Cubs

Message sent: In fight for playoffs, Cubs beat up Cardinals

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Message sent: In fight for playoffs, Cubs beat up Cardinals

ST. LOUIS – This is the type of environment that normally gives a young team nightmares and causes so much anxiety for Cubs fans watching back home on TV and venting their frustrations on Twitter.  

But this was about as stress-free as it gets against the best team in baseball, the Cubs in cruise control during Monday afternoon’s 9-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.  

If Labor Day is a significant mile marker for the 162-game marathon, the Cubs are now 79-57 and within two games of the Pittsburgh Pirates for the chance to host a one-game playoff at Wrigley Field. What a way to kick off an 11-games-in-11-days road trip through St. Louis, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. 

“I don’t know if anyone’s really just settling on the second wild card,” winning pitcher Dan Haren said afterward. “I think guys seem to want to push for more.”

Message sent. It started at the top with Dexter Fowler, who led off the game by driving Lance Lynn’s 92-mph fastball out to right field for his 17th home run in what’s becoming a great platform year for the centerfielder.

[MORE: Kyle Schwarber wants to return for Cubs-Cardinals showdown]

Manager Joe Maddon has a simple reminder for Fowler before each at-bat: “You go, we go.” Fowler added a two-out, two-run double in the second inning, pushing his OPS to .986 since the All-Star break.  

That’s part of the bigger story for a Cubs team that got swept here in late June, scoring four runs in 28 innings and inspiring Maddon to invite Simon the Magician to perform inside Citi Field’s visiting clubhouse before the next game against the New York Mets.

“Our team’s entirely different,” Maddon said. “We’re playing with a lot more confidence. We believe a lot more that we can do this now. It’s one thing to think you can – and another thing to believe that you can. I think we’re at the point where we believe that we can do this.” 

“We’re totally different,” Fowler said. “The guys are maturing. The young guys coming up, they know they’re supposed to be here. And they’re playing the part.”

In front of another sellout crowd (45,986), the Cubs knocked out Lynn (11-9, 3.12 ERA) with one out in the third inning and showed why they are a force to be reckoned with in October – and potentially for years to come as a rising power in the National League.   

By the time Addison Russell’s three-run homer flew 402 feet over the wall in left-center field, the Cubs led 8-0 in the third inning. At the age of 21, the new franchise shortstop has 13 homers and 24 doubles for a win-now team. 

“It’s definitely a confidence-booster,” Russell said. “This city is definitely behind this team (here and) we definitely have to jump out. And whenever we’re ahead, we just have to bury it.”

[RELATED: Cubs think Carl Edwards Jr. can be impact pitcher for stretch run]

That gave Haren some breathing room, allowing him to be aggressive and throw strikes in what turned out to be his best start in a Cubs uniform since that July 31 deadline trade with the Miami Marlins. 

Haren (9-9, 3.73 ERA) – who was originally drafted by St. Louis way back in 2001 – accounted for seven shutout innings and even chipped in with a single, a run scored and a sacrifice fly on a day where the Washington Nationals dropped to 8.5 games back in the wild-card race.

The Cubs have five games remaining against the Cardinals but still trail their biggest rival by 7.5 games in the division.

“It seems like a lot of games,” Haren said. “The best way to just look at it is: Try to win as many as possible and see what happens. I wouldn’t necessarily say that we’re scoreboard-watching. But it’s the time of year where you’re definitely checking on how the Nationals do, the Pirates do. 

“We play ‘em enough to where…if we go on a really good run, we could do something.” 

Maddon’s one-day-at-a-time mantra doesn’t leave that much room for statement games, but he understood the Cubs would have to do something different after losing six of their first seven games at Busch Stadium this season.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the stretch run, Cubs fans!] 

“We have to learn to play well in this venue,” Maddon said. “You have to become more comfortable in the venue. And then you play your normal game there. And then you compete with this team.”

ESPN kept the Cardinals up late on Sunday night, forcing them into a quick turnaround with Monday’s first pitch at 1:15 p.m. Lynn hadn’t pitched since Aug. 29 while dealing with a sprained ankle. A lineup already missing Matt Holliday and Matt Adams had Kolten Wong as a late scratch with a calf issue and Randal Grichuk in a limited role coming off an elbow injury.  

The Cubs will find out if St. Louis is vulnerable. 

“You got to get the team in front of you first before you can really focus on the next one,” Maddon said. “Of course, I’ve said from the beginning that was our objective – to win the division. But you got to catch the group in front of you and then you move on to the next one. Let’s just play tomorrow like we played today.”

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

With the MLB offseason about to kick off, we run down the boldest predictions for the Cubs winter from around the NBC Sports Chicago Cubs content team. Topics include where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign, how much money they’ll get, what the Cardinals will do this winter, Cubs offseason trades and how Theo Epstein’s front office may add to the pitching staff.

 

One topic we could all agree on was David Ross' potential as Cubs bench coach if the incumbent Brandon Hyde ends up taking a job as manager for another team around the league.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here and check out all of our bold predictions below:

 

 

David Kaplan

 

—Anthony Rizzo and his new wife, Emily, will adopt Manny Machado, change his last name and see Manny Rizzo playing third base for the 2019 Cubs.

—Because of the Rizzo move, the Cubs will move Kris Bryant to a full-time outfielder.

—The Cubs will trade away Jose Quintana and sign Patrick Corbin.

—The Cubs will sign a pair of former Indians relievers for the back end of the bullpen in Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.

—The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber to the Royals for Whit Merrifield, who will start 155 games in the leadoff spot in the order.

—Joe Maddon will be a lot more consistent with the Cubs' lineup and batting order all season.

 

Kelly Crull

 

—Anthony and Emily Rizzo will receive more wedding gifts from Cubs fans than Kris and Jessica Bryan received.

—Anthony Rizzo will train this offseason so he will be able to sing — or play the piano — for the National Anthem at Wrigley in 2019.

—The Cubs will have no money left to remodel the media room at Wrigley Field.

 

Luke Stuckmeyer

 

—The Captain Morgan Club at Wrigley Field is going to be replaced by Kap's Kryo & Keto Korner.

—The Cubs will finally find a solution to the leadoff hitter issue.

 

Tony Andracki

 

—The Cubs sign Bryce Harper for less than $250 million. (He follows 23 people on Twitter)
—Manny Machado does not get a contract for more than $250 million, either.
—The Cardinals will sign Craig Kimbrel and either Machado or Josh Donaldson to play 3B. 

 

Rationale: St. Louis could really use the bat and closer and they have a sense of urgency in the division this winter we haven't seen from them in at least a decade. The Cubs and Brewers have clearly been better for two seasons now and look to have a better chance at contending than the Cardinals in 2019, as well. That can't be sitting well with the "Best Fans in Baseball." 

 

Jeff Nelson, producer

 

—The Cubs will trade 2 of the following players:  Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr.

—The Cardinals will sign Manny Machado to play third base.

—Because of construction delays, the visitors’ clubhouse will not be ready for the home opener, forcing the Pirates to dress at their hotel and come to the ballpark in full uniform.

Mike Piff, social media manager

—Cubs sign Nick Markakis.
—Cubs sign Tyson Ross.

Eric Strobel, producer

—The Cubs 2019 saves leader is not currently on the roster.

Rationale: We saw what happened to the bullpen in Brandon Morrow's absence; it got the job done by and large, but was not longer truly feared. Deep 'pens are the norm in October now with lockdown relievers being counted on more and more. The front office knows they can't truly entrust that kind of workload to Morrow with his injury history - Theo admitted as much in his end-of-season press conference. While they probably will not make a big splash, a huge focus of the offseason will be to surround Morrow/Strop/Edwards/etc. with as many talented arms as possible. The Cubs could very well enter next season without a designated closer, but if they do, it will not be Brandon Morrow.

Scott Changnon, multi-platform producer

—The Cubs will sign Bryce Harper.

Rationale: "I dunno, maybe."

Nate Poppen, producer

—Cubs sign Andrew McCutchen, plug him into CF and make Almora a 4th OF (or expendable)
—Bryce Harper signs with Yankees.
—Manny Machado signs with Angels.

Matt Buckman, producer

Non-roster prediction: The Cubs will welcome Sammy Sosa back to Wrigley Field. Sammy turns 50 this winter, and fueled by our wonderful documentary on 1998, the Cubs will finally mend their broken bond with Sammy and bring him back to Wrigley.

Roster prediction: The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber for a leadoff hitter. Joe has had to get very creative with the top of his order since Dexter Fowler left. Though the front office has downplayed the importance of a lead-off hitter the last two off-seasons, they will look to add one for 2019 so that Joe doesn’t have to be so creative. They won’t have a place to play Schwarber after they sign Harper so they will swap his power for a new “you go, we go” guy. Look at KC or TB as AL teams that need to add power and also have guys who could potentially lead off for the Cubs. Mallex Smith (TB) or Whit Merrifield (KC) would be interesting options.

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

Should the Cubs bring Jesse Chavez back for the 2019 bullpen?

This question shouldn't have anywhere near the polarizing effect the Daniel Murphy query had earlier this week, and for good reason.

It's hard to find any real downside for the Cubs working Chavez back into the fold next season. 

Sure, he's 35 and he'll turn 36 in August, but Chavez just had far and away the best season of his 11-year career and all signs point to it being legit.

He won't have a 1.15 ERA forever, of course, but he clearly found something with his mechanics that helped lead to the remarkable consistency he showed in a Cubs uniform (4 saves, 4 holds, 1.15 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 42 Ks in 39 IP). 

The Cubs will be looking to add some reinforcements to their bullpen this winter and Chavez fits the bill in many areas.

When asked about how to address the bullpen this winter, Theo Epstein said his front office will be "looking for guys who can throw strikes and execute a gameplan and take the ball and pitch in big spots."

The Cubs have publicly placed an emphasis on "strike-throwers" out of the bullpen over the last two winters now and that is right up Chavez's alley.

He threw 68.5 percent first-pitch strikes while with the Cubs, which would've ranked near the top of the league in 2018, right up there with aces like Miles Mikolas, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander. Among all relievers, Chavez ranked 5th in baseball in first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.

Expanding further (since the first pitch isn't the only one that matters): Chavez threw the fourth-most strikes in baseball among all MLB relievers after the All-Star Break. Since the day Chavez put on a Cubs uniform, Philadelphia's Tommy Hunter (70.5 percent) was the only reliever in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw a higher percentage of pitches for strikes than Chavez (69.8 percent).

If you want strikes, there's no better reliever on the market right now than Chavez.

He also shouldn't be all that expensive at age 35, even despite the breakout and high level of importance placed upon relievers these days. A similar deal to the one Brian Duensing got last winter - $7 million over 2 years - seems appropriate and would be a steal if Chavez can continue to find even a modicum of the success he had since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Speaking of the Cubs uniform, Chavez reportedly doesn't want to wear another logo in 2019, saying this after the NL Wild-Card Game:

That was an emotional time, but Chavez repeatedly raved about the Cubs clubhouse and culture throughout his time in Chicago and really appreciated the way his teammates made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

When the Cubs first acquired Chavez in that under-the-radar trade, they touted his versatility which has become a valuable asset, especially in today's game where relievers are often asked to pitch multiple innings. If necessary, he could also represent depth for the starting rotation, having made 70 starts over his MLB career. 

Unless there's a surprising market that develops for Chavez, bringing him back to the North Side of Chicago on a 1- or 2-year deal is a no-brainer.