Cubs

Lifelong Mets fan Steven Matz stands between Cubs and elimination

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Lifelong Mets fan Steven Matz stands between Cubs and elimination

Steven Matz grew up on Long Island as a New York Mets fan, and on Wednesday will have a chance to help sweep the Cubs and send his childhood team to the World Series.

Game 4 of the National League Championship Series will only be Matz’s eighth major league start. He made his debut in The Show June 28 — and, incredibly, went 3-3 with four RBIs against Cincinnati — but suffered a partial tear of his lat muscle in early July that sidelined him for two months.

Upon returning to the Mets rotation in early September, the 24-year-old left-hander made four starts, but was scratched from a scheduled Sept. 30 outing due to upper back spasms. But what Matz may lack in experience, he makes up for with an excellent repertoire.

“This guy's got plus stuff,” manager Terry Collins said. “He's got a plus fastball. He's going to be 94 to 97. He's got a plus curveball. He's got a good changeup.”

[MORE: Mets pounce on Cubs to take 3-0 lead in NLCS]

Matz allowed nine runs in 35 2/3 innings (a 2.27 ERA) in his six regular season starts, then fired five innings of three-run ball in Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. A common thread between Matz’s starts, though, is plenty of time off — he pitched on six days rest twice in the regular season, and went 19 days between his Sept. 24 and Oct. 13 starts.

Matz isn’t on as significant a break this time around — nine days — but said he’s learned how to manage those lengthy breaks. He threw a pair of bullpen sessions during his currently layoff and said adjusting to something other than an every-fifth-day schedule hasn’t been difficult.

“It hasn't been too challenging,” Matz said. “I’m still able to get my work in in between starts. You know, you're not on necessarily a routine as I was during the regular season. But I'm still able to get my work in, and I still feel fresh for each start.”

[NBC SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

Collins said he hopes to get five or six innings out of Matz in Game 4 before turning things over to a well-rested bullpen.

Cubs hitters posted a .238/.319/.372 slash line against left-handers during the regular season, and only 29 of their 171 home runs came against Southpaws. He hasn’t faced the Cubs in his career and only faced one of their affiliates once — a 2014 start against the high Class-A Daytona Cubs, which didn’t have any current major leagues in its lineup.

Still, while the Cubs’ bats haven’t produced this series, Matz said he’ll follow the lead of the three starters before him as he looks to live out every kid’s dream and pitch his favorite team into the World Series.

“They look like a tough lineup,” Matz said. “They're a bunch of young, fiery guys. Matt (Harvey) and Noah (Syndergaard) have done a great job the first two games, so I'm just going to watch Jacob (DeGrom) today, see how he attacks them, and try to just build off those guys.”

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.