Cubs

Max Scherzer would trade Cy Young for World Series rings Cubs will give Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks

Max Scherzer would trade Cy Young for World Series rings Cubs will give Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks

“I don’t want to sound like an a--hole or anything,” Jon Lester would say at the beginning of October, “but we haven’t really done anything yet.” The Cubs ace raised the expectations to World Series or bust when he signed with a last-place team during the 2014 winter meetings, insisting the entire clubhouse would trade in all the individual accolades for championship rings.

Kyle Hendricks admired the way Tom Brady went from a backup quarterback at the University of Michigan to a sixth-round draft pick to a three-time Super Bowl MVP with the New England Patriots, always playing with a chip on his shoulder and never being underprepared. But even Hendricks never saw this coming, reporting to spring training as a fifth starter and ending his breakthrough season by starting Game 7 of the World Series.

In many ways, Lester and Hendricks are very different. Lester is left-handed, almost six years older, a cancer survivor, emotional on the mound and shaped by the intense pressure he used to feel inside the Boston Red Sox organization. While Lester has a $155 million contract, Hendricks is the Dartmouth College graduate who dissects hitters with the blank look of someone running errands on Southport Avenue, where he could walk down the street this summer largely unnoticed.

But Lester and Hendricks can both clearly see the big picture and will be bonded forever as part of The Team that ended a 108-year drought. They certainly won’t be crushed by the news that Max Scherzer is this year’s National League Cy Young Award winner.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America revealed the results on Wednesday night, with Scherzer getting 25 of 30 first-place votes and 192 points in a landslide victory. Lester (102 points) and Hendricks (85 points) finished second and third in a vote that took place before the playoffs started.

“I’d trade it for what Lester and Hendricks have — that World Series ring,” Scherzer said during the MLB Network announcement show.

Always a cerebral student, Hendricks (16-8) moved outside his comfort zone and added new wrinkles to his game, keeping hitters off-balance through unpredictable pitch sequences and attacking them with two- and four-seam fastballs, curveballs and changeups.

That command, conviction and creativity — plus a shutdown defense — led to an ERA title (2.13), a 0.979 WHIP, the majors’ highest percentage of soft contact induced (25.1 percent, according to FanGraphs) and the lowest opponents’ OPS (.581).

“Our starting pitching really carried us for most of the season,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “Hendricks’ growth, I thought, was a big story of the season, and especially in the postseason, when you compare where he was this October to last October, in terms of his endurance and the weapons that he had to attack good-hitting lineups.

“His performance this October versus last October was an obvious, significant step forward.”

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By the NL Championship Series, Clayton Kershaw called him “the Greg Maddux of this generation.” Hendricks responded by beating the three-time Cy Young Award winner in Game 6, limiting the Los Angeles Dodgers to two hits across 7 1/3 scoreless innings and helping the Cubs win their first pennant in 71 years.

“It’s watching him really, truly control a ballgame,” said special assistant Ryan Dempster, who approved a trade to the Texas Rangers minutes before the deadline on July 31, 2012, allowing the Cubs to grab a Class-A pitcher no one envisioned as a top-of-the-rotation starter four years later.

“Before, he’d hit his spots and do his things. But now he’s really controlling the pace, the tempo. (It’s) like back-and-forth as good as probably you’ve ever seen. Side-to-side is not his game. It’s take a little off here, add some here, and trusting his defense.

“He’s been lights-out. Consistent. Early on in the year, I know people say he wasn’t pitching deep into ballgames. That’s not his fault. Every time he’s been asked to take the ball and do his job, he (did) it.”

Scherzer led the NL with 20 wins, 284 strikeouts and 228 1/3 innings — or almost 40 more than Hendricks — while carrying the Nationals toward a division title. This will go with the American League Cy Young Award Scherzer won with the Detroit Tigers in 2013.

On a night where supermodel Kate Upton ranted on Twitter after her fiancé, Detroit ace Justin Verlander, lost the AL Cy Young vote to ex-Tiger/Red Sox right-hander Rick Porcello, both Lester and Hendricks posted classy messages on their social-media accounts.

Scherzer vs. Lester had been a fascinating case study in the free-agent market, with a Boston-centric front office going with the ex-Red Sox they already knew so well and betting on his mechanics and delivery without having to pay the draft-pick compensation.

Weeks after the Cubs signed Lester to the biggest contract in franchise history, the Nationals did a seven-year, $210 million megadeal with Boras Corp. that contains a significant amount of deferred money.

After a dominant regular season — 19-5, 2.44 ERA, 200-plus innings for the eighth time in his career — Lester started Game 1 in all three playoff rounds. He became the NLCS co-MVP and the bridge from Hendricks to superstar closer Aroldis Chapman in Game 7 against the Cleveland Indians.

“It’s very rare that someone shows up and does exactly what you hope,” Epstein said. “Outside of a small hiccup in April of 2015, he’s been a dominant, elite starting pitcher (and a) reliable, hard worker. He pitches his best in the big games.

“And I thought his poise in several key postseason games rubbed off on a lot of other people.”

About two hours after the Cubs won the World Series, Lester stood in a cramped hallway inside Progressive Field’s visiting clubhouse, knowing that his life would never be the same again.

“We got the ’16 ring for the 108 years of the Chicago Cubs,” Lester said. “There’s not a price in the damn (world that) you could sell that thing for.”

Brandon Morrow lands on DL after hurting back while taking his pants off

Brandon Morrow lands on DL after hurting back while taking his pants off

Remember that one time Sammy Sosa threw out his back while sneezing? Well, Brandon Morrow may have topped that on the Cubs all-time list of wacky injuries.

The 33-year-old closer was placed on the 10-day disabled list prior to Wednesday's game after hurting his back while taking his pants off upon returning from the team's road trip to St. Louis. It's being labeled as "lower back tightness."

"It's frustrating any time you can't get out there, and especially when you can't go because of something stupid like taking your pants off," Morrow told reporters on Tuesday.

And that's put the Cubs pitching staff in a tough spot for the rest of the week, given Wednesday's series finale against the Dodgers is the third game in a little more than 24 hours for the Cubs.

"I don't want to downplay anything," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "Obviously he had back spams, he had the same thing in spring training. We'll start treating it the same way we did in spring training; I think he was out about a week to 10 days. If things go as we hope, I think it'd be the kind of thing where he'd probably be able to be throwing before the 10 days is up.

"But we felt like it wasn't going to be something where he was ready this weekend and if he's not going to be ready all weekend, we can already backdate it three days so it made sense to put him on the DL."

Morrow is tied for fifth in the National League with 16 saves and owns a 1.59 ERA is 26 relief appearances this season. Justin Hancock, who served as the 26th man during Tuesday's doubleheader, stayed with the team as a result.

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

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.”