Cubs

Once again, Joe Maddon’s Cubs respond to the win-or-else pressure

Once again, Joe Maddon’s Cubs respond to the win-or-else pressure

The Cubs are going to need a bigger target. Just imagine the circus atmosphere and suffocating expectations when Joe Maddon’s team reports to spring training next year in Arizona – either as the defending World Series champs or after coming agonizingly close without winning the franchise’s first title in 108 years.     

Both of those possibilities are still in play after a gutsy 3-2 win over the Cleveland Indians on Oct. 30 – the latest the Cubs have ever played a game at Wrigley Field in franchise history. The Cubs went into Game 5 with one primary thought in mind: Just get back to Cleveland.    

Maddon managed with a sense of urgency, pulling big-game pitcher Jon Lester after 90 pitches, trusting rookie reliever Carl Edwards Jr. for two batters in the seventh inning and using superstar closer Aroldis Chapman to get the last eight outs.  

With last year’s Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) lined up to start Tuesday night on extra rest, this season’s ERA leader (Kyle Hendricks) positioned to start a Game 7 if necessary and Kyle Schwarber ready to change the entire complexion of this lineup as the designated hitter at Progressive Field, the Cubs are set up for either an epic comeback or a massive disappointment.

“Again, it doesn’t matter,” Maddon said. “It really doesn’t matter. From Day 1, we’ve been engulfed, surrounded, inundated with these thoughts. And my guys have handled it great. You cannot handle it any better, I don’t think, than our guys have handled it.

“I don’t think there’s any Cub fan throughout the universe actually that would not be happy with where we’re at – at this particular moment – based on what’s occurred over the last century and over the last several years.”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

The last time the Cubs faced an elimination game, Maddon invited Simon the Magician to perform in the Wrigley Field clubhouse. That idea sounded more like a manager running out of ideas with his team down 3-0 in last year’s National League Championship Series.

Except for the Chapman move, Maddon didn’t pull anything out of his bag of tricks with the Cubs down 3-1 in the World Series, knowing that the New York Mets and all their power pitchers posed different problems than a Cleveland team built around a No. 1 starter (Corey Kluber) and a deep, versatile bullpen that has covered up so many holes in the roster.

Plus, the 2016 team is a year older and a year wiser, with so much more across-the-board talent and a $155 million ace on the mound. The Cubs (obviously) made batting practice optional and instructed their players to be dressed by 5:30 p.m. for a 7:17 first pitch.

“No magicians,” Maddon said. “The guys have been fine all year. I don’t want to confuse things out there right now. There were moments last year where I thought it was necessary. Right now, I think they’re able to stand on their own without all the diversions.

“Bill Murray was walking around here yesterday before the game though.”

The Cubs brought some of this upon themselves, from Maddon’s look-at-us stunts to John Lackey’s “didn’t come here for a haircut” act to Lester reminding everyone at various points in the season that this team hasn’t done anything yet.

But if the young Cubs looked like they were trying too hard in Games 3 and 4 – and feeling the enormity of Wrigley Field’s first World Series events in 71 years – then they settled down to win a tense Game 5.

“I really anticipate that we’re going to be able to finish this off,” Maddon said. “You still look at the steppingstones, the building blocks to get to this point. You can’t tell me last year wasn’t successful just getting to the (NLCS).

“You can’t tell me this year wasn’t successful getting to the World Series. I just don’t buy that kind of logic. You get to this moment and there are so many micro pockets that can occur. Like right now, we’re having a hard time with their pitching staff in a seven-game series. Over the course of 162, you can absorb those moments and move on and get to the next team and right yourself.

“I’m not of that mindset at all that the winner-take-all is the successful one and the one that doesn’t is not.”

This might be remembered as the defining momentum swing, the Cubs starting to look like that 103-win team again. The heart of the order pieced together the big inning the Cubs needed in the fourth against Trevor Bauer, scoring three runs with a mixture of Bryzzo power (Kris Bryant homered into the left-center field bleachers before Anthony Rizzo settled for a double when his ball didn’t go over the right-field wall) and small-ball creativity (Ben Zobrist’s line-drive single, Addison Russell’s infield single, Javier Baez’s bunt, David Ross’ sacrifice fly).

Now some of that pressure the Cubs felt will shift onto the Indians. Two wins from baseball immortality? The Cubs would have taken that when the mimes and zoo animals showed up in spring training.

“Of course, the goal is to win it all,” Maddon said. “But there’s also the building component, the culture component, all the different things that permit you to be excellent on an annual basis that are now in place. All those things matter.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th 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.

Get ready for an onslaught of Sammy Sosa homers and highlights coming nearly every day over the next month-plus.

After a slow start to his historic 1998 season, Sosa really started heating up in late May. He sent his 9th ball into the bleachers on May 22, beginning a run of 25 longballs in roughly five weeks of action leading up to June 30.

Sosa's 9th homer actually came off Greg Maddux, a solo shot with two outs to give the Cubs an early lead in Atlanta. Chicago reliever Bob Patterson wound up blowing the game wide open late as the Cubs stumbled to an 8-2 loss.

Maddux, meanwhile, tossed 8 stellar innings, allowing only 5 hits and 2 runs - including the 440-foot homer to Sosa.

Fun fact: The Braves leadoff hitter that day was none other than current NBC Sports Chicago baseball analyst Ozzie Guillen, who was in the midst of his first season in the big leagues not in a White Sox uniform.

Fun fact No. 2: Atlanta's No. 2 hitter in the game was Keith Lockhart, who is now a scout in the Cubs organization.

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

It's been nearly 19 months since the Cubs and Indians played what may go down as history as the most important baseball game ever.

Game 7s are always instant classics just because of the win-or-go-home aspect, but the added bonus on that early-November day in 2016 was the fact either one of Major League Baseball's longest championship droughts was going to end. It was just a matter of whether it would be the Cubs' 108-year history or the Indians' 70-year.

Obviously we all know how that played out and for the first time since holding a 3-1 lead in that 2016 World Series, the Indians are returning to Wrigley Field for a brief two-game set beginning Tuesday night.

We're only a little over a quarter of the way through the 2018 campaign so the playoffs are a long way away. But could these two teams be destined for another date in the Fall Classic?

Let's examine the current positions:

STARTING PITCHING

The rotation is the easiest place to look for championship teams. It's really hard to survive a month of high-intensity postseason baseball without a stable of workhorses (even in today's changing world of shorter and shorter outings). 

On paper in spring training, these looked like two of the top rotations in baseball. It hasn't played out that way for the Cubs, though there is clearly reason for optimism with the way Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish pitched over the weekend in Cincinnati.

But the Indians rotation has been absolutely incredible, even including Josh Tomlin who was just bumped to the bullpen with a 7.84 ERA. The Top 4 starters in Cleveland can go toe-to-toe with any in baseball, as Corey Kluber (2.36 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), Carlos Carrasco (3.65, 1.07), Trevor Bauer (2.59, 1.12) and Mike Cleveniger (2.87, 1.16) would create plenty of issues for the opposition in a playoff series.

The rotation is the true strength of the Indians and while the Cubs still boast a starting 5 that could potentially hold its own against anybody in baseball, this one has to go the way of Cleveland.

Edge: Indians

BULLPEN

When you feature Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, it'd be easy to look at that and chalk it up as a Cleveland victory in the bullpen category, but things haven't been so great for the Indians of late.

Miller can't stay healthy and even when he is on the mound, rough outings have dragged his overall numbers (3.09 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) down. We're not used to seeing Miller's ERA even start with a "2" let alone a "3" so this is definitely a cause for concern. Allen, meanwhile, has only blown 1 save in 7 chances, but he also has a 3.32 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, which would be his worst numbers of any season since his rookie year of 2012.

The rest of the Cleveland bullpen is a complete mess, with Zach McAllister (7.16 ERA), Dan Otero (7.47), Tyler Olson (6.08), Nick Goody (6.94) and Matt Belisle (5.06) all struggling.

The relief corps has been an area of major strength for the Cubs in the first quarter of the season. Only Luke Farrell has an ERA above 5.00 in that Cubs bullpen and four different pitchers boast ERAs under 2.00 — Brandon Morrow (1.13), Steve Cishek (1.71), Pedro Strop (1.35) and Brian Duensing (0.61). 

The Cubs' main trick will be managing the workload for all these guys to ensure they don't run full-speed into a wall as they did late last season. But for now, the Cubs bullpen is head and shoulders above the Indians.

Edge: Cubs

OFFENSE

This is the toughest area to evaluate between these two teams.

The Indians' offense is incredibly top-heavy with Francisco Lindor (.933 OPS), Jose Ramirez (.985) and Michael Brantley (.936) providing probably the best Top 3 in an order in baseball. Brantley wasn't around for that 2016 World Series and has missed so much time the last few years with health woes, but he's back and as good as ever right now.

Beyond that, Cleveland is still searching for help. With Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer on the disabled list, the Indians outfield was so desperate for help they had to add Melky Cabrera to the mix as well as needing to rely on 37-year-old Rajai Davis.

Edwin Encarnacion will probably heat up at some point overall, but he's still on pace for close to 40 dingers. Jason Kipnis has been atrocious and Yonder Alonso has also underwhelmed. There's not much in the way of offensive help coming, either, until Zimmer and Chisenhall are healthy.

The Cubs feature a Jekyll and Hyde offense that sometimes looks like the best lineup in the game and at other times, causes their fanbase to pull out hair in frustration. But that's also the way the game has gone in general right now.

That being said, Kris Bryant is making a serious case as the best player in baseball, Willson Contreras is making a serious case as the best catcher in baseball, Albert Almora Jr. is making a serious case as deserving all the Cubs' at-bats in center field and Javy Baez is making a serious case as the starting All-Star second baseman this summer, currently leading the National League in RBI.

Even Ian Happ has utilized a recent hot streak in Cincinnati to bump up his season numbers (now boasting an .870 OPS) and soon-to-be-37-year-old Ben Zobrist has a .382 on-base percentage.

Once Anthony Rizzo gets back to being the hitter we all know him to be and Addison Russell starts depositing baseballs into the bleachers on a regular basis, you'd figure the Cubs offense would stablize.

There's too much potential and talent here to finish anywhere but Top 3 in the NL in runs scored, which cannot be said about the Indians in the AL.

Edge: Cubs

DEFENSE

Another area where the Cubs have been up-and-down, but once again, there is too much talent and potential here not to give Chicago the edge.

Zimmer's return will greatly improve the Indians' team defense and Lindor is still great, but Cleveland still can't match the Cubs' potential Gold Glove contenders at 5+ positions (Rizzo, Russell, Baez, Almora, Jason Heyward).

Edge: Cubs

INTANGIBLES

Both teams have some awesome veteran leadership and even the younger players are plenty battle-tested.

Terry Francona and Joe Maddon are two of the best managers in the game, but Francona may have a longer leash in Cleveland. Maddon's honeymoon period on Chicago's North Side ended the day the Cubs won the World Series, oddly.

The jury is still out on the new Cubs coaching staff, too. Chili Davis looks to be making an impact with the Cubs offense at times and his strategy of using the whole field and limiting strikeouts will take some time to really show strides on a consistent basis. The Cubs pitching staff is still walking FAR too many batters, but that's hardly Jim Hickey's fault.

Both teams should be plenty hungry all summer long as they were bounced from the 2017 postseason in ways that left poor tastes in their respective mouths.

But we'll give this edge to the Indians simply because they are still searching for that elusive championship, so maybe that drive will give them a leg up on the Cubs.

Edge: Indians

OVERALL

The Indians are 22-23, but actually sit in 1st place in the woeful American League Central.

The Cubs are 25-19, yet duking it out with a trio of other teams in their own division.

As such, the Indians' road TO the playoffs seems much, much easier as we sit here in the week leading up to Memorial Day. And the ability to cruise to a division title will allow them to rest and conserve their energy for October, while the Cubs will probably not get to coast to the NLDS like they did in 2016.

That rest and relaxtion may give the Indians an edge, but as of right now, this Cubs roster looks to be better equipped to win it all.