Cubs

In new world for Cubs, Ben Zobrist explains why he wasn’t trolling Cardinals  

In new world for Cubs, Ben Zobrist explains why he wasn’t trolling Cardinals  

ST. LOUIS – Ben Zobrist is too diplomatic to completely troll the St. Louis Cardinals – and too honest to pretend that celebrating at Busch Stadium wouldn’t mean something for a Cubs organization that for so long had been Little Brother in this lopsided rivalry.

Zobrist gave the Cardinal clubhouse bulletin-board material – and moved the needle for the St. Louis media – heading into the last week of the regular season when he said: “We intend to clinch there. And I think for a lot of the guys that have been around here for a long time, it’s going to be very satisfying.”

First reaction: Wow. Second reaction: Obviously (when the Cubs are about to play a four-game series against their archrivals and the magic number to eliminate both the Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers from the division race had dropped to two).

But Zobrist gets it as someone who grew up in downstate Illinois. This is a self-made, super-utility player with a World Series ring from the 2015 Kansas City Royals and a 50th anniversary edition convertible Camaro for last year’s World Series MVP performance. Between his age (36) and his natural personality, Zobrist doesn’t treat each interview like a chore and suspiciously view every question as a trap.

“It’s really nothing personal,” Zobrist said Wednesday night amid the champagne-and-beer celebration, just before Jon Lester toasted John Lackey and broke the retirement story. “I would have said that no matter where we were going.

“But I do think it’s extra special to be able to do it here – for a lot of Cubs fans (who) for a long, long time haven’t experienced a lot of winning in this particular city. For those guys that have been in the organization for a long time, too, I know it means a little bit more.

“I’ve only been here for two years, so I can’t quite understand that the way those guys can. But they’ve expressed that to us. And this means something extra special for those people.”

Zobrist is also the type of guy who shook hands, signed autographs and took pictures with the fans who swarmed his North Center home and lined up around the block – hours after the Cubs flew back from Cleveland after beating the Indians in last year’s epic World Series Game 7.

“We know that the fans are even more pumped, I’m sure, about (clinching in St. Louis) than those of us in this room,” Zobrist said. “We appreciate our fans. We know that they’re very loyal and very passionate about this ballclub. Definitely we know that some of them are celebrating just as much as we are today.”     

Going for a personal three-peat, Zobrist’s regular season reflected the 2017 Cubs as a whole, from the slow start to the nagging injuries to the strong finish to the enormous sense of confidence heading into October.   

“We feel excited for another opportunity to make a push in the postseason and to defend our title,” Zobrist said. “But we’re going to celebrate this. This is a huge accomplishment, a big step. It’s a very, very long season, and we’re going to celebrate this tonight because it needs to be.

“It’s a lot of work just to get to this point. And a lot of teams haven’t been able to do that after winning the previous year. But now it’s just adrenaline, baby. Let’s get it going.”

Cole Hamels explains how Cubs can survive an intense final week

Cole Hamels explains how Cubs can survive an intense final week

Cole Hamels has been here before.

A major reason why the Cubs acquired the veteran left-handed pitcher before the trade deadline was his vast postseason experience (98.1 innings) and a knowledge of what it takes to make it to — and succeed in — October.

Nobody expected him to pitch to a 1.00 ERA in his first seven starts in a Cubs uniform, so this regression that's come over his last few outings isn't anything to panic about.

Hamels lost his second straight start Monday night against the Pirates, serving up a two-out, two-run homer to Francisco Cervelli in the first inning, staking his club to a deficit they could not overcome in a 5-1 loss that left them just 1.5 games up on the Brewers in the division.

"Shoot, givin' up home runs sucks," Hamels said. "I can't shy away from it — I do give 'em up. I have given 'em up in my career. I try to minimize the damage to mostly solos.

"But at the same time, when you give them up in the first inning when you're at home, it definitely doesn't set the momentum and it creates that sort of extra game that you have to play because now you're trying to come from behind. They've obviously already done some damage and you've gotta play with that in your head of what could come throughout a game."

Really, that wasn't even the story of Monday's game.

It was the lack of offense, as Hamels provided the only run off Jameson Taillon — a 437-foot homer in the third inning he hit with a 105 mph exit velocity.

The Cubs' roller coaster offense has been a major talking point the last couple weeks of the season and figures to be the Achilles' heel of this team in October...whether that's in the NL wild-card game or in the NLDS.

In fairness to the Cubs, Taillon has been carving up every lineup he faces lately as he enters the conversation as one of the true "aces" in the game today. 

"Sometimes, you just run into the wrong guy," Joe Maddon said. "... They have a nice rotation that has given us a hard time. We have to somehow overcome that. They are good, but we gotta do better.

"The at-bats early were really well done and then Taillon just started getting command of his curveball, also. He was dropping that in when he was behind in the count for strikes.

"...Early on, I thought we had a pretty good shot, but then he just settled in and turned it up a bit."

So with the Brewers hot on their heels, what do the Cubs need to do the rest of this week against a team like the Pirates that would relish playing spoiler?

Hamels is in the midst of his 13th MLB season and he provided his perspective of how the next six days should go:

"I think I've played this game long enough — when you have an opportunity to be a spoiler, it creates a little bit more energy in the clubhouse and you play for a little bit more to kinda disrupt what's going on," he said. "For us, we just have to keep our focus and keep to the gameplan and go out there and just try to either execute pitches or execute at-bats inning by inning. 

"We do have the talent and from what I've seen, we definitely know how to put up runs — it just hasn't happened this past week. And so I think for what we're trying to do and what we're trying to accomplish, just not try to overdo it. 

"Really just try to get back to the basics from the first pitch from the first inning and just plug away. I think if we're able to do that, good things will happen and we'll be able to overcome any sort of obstacle of what's kind of narrowing down in the last six games."

We're about to find out if the Cubs are up to the task.

Projecting the Cubs playoff roster: How should the October rotation line up?

Projecting the Cubs playoff roster: How should the October rotation line up?

If you had to pick just one Cubs starting pitcher to take the hill in a must-win game in October, who would you go with? 

Jon Lester, the guy with a ridiculous resume of postseason success?

Kyle Hendricks, aka "The Professor" who is as cold as ice and been the Cubs' best pitcher over the last six weeks?

Cole Hamels, the wily veteran and former World Series MVP who has been rejuvenated since coming over in a midseason trade?

There's a legit case to be made for all three pitchers to start either a wild-card game (Cubs are crossing their fingers they don't need to worry about that) or Game 1 of the NLDS next week.

Hamels, however, looks to be falling back slightly in the race after giving up another homer Monday night — a long two-out blast to Francisco Cervelli in the first inning of the Cubs' 4-1 loss.

It was the sixth homer Hamels has allowed in his last four starts, but that was the only damage he was charged with Monday night as the only other run scored was unearned thanks to Kris Bryant's error.

"Shoot, givin' up home runs sucks," Hamels said. "I can't shy away from it — I do give 'em up. I have given 'em up in my career. I try to minimize the damage to mostly solos."

The 34-year-old Hamels still has a 2.60 ERA in a Cubs uniform and even chipped in with the bat, drilling a 437-foot homer to the centerfield bleachers for the Cubs' only run off Pittsburgh ace Jameson Taillon.

With one start remaining for each pitcher, it appears to be down to Hendricks or Lester for role of Game 1 starter.

After another gem Sunday against the White Sox, Hendricks now sports a 1.37 ERA and 0.79 WHIP over his last six starts. He has set a new career high in innings pitched (191) after tossing 16.1 frames over his last two starts and certainly looks to be peaking at just the right time for the Cubs.

Lester, meanwhile, got through a little midseason hiccup and has been fantastic over the last month-plus, as well. He boasts a 1.96 ERA and 1.23 WHIP over his last seven starts and his postseason resume speaks for itself — 9-7, 2.55 ERA, 1.03 WHIP in 148 innings. 

Right now, my money's on Hendricks to start Game 1, as he did last season in Washington D.C. Lester would likely follow, with Hamels after that and Jose Quintana filling out the rotation (again, assuming the Cubs are playing the NLDS and not the wild-card game).

Of course, the Cubs have to get to the postseason first and though they're close to locking up a fourth straight playoff berth, they still have to fend off the hard-charging Brewers.

As we always do with this column, we'll line up how the Cubs' playoff roster and Game 1 lineup might look RIGHT NOW, in which case, the Cubs would be hosting the winner of the wild-card game. The Brewers are currently the first wild-card team, which means they will host the one-game playoff and as such, we'll project them to win thanks to homefield advantage.

If Milwaukee throws Jhoulys Chacin in the wild-card game, they would probably start lefty Wade Miley in Game 1 of the NLDS. Here's how the Cubs might line up against Miley:

1. Daniel Murphy - 2B
2. Ben Zobrist - RF
3. Javy Baez - SS
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Kris Bryant - 3B
6. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
7. Willson Contreras - C
8. Kyle Hendricks - P
9. Kyle Schwarber - LF

It's tough to put Schwarber so low in the order when he's entered the final week of the regular season as the Cubs' hottest hitter, but those splits are real. He just hit his first homer of the season off a lefty Sunday and sports a .671 OPS vs. southpaws compared to an .884 OPS against righties.

Addison Russell would normally find his way in the lineup against a left-handed pitcher — moving Baez to third base and Bryant to left field — but he's on administrative leave and his status for the postseason is currently unknown. 

David Bote could also get the start at third base and push Bryant to left against a southpaw this October. Bote hasn't done much at the plate since his ultimate grand slam in mid-August, but he still boasts a .903 OPS against lefties.

The Cubs could also opt to go with Jason Heyward in the outfield against lefties, playing right and pushing Zobrist to left. There are several options at Maddon's disposal and everything will likely change on a game-to-game basis, as per usual.

The real key to this lineup — especially against lefties — will be Bryant. He sat out Sunday to let his "fatigued" shoulder rest and was back in the lineup Monday, but he's been a shell of his former self since the middle of May when he first injured that left shoulder.

If he's right, he'll probably be hitting second for the Cubs in October. But since he's struggled to get going, Maddon has opted for Zobrist in the 2-hole behind Murphy of late.

This lineup would leave the Cubs' bench looking like this:

Victor Caratini
Jason Heyward
David Bote
Terrance Gore
Tommy La Stella
Ian Happ

With Russell's status unclear, there's a clear spot on the postseason roster for Happ, who we had outside the bubble last week in this column

Assuming Russell is not available for October, the only other position player options would be Taylor Davis or Mike Freeman and the only way those guys would find their way on a postseason roster would be due to injury.

The Cubs have utilized 14 position players in the past and this bench of six guys would figure to provide Maddon with plenty of options, including Gore's gamebreaking speed.

Starting rotation

Kyle Hendricks
Jon Lester
Cole Hamels
Jose Quintana

As we've discussed earlier, Hendricks has had a fantastic week and will be riding a heck of a hot streak into October if he can have a solid final start. 

Bullpen

Pedro Strop
Jesse Chavez
Justin Wilson
Steve Cishek
Carl Edwards Jr.
Mike Montgomery
Jorge De La Rosa

A lot has changed here over the last week, with Brandon Morrow ruled out for the season and Strop feeling good after his hamstring injury.

Maddon said Strop was feeling really good over the weekend and kind of bouncing around with excitement as he nears a return.

Could he still make an appearance in a game this week before the regular season ends?

It's possible.

"The difference is that he's able to throw," Maddon said. "Had he not been able to throw while he's going through all this, then it'd be a different story entirely. But he's been able to keep his arm moving, pretty much at 100 percent almost. So as his leg feels better, his arm's ready to go."

That would be a huge boost to this bullpen as the postseason draws near, depending on how effective Strop can be with what will be roughly two weeks off in between appearances by the time he does make it back.

The final bullpen spot sure looks like De La Rosa's to lose at the moment. 

Dillon Maples was making a potential push as a darkhorse candidate but struggled against the White Sox and probably has pitched his way out of contention.

Maddon went to both Jaime Garcia and Alec Mills Monday night in what was a Cubs deficit, but still a close game and if the Cubs need an extra arm, those may be the two guys lobbying for the final spot. 

If Strop suffers a setback or is unable to find his form enough to where he is not active for a postseason series, Mills may be the better bet. Garcia has far more experience, but it'd be hard to see the Cubs roll with four lefties in the bullpen and the right-handed Mills has impressed this season with the Cubs (2.87 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 19 Ks in 15.2 IP).

The other good news for this unit is they've actually been pretty well rested of late. After a really tough stretch, Maddon has not had to lean on his best relievers much over the last 10 days, so they should be rested and freseh for the final week of the regular season and into October, especially if the Cubs can lock up the division and get Monday through Wednesday off next week.