Cubs

Weird baseball: Cubs fall to Yankees in 18, teams set MLB record for strikeouts

Weird baseball: Cubs fall to Yankees in 18, teams set MLB record for strikeouts

A frenetic rally against Aroldis Chapman, over 500 pitches, a major league record record 48 total strikeouts and six hours of play still conspired to end with the Cubs getting swept.

Starlin Castro’s go-ahead infield single in the top of the 18th inning sent the Cubs to a 5-4 defeat to the New York Yankees Sunday night into Monday morning in front of 40,584, most of whom had left the frigid late-night conditions of Wrigley Field by the end of the game. 

The Cubs were equal parts disappointed and delirious after losing this two-day marathon. The game didn’t just border on ridiculous; it was ridiculous, and that was the sense as the clubhouse TVs read, almost laughably, “Bus at 2:15” for the team’s ride to the airport for their overnight flight to Denver.

“We lost but you gotta try to have fun with it,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said.

“… Games like this could definitely bring both sides together. I know they won, the Yankees, but both teams are I think going to be better off just coming together as a unit. And yeah, we came back, we battled back against one of the best closers in the game, we scratched through three runs off of him and made it interesting.”

It was a game that didn’t appear destined for anything special for most of the evening, as the Cubs had just a four percent chance of winning (according to FanGraphs’ win expectancy) when Chapman took the mound with a 4-1 lead in the ninth. 

The Cubs’ rally started with Russell drawing a leadoff walk and Jon Jay flipping a single into center. After Willson Contreras struck out, Albert Almora Jr.’s RBI single in the ninth inning off brought Baez to the plate as the winning run. Baez worked a solid at-bat against Chapman and lined a two-strike single to left to score Jay and bring the Cubs within one, and later took second to get in scoring position as the winning run.

After Kyle Schwarber struck out, Bryant was intentionally walked after Chapman fell behind the Cubs’ third baseman 3-1. That brought up Rizzo, who feebly struck out as the tying run in the eighth inning against right-hander Dellin Betances and had two hits in his last 31 at-bats. 

But Chapman drilled Rizzo with a 98.9 mile per hour fastball on the first pitch of the at-bat, bringing the tying run to the plate. That gaffe knocked Chapman out of the game, and right-hander Tyler Clippard retired Ben Zobrist to keep the score knotted at four. 

“To come back and get it tied against Aroldis, bully for us,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Those were some really good at-bats right there. And then of course, culminating in a hit by pitch. That’s not easy to do to get three runs against that fellow in these circumstances.” 

From there, the game devolved into mostly strikeouts and popouts. The first 10 batters of extra innings all struck out, and a total of 25 batters whiffed or were called out on strikes from innings 10-18. Cubs players popped out five times, too. 

“I know they’re good, their pitchers are, but we have to do better than that,” Maddon said. “We have to make adjustments. We were not making adjustments. You’ve seen it before happen to us tonight, you’ve seen other major league games get into extra innings like that, guys have a tendency to try to do too much, and then you start not getting your hits and everybody’s trying to end the game with a home run. We just gotta try to piece it together.”

The Cubs had a chance to end things in the 12th, with Rizzo leading that frame off with a double. He advanced to third on Miguel Montero’s deep flyout to left, but former Cubs right-hander Adam Warren struck out Russell and got Contreras to ground out to first to end the inning. 

The Yankees finally pulled ahead in the 18th when Aaron Hicks bunted and advanced to second on Contreras’ throwing error. Ronald Torreyes then bunted Hicks to third, and the speedy outfielder scored when a drawn-in Russell couldn’t hurry a throw home on Starlin Castro’s sharp ground ball. Pedro Strop took the loss.

Baez grounded out, Schwarber struck out and after Bryant walked, Rizzo was intentionally walked to bring pinch hitter Kyle Hendricks to the plate. Hendricks, the third Cubs pitcher to pinch hit (along with Jake Arrieta and John Lackey), struck out to end the game. 

The previous high for combined strikeouts at Wrigley Field was set on May 31, 2003, when the Cubs and Houston Astros combined for 37 strikeouts. The major league record was 43 strikeouts between two teams, which was set in a 20-inning California Angels-Oakland A’s game in 1971. 

“A crazy game,” Maddon said. “It would’ve been nice to have won it.”

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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