Cubs

Now healthy, Cubs' Clayton Richard optimistic about future

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Now healthy, Cubs' Clayton Richard optimistic about future

Clayton Richard is optimistic about his future and until recently it had been a while since he experienced similar confidence.

With his health intact for the first time in two offseasons, Richard likes his chances of earning a big league job in 2016, though the pitcher wouldn’t mind if he stayed put with the Cubs.

Richard — who produced 4 2/3 scoreless innings in the playoffs after he went 4-2 with a 3.83 ERA in 42 1/3 innings — was just as confident during a turbulent period this summer when the Cubs twice designated him for assignment.

Even though his future was uncertain, Richard, 31, knew he was healthy and likely to get a chance somewhere. Turns out the Cubs ultimately would give him that opportunity and benefitted from their decision. Now, after two offseasons of ambiguity and injury, the Lafayette, Ind.-native is excited about his prospects this winter.

“Having been through the health issues, that puts things in perspective,” Richard said. “I kind of look back and put myself where I was a year and a half ago, it’s pretty special. I’m excited to be here now and looking forward to the future.”

[MORE CUBS: Kris Bryant named Sporting News' NL Rookie of the Year]

A future is something Richard wasn’t certain he’d ever have again.

He had his first surgery in June 2013 to shave parts of his left clavicle to avoid future difficulties with his AC joint.

But that didn’t end his issues.

The following February, Richard had surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition that can cause numbness in the fingers and pain in the shoulder, arm and neck. He was able to pitch again by August and posted a 6.75 ERA in four minor league games for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Last offseason, Richard signed a minor-league deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He appeared in his first game at Single-A Bradenton on May 7 was immediately promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis, where he went 4-2 with a 3.21 ERA in nine starts.

In need of starting pitching depth, the Cubs acquired Richard from Pittsburgh in July for cash. He won his first start on July 4 but posted a 5.40 ERA through 15 innings before the Cubs DFA’d him on July 22. The Cubs brought him back for another start on Aug. 2 and he won, allowing a run in six innings. But in need of room, Richard was designated again the next day.

Still, he didn’t worry about his future.

“I knew I was healthy and I was going to be playing and no matter where I went I was going to be able to prove that I could be a contributor at the big league level,” Richard said.

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When he returned again on Aug. 12, Richard moved to the bullpen and it looks like the move could stick. With a four-seam fastball that averaged between 93-95 mph from mid-August through October, Richard posted a 3.38 ERA over 19 appearances. He followed it up with the 4 2/3 scoreless innings in relief in the postseason.

“It took a little bit of time (to adjust) but it wasn’t terrible,” Richard said. “At the end of the day its getting loose and executing pitches and we were able to do that.”

Richard played a key role for Joe Maddon down the stretch and he may fit in the bullpen again next season. A former 14-game winner, the left-hander has one more season left until he becomes a free agent, which means the ball is in the team’s court.

Though he was disappointed by the team’s loss in the National League Championship Series, Richard could see past the disappointment to realize what had transpired. He’s also excited about the team’s future and his own.

“It’s a special team and I hope that doesn’t get lost in the loss,” Richard said. “It’s a special young team that did big things for this city and the organization and it has a bright future. But you don’t want to just dismiss what happened this year. It was a special year and I hope people recognize that and appreciate it for what it is and then when the time comes look forward to the future.”

Cubs bullpen gets another reinforcement with Craig Kimbrel activated

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USA TODAY

Cubs bullpen gets another reinforcement with Craig Kimbrel activated

The Cubs bullpen has had its share of struggles in recent days, but the team’s new closer is coming back from the injured list.

Craig Kimbrel was activated off the IL ahead of Sunday’s game against the Pirates. The game will be played in Williamsport, Pa., as the Little League Classic.

Kimbrel took the spot of Duane Underwood Jr., who heads back to Triple-A Iowa. Outfielder Mark Zagunis also joined the Cubs roster as the 26th man for Sunday’s game.

Kimbrel joined the Cubs as a free agent in the middle of the season and debuted on June 27. He made 14 appearances before going to the IL with right knee inflammation. He last pitched on Aug. 3.

In 12 2/3 innings, Kimbrel has 17 strikeouts, eight walks and 13 hits for a 5.68 ERA. He has nine saves.

The Cubs suffered back-to-back walk-off losses on Thursday and Friday with the bullpen blowing late leads. Three of the team’s most experienced relievers, Kimbrel, Brandon Kintzler and Steve Cishek were all on the IL at the same time. Kintzler was activated Friday, but promptly blew a lead in Pittsburgh on Friday in his first game back.

Kimbrel’s return gives Joe Maddon another option in the bullpen after going through a rough stretch with relievers.

With Cubs reeling, Jon Lester comes up big and plays stopper

With Cubs reeling, Jon Lester comes up big and plays stopper

The last three games have been more than forgettable for the Cubs.

From Wednesday’s 11-1 drubbing at the hands of the Phillies to back-to-back walk-off losses on Thursday and Friday, the Cubs’ current road trip has looked much like those that preceded it. At various times, the offense has scuffled, the rotation has pitched a clunker and the bullpen has cracked.

The solution to the latest road trip woes? Give the ball to Jon Lester and get the hell out of the way.

Lester —  who pitched a clunker himself Aug. 6 against the A’s — did what the Cubs have become so accustomed to see him do over the past four seasons. The 35-year-old tossed 6+ shutout innings, allowing just four hits, leading the Cubs to a 2-0 win.

Lester had no room for error on Saturday, as the Cubs offense went hitless for the first 4 1/3 innings. While the Cubs bats were asleep, the Pirates threatened to break the game on open multiple times, loading the bases with one out (first inning), no outs (fifth) and getting runners on first and second with no outs in the sixth.

The latter two of those instances were assisted by errors by third baseman Kris Bryant, but that’s neither here nor there. Point being, with how the Cubs looked offensively, any Pirates runs could have proved critical on Saturday. Instead, Lester worked out of every jam, stymying the Pirates bats to an 0-for-12 line with RISP.

Winning Saturday’s game was obviously important for the Cubs, as it puts them a game ahead of the Cardinals in the win column (pending the outcome of St. Louis' game against the Reds later Saturday). But it was equally important for Lester, who called himself the “weakest link” in the Cubs starting rotation after that tough outing against the A’s.

The beautiful thing about baseball is that the regular season is 162 games long. Each day presents teams with a new slate, a chance to forget about what happened in the previous game and move forward.  If Saturday’s start shows anything, it’s that Lester and the Cubs are more than capable of putting a tough game in the rearview mirror and keep moving forward.

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