Cubs

Stranger than fiction: Dodgers sweep Cubs as Lester vs. Kershaw doesn’t live up to expectations

Stranger than fiction: Dodgers sweep Cubs as Lester vs. Kershaw doesn’t live up to expectations

LOS ANGELES – In a Cubs season that has already gone off script – or at least not followed the dynasty-in-waiting narrative – it made perfect sense that a Jon Lester vs. Clayton Kershaw matchup at Dodger Stadium would devolve into a slugfest and a bullpen battle.

Randy Newman’s voice – “I Love L.A.” – echoed from the sound system late Sunday afternoon as the Dodgers put the finishing touches on a three-game sweep of the defending World Series champs. The Cubs led for one half-inning during this entire weekend and a Hollywood team will wake up in San Diego on Memorial Day with a 25-24 record.

This 9-4 blowout again showed that the Dodgers should be a force in October. Forget about the way forward-thinking manager Dave Roberts basically tried to MacGyver his way through last year’s National League Championship Series with three pitchers: Kershaw, lefty curveball specialist Rich Hill and star closer Kenley Jansen.

“That’s the big separator between what I saw last year and right now,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, “how they’re pitching.”

This time it didn’t matter that the Cubs knocked Kershaw out in the middle of the fifth inning. Willson Contreras, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo launched home runs off Kershaw and the Cubs generated all of their 11 hits against the three-time Cy Young Award winner. This game still never really got tense or felt like the Dodgers were out of control.

“It sounds like fiction to me, but it happened,” Maddon said.

Kershaw still outlasted Lester, who dropped his head, stared at the grass and walked off the mound with one out and two runners on in the fourth inning. Lester (3-3, 3.86 ERA) – the sturdiest piece to a shaky rotation – put the Cubs in a 6-1 hole after giving up three-run homers to Cody Bellinger and Kike Hernandez.

[MORE: Joe Maddon has no choice but to ignore noise and trust young Cubs lineup]

In back-to-back shutouts, the Dodgers (31-20) had already beaten a Cy Young Award winner dealing with questions about his velocity and looming free agency (Jake Arrieta) and a three-time World Series champion who is 38 years old and now has a 5.18 ERA (John Lackey).

“It seems like they’re firing on all cylinders,” Lester said. “They played better than us all the way around this weekend.”

Standing in the middle of a cramped visiting clubhouse, Lester sounded annoyed – “Put what together?” – after being asked when or how the Cubs will go on a run and start playing up to expectations. 

“We have to play for today,” Lester said. “You can’t worry about a run. You can’t worry about showing up and trying to go nine (innings) before you throw a first pitch. You can’t worry about trying to go 3-for-4 before your first at-bat. Worry about today. Worry about the task at hand.

“You can’t worry about a run. You can’t make runs happen. Sometimes, it’s better to kind of sit back and let things come to you. You’re not pressing. You’re not grinding. You’re not doing things that you don’t need to be doing.

“We got a good team. It’s just a matter of showing up, day in and day out, and putting the work in and it will come. It will click.”

Take Kershaw out of the equation and the Cubs generated zero runs, five singles and no extra-base hits in 22.2 innings against Los Angeles pitching. The Dodgers only used Jansen in one non-save situation.

“You got to tip your cap to them,” reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant said. “That was a pretty impressive pitching performance on all days. I felt like we got to Kershaw a little bit. But their bullpen – it just felt like every pitch was right there at the top of the strike zone. Every single one. To all of us. It was unbelievable.

“It felt like every guy they ran out there was throwing it right where they want.”

Three games against a last-place Padres team tanking for the future should change the subject before the Cubs head home to Wrigley Field. But the Dodgers sure looked like the talented, balanced, hungry team that wants to take down the Cubs.

“It’s always tougher the second time, because everybody’s gunning for you,” said Ben Zobrist, who should stabilize the lineup on Monday after missing two games with a sore left wrist. “Your expectations are even higher than they were before.

“But this team is definitely equal to the task. That’s not the problem as much as we just got to get back to the fundamentals and execution of the little details in the game. And everything else kind of takes care of itself.”

Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

From potential trades to payroll to their exact offseason checklist, the Cubs are playing things close to the vest early this offseason.

Which makes sense, as it doesn't do them any good to publicly talk about which players they're hoping to trade or exactly how much they have to spend to reshape a roster that missed the playoffs for the first time in a half-decade. 

But one thing is certain: The bullpen ranks very high on the Cubs priority list this winter.

At MLB's GM Meetings last week, Theo Epstein acknowledged the bullpen is a major focus for his front office and said, "we need to hit on a number of relievers this winter."

If the season started today, the Cubs bullpen might look something like this:

Craig Kimbrel (closer)
Rowan Wick
Kyle Ryan
Brad Wieck
Tyler Chatwood
Alec Mills
Danny Hultzen
Duane Underwood Jr.
Adbert Alzolay

That also doesn't take into account the potential of Chatwood, Mills or Alzolay getting a shot at the starting rotation (plus Colin Rea, who was added to the 40-man roster earlier this month).

There's not a whole lot of MLB experience in that projected bullpen beyond the closer. Kimbrel has 565 career big-league appearances under his belt, but the other eight names on that list have combined for only 329 relief appearances spanning 374.2 innings. 

That's not to say there's no promise in this group — Wick, Ryan and Wieck all impressed in varying degrees of sample size in 2019 while Mills and Chatwood also performed admirably in swingman roles — but there's simply not much of a track record. 

To some degree, the Cubs are going to be counting on guys from the aforementioned group (plus other internal candidates like James Norwood and Dillon Maples) in 2020, but there's also clearly a lot of work to do for a unit that struggled mightily in high-leverage spots last season.

"That's a puzzle we're going to be putting together all winter," Jed Hoyer said. "We'll look at every possible angle to do it — minor-league free agency, major-league free agency, trades. We're gonna be creative in how we put a bullpen together, but right now, there's a lot of flexibility.

"It's hard to picture that painting right now, but I think we'll be creative and try to put together a good bullpen."

As Hoyer indicated, there is no one way to put together a quality relief corps.

For example, the Cubs signed Kimbrel to $43 million deal, acquired Wick and Mills in under-the-radar minor-league trades, moved Chatwood from the rotation to the bullpen, drafted Underwood and picked up former second-overall pick (2011) Hultzen on a minor-league deal as he made his way back from a laundry list of injuries. Wieck is the most recent acquisition, quietly coming over from the Padres in exchange for Carl Edwards Jr. while everybody was focused on the Nicholas Castellanos deal.

One such unconventional option could be Brandon Morrow, the oft-injured former closer who initially signed with the Cubs prior to the 2018 season, but was only able to pitch for a few months before missing the last year-and-a-half with ongoing arm issues. The Cubs declined his $12 million 2020 earlier this month and thus owe him a $3 million buyout.

Morrow, 35, is reportedly healthy and has expressed interest in making a comeback. If he doesn't manage to land a big-league deal (which is unlikely given his recent elbow issue and track record of injuries), he is open to signing a minor-league deal with the Cubs, as first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer

The Cubs would be interested in that, as well, as it's a low-risk, high-upside move. When he's been able to get on a mound over the last four seasons, Morrow is 7-0 with a 1.79 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 24 saves and 12 holds.

"When healthy, he can certainly be a big part of the solution," Epstein said. "We appreciate his sentiments about if he's gonna sign a minor-league deal, he feels a responsibility that it should be here. That certainly seems like the type of thing that makes sense for both sides down the road."

The Cubs are already probably going to have to get creative to fit all their desired moves into the 2020 budget, so a reunion with Morrow makes sense as a potential piece of the bullpen puzzle. But obviously the Cubs cannot go into the season expecting Morrow to stay healthy all season or relying on him as a key cog.

The biggest key to the success of the 2020 bullpen will be Kimbrel, who had a very forgettable debut season in Chicago. 

Kimbrel went 0-4, posted a 6.53 ERA, gave up 9 homers in 20.2 innings and blew 3 saves in 16 chances with the Cubs after signing midseason. He also missed roughly a month of action between a knee injury and then an elbow injury that lingered into September.

Will a typical offseason and spring training be enough to get the 31-year-old back to his Hall of Fame-caliber form?

"Some of the injuries may well have been because of the lack of spring training, ramping up too quickly," Hoyer said. "Of course there's a lot of variables. I don't think we know exactly why he struggled. I thought there were some moments where he looked like he was about to take off and he looked really good and some injuries held him back. 

"Hopefully a really good spring training and he can get back on track, really stabilize our bullpen and allow us to build a bullpen without having to worry about the last three outs."

Regardless of how the Cubs build the bullpen this winter, all eyes will be on Kimbrel. If he can't regain his form, it's going to make life a lot more difficult on Epstein's front office and new manager David Ross. 

However, it does help that Wick, Wieck and Ryan got valuable experience pitching in high-leverage moments in the midst of a pennant race last season. All three figure to be big parts of that bullpen puzzle moving forward. 

Before a minor shoulder issue cut his season short, Chatwood was dialing it up to 99 mph out of the bullpen and impressing in short spurts or in a long relief role. After a long road, Hultzen finally made his MLB debut in 2019 while Underwood struck out all six batters he faced in his season debut in August and showed some promise.

If the Cubs are going to have to lean heavily on the group of relievers without much track record, at least they got a bit of a head start.

"Yeah, it gives us some comfort," Hoyer said. "We have a lot of uncertainty, a lot of moving parts in the bullpen. But the way some of those guys pitched at the end of the year does give us hope that we can find some diamonds in the rough and some of those guys that we found last year can continue to make strides and help us." 

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Christian Yelich to Yu Darvish on Twitter, 'Nobody needs help facing you'

Christian Yelich to Yu Darvish on Twitter, 'Nobody needs help facing you'

In the wake of the cheating allegations surrounding the Houston Astros, multiple parties have weighed in with their takes on the situation, and this includes Cubs starter Yu Darvish. He stated that this past season, he had noticed "weird behavior" from batters. Bleacher Nation then tweeted out a video showing Darvish stepping off the mound in a matchup against Christian Yelich and the Milwaukee Brewers, stating that he stepped off the mound because Yelich's "eyes move first...I'm not sure what he is trying to do."

Darvish then went on to elaborate that he wasn't trying to accuse the Brewers of stealing signs, rather that he was just stating what he had noticed in terms of batter behavior. Darvish made a minor grammar mistake, saying "your" instead of "you're" and when he responded to try to clarify that, it may have accidentally caused more confusion, as some mistakenly thought he was saying that Yelich indeed was stealing signs, but this was not the case.

That didn't stop Yelich from sounding off on Darvish with quite a harsh response, a response that was so harsh that some were shocked at the nature of it.

MLB free agent Josh Donaldson chimed in, humorously stating that he could definitely  use some help hitting off of Darvish and jokingly asked for what tips Yelich might have. 

Darvish then retweeted a few tweets that illustrated the point he was trying to make. 

Darvish also responded to Donaldson, saying that he doesn't think the third baseman needs any help hitting off of him either. 

At the end of the Darvish seems to be in a good place, and from his Twitter interactions, it is clear that he was not as upset or offended over the situation as Yelich was. 

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