Cubs

No time to panic: How Cubs can get back in NLCS vs. Mets

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No time to panic: How Cubs can get back in NLCS vs. Mets

Joe Maddon’s mind tricks and motivational gimmicks won’t save the Cubs now. Skip the “Rocky” theme song, save the zoo animals for later and ignore the manager’s red herrings. This team already created an identity, showing the resiliency needed to get back into this National League Championship Series.

It won’t be easy, not with Jacob deGrom waiting to slice up this lineup on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field and give the New York Mets a commanding 3-0 lead in this best-of-seven matchup.

But it’s not like these Cubs are soft or worrying about what happened against the Mets in 1969 or trying to pull off the impossible upset as a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament.

“This is a group that’s not afraid of losing and doesn’t approach the day like that,” said veteran catcher David Ross, who could be seen playing air guitar and singing along to the country music during Monday’s workout at Clark and Addison. “They attack the day. We’re excited about tomorrow’s atmosphere, for sure.”

[MORE CUBS: Kyle Hendricks welcomes pressure of pitching in 'must-win' game]

During the regular season, the Cubs won 34 one-run games, 23 in their last at-bat and 13 in extra innings, running their total to 101 victories since Opening Day, a remarkable number for a group with so many rookies, castoffs and role players.

The chemistry has reminded president of baseball operations Theo Epstein of the iconic Boston Red Sox teams he helped build at Fenway Park.

“We went through a few different periods, makeup-wise, in Boston,” Epstein said. “The ’03-’04 sort of ‘Idiots’ and the ‘Cowboy Up’ carefree (attitude) — it reminds me of (that), how loose it is and how they don’t have a care in the world.

“They just enjoy each other’s company and making each other crack up and coming out raking and going back laughing about it. It’s a very similar vibe.”

[MORE CUBS: Will Cubs push Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta on short rest in NLCS?]

Kris Bryant went there, too, thinking of the New York Yankees and that 2004 American League Championship Series. The 2015 Mets could win it all this year and still feel great about their five-year competitive window.

But does anyone think this New York team has a Hall of Fame core at the level of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, plus dynasty leaders like Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada, not to mention Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui and Mike Mussina?

“Anything’s possible in the playoffs,” Bryant said. “The Red Sox were down three games to nothing and they won. It really doesn’t matter. Anything can happen. A guy could step up huge each one of these four games. There’s no sense of desperation.”

Of course, it would help if someone actually hit like Manny Ramirez in the playoffs (.937 career OPS) instead of just hanging out with Manny Ramirez in the clubhouse.

Bryant had been a dramatically different hitter at Wrigley Field during the regular season, essentially transforming from an MVP winner at home (1.037 OPS) into a defense-first infielder on the road (.693 OPS).

[MORE CUBS: Addison Russell hopes to be ready if Cubs survive and advance to World Series]

The weather should warm up from the bone-chilling temperatures over the weekend at Citi Field, and maybe the wind will be blowing out on the North Side for young power hitters like Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez.

The Cubs already beat deGrom twice this year (6.10 ERA) and perhaps a lineup that led the majors by seeing 3.97 pitches per plate appearance can drive up the count and find the soft spots in New York’s bullpen.

“Nothing really changes,” Epstein said. “We’ve had a great mix all year as far as the chemistry in the clubhouse and the group psychology and rallying from a little bit of adversity.

“It’s our veterans embracing the young players and showing the way a little bit — and young players providing energy and production — and Joe setting the tone as just another day.”

[MORE CUBS: The mind-blowing statistics that prove Daniel Murphy just might have a deal with the devil]

Kyle Hendricks doesn’t have a tabloid-friendly nickname like “The Dark Knight of Gotham” or “Thor” and no one will confuse the Game 3 starter’s finesse/control game with the upper-90s velocity unleashed by Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard.

But Hendricks won’t be underprepared or overwhelmed. The Dartmouth College graduate spent most of this year searching for a feel and trying to get into a rhythm, and he still wound up making 30-plus starts and finishing with a sub-4.00 ERA in his first full season in the big leagues.

“Look, tomorrow’s Tuesday for us,” Epstein said. “We’ve responded all year. Usually, actually, with winning streaks after we go through a little losing streak. So we hope to do that again. But the last thing I worry about is this whole psychological component of: Will we rally? Will we show up?

“We ran into two really good starting pitchers, and the baseball gods were a little bit against us that series, too. We smoked some balls that didn’t fall in, but we got outplayed, no excuses.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs playoff gear right here]

Maybe luck begins to even out and Mets outfielder/Chicago guy Curtis Granderson doesn’t make that leaping catch at the wall. Steven Matz, New York’s Game 4 starter, had only six big-league starts on his resume before the playoffs began. After hitting five playoff homers in October, Daniel Murphy will have to cool off eventually, right?

“Nobody feels desperation,” Bryant said. “We haven’t felt it all year. We have a tremendous kind of belief in each and everyone here. Once you let that creep in your head, you might as well just call it over. We don’t feel that way at all. We’ve never felt that way. I think we still have a pretty good chance.”

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.