Nationals force Cubs to focus and raise their game


Nationals force Cubs to focus and raise their game

WASHINGTON – The Cubs like to say they can play with anyone, but that could mean anything for a young team learning how to win and trying to get beyond survival mode at this level.

The Washington Nationals have already built The Foundation for Sustained Success, winning 98, 86 and 96 games across the last three years and coming into this season as World Series favorites.

The Cubs seem to get up for teams like Washington, knowing that’s what they want to become. They hung on for a 2-1 victory as Thursday night turned into Friday morning at Nationals Park.

“There will be times – and I think there has been times – where we’ve come out a little lackadaisical maybe all across the board,” Jake Arrieta said. “But those things have been tightened up. Especially when you play teams like this, (you) have to be on top of your game if you want to come out ahead.” 

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

After a rain delay that lasted almost two hours, the Cubs jumped Nationals lefty Gio Gonzalez for two runs in the first inning, with Junior Lake flipping his bat again after working a bases-loaded walk.

There were no fireworks as Arrieta sliced through Washington’s lineup, allowing one run in six innings, with eight strikeouts against zero walks, before turning the game over to the bullpen.

“We know who our opposition is,” said Arrieta (5-4, 3.04 ERA). “We know what they’re capable of bringing to the table, so that definitely will elevate our game.”

The Cubs (28-24) already took two series from the Pittsburgh Pirates and split another with a team that’s made the playoffs two years in a row. The New York Mets – the pitching-rich bizarro Cubs – got swept out of Wrigley Field in the middle of May.  

[MORE: Cubs getting their money's worth with Anthony Rizzo]

The Cubs have also missed opportunities, losing two series to the Milwaukee Brewers in May – before and after they fired manager Ron Roenicke – and going 1-for-3 this week against the dysfunctional Miami Marlins.  

“That’s not been lost on me,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We have to do better, absolutely. We have to be better. I don’t want to be that team that plays to the level of competition. We got to bring our game every night.”

That’s why Anthony Rizzo didn’t want to read too much into his game-ending pick-off play at first base, or splitting four tight games with the Nationals since Memorial Day.

“I messed up on a bunt play,” Rizzo said. “We let a ball get by in the outfield. We tried to stab ourselves in the foot today, and we overcame it.

“We really just got to take care of the ball and the routine plays and manufacture runs better. (Then) we’ll be on our way. But we know we’re good.”  

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

USA Today

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.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers 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.

For the second time in 1998, Sosa went back-to-back games with multiple home runs. After going yard twice on June 19 of that season, Slammin' Sammy again sent two balls into the bleachers on June 20.

He singlehandedly beat the Phillies that night, driving in 5 runs in a 9-4 Cubs victory.

But that wasn't the most impressive feat of the day from Sosa. His second homer was actually measured at a whopping 500 feet! It was the longest of the season, but not the longest of his career. On June 24, 2003, Sosa hit a homer at Wrigley measured at 511 feet.

The back-to-back big games raised Sosa's season OPS to 1.083 with a ridiculous .685 slugging percentage. He began June 1998 with a .608 slugging percentage.

Fun fact: Kerry Wood struck out 11 batters in 7.1 innings on June 20, 1998 to pick up his 7th big-league victory. As Wood marched to the National League Rookie of the Year that season, he finished with a 13-6 record and 233 strikeouts in only 166.2 innings for a career-high 12.6 K/9 rate.