Cubs

The spotlight shouldn't blind Yu Darvish

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The spotlight shouldn't blind Yu Darvish

Being the center of attention is the default setting for Yu Darvish.

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters traveled commercial, and thats supposed to be standard in Japan. Getting out of the plane and moving through the concourse, Micah Hoffpauir and Bobby Scales watched the paparazzi snap pictures. Fans swarmed their famous teammate to ask for autographs at the airport.

As Scales put it: Could you imagine the Cubs walking through OHare every road trip?

The Cubs are among the teams that submitted a blind bid before Wednesdays deadline. This is for the right to negotiate with Darvish, even if the sense is that it could just be due diligence, like checking in on Albert Pujols and not completely ruling out Prince Fielder.

Word could leak out earlier, but the Fighters have four business days to consider the highest bid. The final answer is due by Dec. 20.

If the final bill is close to the more than 100 million it cost the Boston Red Sox to import Daisuke Matsuzaka five years ago, then Darvish automatically becomes one of the games most intriguing players, a marketing and promotional force.

The Japanese media had Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan pinned against an elevator bank at Milwaukees Pfister Hotel during the ownergeneral manager meetings last month. They needed something on Darvish.

Foreign reporters surrounded Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos last week at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas. There was curiosity and gossip about Darvish in the lobby at the winter meetings.

Whenever Darvish arrives on American (or Canadian) soil, he may not be in for total cultural shock, but the 25-year-old pitcher will face a series of adjustments.

Hoffpauir who spent nearly a decade in the Cubs organization before heading to Japan last season described a style of play that almost sounded like soccer.

The No. 1 difference (between) American (and) Japanese baseball, Hoffpauir said, is (that) Japanese baseball is very, very concerned about scoring one run. Theyve got to get that first run on the board and I (had) never in my life seen (that before).

If our leadoff hitter gets on in the top of the first inning, our two-hole hitter nine out of 10 times is bunting and everybody in the stadium knows it and its not even a question. Thats just the way it is. If we have the opportunity to get (him) into scoring position and take two shots at it with our No. 3 and 4 guys, then were going to do that every time.

If Darvish doesnt live up to the hype, he will have to deal with a backlash that may seem jarring. Scales who got called up to Wrigley Field in 2009 and 2010 described Japanese culture as very reserved, very respectful.

People drink in the stadiums in Japan, Hoffpauir said, but you dont have the constant heckling. You dont have people being booed and stuff like that. It seems to be more of a positive-type atmosphere. The fans everywhere are great.

Hoffpauir had been there only a few weeks when he felt the Tokyo Dome Hotel shaking. A tsunami and earthquake would devastate the country last March. Still, overall he enjoyed the experience and picked up his option to return to Japan next year.

Hoffpauir was joined by his wife Tiffany and their daughter Addyson, whos now three years old. They ate more McDonalds than they probably wanted, but that was a place where you could point at what you wanted.

The Fighters had two interpreters for their four American players. Scales a midseason replacement brought over from Triple-A Iowa used a Slingbox to watch University of Michigan football games. But with the time difference, he was usually falling asleep in his hotel room by the time his school started the second half.

Off the field, these are the little things that Darvish will have to get used to in a new country, all while learning the game new league, new teammates, deeper lineups at the highest level. Even professional athletes cant stay always stay in the bubble.

Hoffpauir is convinced that Darvish will approximate a No. 2 major-league starter as soon as he reports to spring training. The Japanese ace has strung together five consecutive seasons with an ERA below 1.89. What else is left to prove there?

At least Darvish whos reportedly in the process of divorcing his wife, a high-profile actress shouldnt be blinded by the flashbulbs and TV lights. He performed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2009 World Baseball Classic. This is his world.

He will have no problem with the media, Hoffpauir said. Hes dealt with that all of his career.

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.