Cubs

Miguel Montero, Willson Contreras and where the Cubs go from here

Miguel Montero, Willson Contreras and where the Cubs go from here

The Cubs could activate Miguel Montero as soon as this weekend at Wrigley Field, adding another edgy personality to what’s becoming a heated rivalry with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Cubs have stacked up the most wins in baseball (25) without getting a home run from Jason Heyward or a hit from Kyle Schwarber or much of a jolt from Montero, a two-time All-Star catcher who had been hitting .208 when he went on the disabled list on April 28 with lower back tightness.

Until getting swept by the last-place San Diego Padres during Wednesday’s doubleheader, the Cubs made it past a Blackhawks playoff run, the NFL Draft, Cinco de Mayo, the Kentucky Derby and Mother’s Day before finally losing back-to-back games for the first time this season.

The Cubs understand it will be impossible to maintain a .758 winning percentage for the next 129 games. Theo Epstein’s front office is already bracing for the crash, trying to think through worst-case scenarios and how to respond in the middle of a pennant race.

The dynamic between Montero — who’s nearing the end of his rehab assignment with Triple-A Iowa — and elite catching prospect Willson Contreras helps show how the Cubs got to this point and where they go from here.

The Cubs won’t rush Contreras, a Southern League batting champion last season, or Albert Almora, the first player drafted here by the Epstein administration in 2012. But Contreras is viewed as a future frontline catcher, and Almora has such good instincts that he could be a plus defender in a big-league outfield tomorrow.

“You always try to balance major-league need with long-term player development,” Epstein said. “We think it’s really important that our best prospects spend as close to a full year as possible at the Triple-A level.

“Especially with catchers, their time at Triple-A is invaluable, because it’s as close as you can get to the major-league dynamic, understanding how to handle pitchers, how to call games, how to maintain a sense of calm, even when things are speeding up during the course of a game.”

With Schwarber recovering from knee surgery, it didn’t become a difficult decision when Montero felt something similar to the lower back strain that forced him to miss almost a month with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013.

This is the kind of situation the Cubs envisioned when they agreed to a minor-league deal with Tim Federowicz, a former Boston Red Sox draft pick (shocker) who caught Matt Harvey at the University of North Carolina and worked with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke on the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“When you have a catcher making his major-league debut, there’s a lot that goes into that,” Epstein said. “A lot of guys have to kind of nurse him through that. He’s got to make some mistakes, so that he can learn from (them). He’s got to build relationships. There will be a time for that.”

The Pacific Coast League can create some numbers inflation. But the Cubs don’t doubt Contreras — who’s batting .347 with a .939 OPS through his first 27 games with Iowa — will become an impact hitter in The Show.

“He’s a really talented hitter,” Epstein said. “But we’re not as concerned with his offensive development. He’s a real natural hitter. He hits the ball hard, sprays line drives from line to line, drives the ball through the gaps, doesn’t strike out a lot, has a pretty good feel for the strike zone.

“So I think he’s going to adjust pretty well over time offensively. It’s really the nuances of running a pitching staff that he’s working on. Triple-A is the perfect place to do that.”

The Cubs left their pitchers in the capable hands of David Ross and Federowicz, who have helped the rotation go 24-for-33 in quality starts and put up a 2.29 ERA that leads the majors by a wide margin (with the Washington Nationals second at 2.77).

That’s also a product of the complex game-planning system designed by coaches Chris Bosio and Mike Borzello and supported by Joe Maddon’s Geek Department.

It’s unfair to think Contreras — who grew up in Venezuela and will turn 24 on Friday — can just show up and take charge of a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) and two two-time World Series champions (Jon Lester and John Lackey).

“A Triple-A clubhouse is an interesting place to navigate,” Epstein said. “You got some guys on the way up, some guys on the way down who feel they should be back up there. Pitchers are working on things, and sometimes you can learn a lot just keeping those guys happy and being the guy they want to throw to.

“Advance (scouting) reports are more a part of the equation at Triple-A than they are at Double-A or the lower levels. It’s the perfect place for him to be right now and continue to evolve.

“He’s an outstanding thrower, an outstanding blocker, but he’s continuing to work on his receiving as well. Besides the intangible components of catching, he’s working on receiving all the different pitches in all the different parts of the zone.”

The Cubs will hold a seven-game lead over the Pirates when they face Francisco Liriano on Friday afternoon in Wrigleyville, knowing that it will take veterans like Montero and Heyward picking up the pace, energy boosts from the farm system and the trade deadline and even more unexpected contributions (Shane Victorino?) to successfully finish this marathon.

“It’s so early,” Epstein said. “We’re thrilled with the start we’ve gotten off to, but we’re not blinded by it.

“The season’s 26 weeks long. A team could make up a game every other week on us and catch us and pass us. It doesn’t change the thought process at all.”

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

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USA TODAY

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

WASHINGTON, D.C. — How could someone like Kyle Schwarber play the villain?

The fan favorite who’s always quick with a smile — or an Uncle Sam costume on the Fourth of July — Schwarber doesn’t fit the mold of a loathsome target of boos. But he made quite the heel turn in the minds of Washington Nationals fans Monday night, and of course he knew it was coming.

Schwarber went from getting cheered by the legions in attendance at the Home Run Derby to getting booed when he took on, and eventually lost to, hometown hero Bryce Harper in the final round.

“I was down in the tunnel saying, ‘If we get to the finals, Harp, they’re all going to be against me. I think they’re all going to be against me,’” Schwarber said Monday night. “And then I went out there and got booed after they all got pumped up for me. That’s just the beauty of it, and I was happy for Bryce that he won it in front of the home crowd.”

Harper delivered an incredibly memorable baseball moment Monday night, catching up to Schwarber’s 18 home runs with a ridiculous display of repetitive power to win a Home Run Derby for the ages. The format of this event, revamped a couple years ago, made for a dramatic and hugely entertaining evening. Harper smacked nine homers over the final 47 seconds of the final round to tie Schwarber, then bested him in bonus time. Unsurprisingly, the home crowd was going ballistic for their boy.

But earlier in the night, it was Schwarber getting all the cheers, when he made his own last-second comeback to beat Philadelphia Phillies slugger Rhys Hoskins in the second round. Schwarber was pumping up the crowd, pumping his fists and screaming while putting on a show of his own to catch and pass Hoskins' 20 home runs and advance to the finals.

How quickly the locals forgot.

By the finals — during which Schwarber looked understandably exhausted — the crowd had turned on him, trying to get every advantage for Harper.

“As soon as I got done with that round, I told myself that he had it,” Schwarber said. “I knew that he had the home crowd behind him, and I knew that he was a very prolific power hitter with a great swing. For him to come in and do that and started getting down to the wire, all of a sudden he started racking them up one at a time. You kind of just accept your fate there.”

Perhaps the night could’ve ended differently for Schwarber had he listened more closely to the advice of his teammates, Javy Baez and Willson Contreras, who were quick with Gatorade, a towel and words of encouragement on Monday. Baez hit 16 home runs in his own first-round appearance, though Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Max Muncy knocked him out.

“I was just telling him to slow down,” Baez said. “He was kind of rushing a little bit, that’s why he was jumping to the ball.”

“They were actually giving me really good advice that I didn’t take because I was really dumb-headed,” Schwarber said. “‘Make sure you take some pitches and get the pitch that you want.’ At the end, I felt like I was swinging at everything. I was just running out of gas. I felt like I had to put up as many swings just to try to put a couple out.”

Schwarber was totally content with losing out to Harper’s home-field advantage. Though as his homers flew out deep into the right-field seats Monday night, you couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if Schwarber was instead taking aim at Sheffield Avenue and getting his own home-field advantage from Cubs fans.

The North Side hasn’t played host to the All-Star Game since 1990, so perhaps Schwarber will still be slugging the next time the Friendly Confines are the site of the Home Run Derby.

“That’d be really cool one day if the All-Star Game’s at Wrigley,” Schwarber said, “and to participate in the Derby, that’d be fun.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 36th homer in 1998

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AP

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 36th homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

 

Sosa went down and golfed a pitch out for his 36th homer on July 17, 1998. He smacked Marlins reliever Kirt Ojala's (who??) pitch just over the wall in center field at Pro Player Stadium for a 2-run shot that closed out the Cubs' scoring in a 6-1 victory.

 

The blast accounted for Sosa's 88th and 89th of the season. By comparison, Javy Baez currently leads the Cubs (and the National League) with 72 RBI on July 17, 2018.

 

Steve Trachsel tossed a complete game for the Cubs in the victory that day and Sosa finished with the only extra-base hits for either team (he also had a double).

 

Fun fact: Former Cub Ryan Dempster started the game for the Marlins, but lasted just 4.1 innings to run his season record to 1-4 with a 6.70 ERA.