving back than what you're giving up in the first place."

There's also value for the Cubs in not necessarily selling one of those young players but choosing to get a little more veteran and diverse with a lineup that "broke" in the second half, as Epstein described it.

Due to the inexperience and youth, the Cubs lineup was more prone to slumps. That was highlighted by the trade for (and subsequent playing time of) Daniel Murphy in August. When the veteran hitter was acquired, the Cubs initially intended to utilize him to help augment the lineup on a fairly regular basis, but with the struggles around him, they instead needed to lean on Murphy to play essentially every day.

When it comes down to it, the Cubs just want production — no matter where it comes from.

"We're setting out to add to the personnel, so I guess in that sense, if we come back with the status quo, it means there are a couple things out there that we would've lovd to have done that we couldn't, but that happens," Epstein said. "But I think ultimately, we should be held accountable for our performance, not for the amount of change in the names. And we will be. This group will be.

"In order to keep this thing going with the realities of the business and what happens as players move through the service time structure and escalating salaries and everything else, the time for that talent to translate into performance is now to get the absolute most out of this group. Or else we're going to be looking at some hard realities and the need for a lot of change going forward."