Cubs

What Cubs learned from playoff loss to Mets

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What Cubs learned from playoff loss to Mets

The Cubs and New York Mets endured the kind of slow, painful rebuilds that once would have been unthinkable for a big-market team.

But both franchises collected enough blue-chip talent that last year’s National League Championship Series felt more like the beginning than the end. 

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This is exactly the kind of potential rivalry Major League Baseball and its TV partners dream about – young stars, the world’s biggest media market and Wrigley Field as one of the backdrops.

So with the Cubs and Mets getting an Opening Day tune-up on Friday in Las Vegas, here are four takeaways from that four-game sweep last October:

Don’t take it for granted: In the immediate aftermath of Game 4, Miguel Montero stood at his locker in the old Wrigley Field clubhouse and remembered being a rookie catcher on the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks team that swept the Cubs, advanced to the NLCS and assumed that young core in the desert would be back for more.

“You can’t take it for granted,” Montero said. “You have to perform on the field. Obviously, for a lot of young guys, they thought it was easy to get there. Because they got to the big leagues and immediately they were there. So it’s like: ‘Well, how hard could it be?’ Especially now with this team: ‘How hard could it be?’

“You can’t take it for granted because it’s harder than it looked last year. So with that being said, my biggest advice is go out and play, take one game at a time and don’t take any other team like they’re not as good as you are. You got to play every team at your highest level in order to get to where you want to go.

“It’s easy to play a team with a (bad record) and you (show up) and they whip your ass. Because they’re all big-league players.” 

Get hot at the right time: The Cubs didn’t overreact to a four-game sample size. But the NLCS clearly highlighted some of the softer areas within a strong foundation.

The Cubs spent almost $290 million this offseason trying to upgrade the outfield defense (Jason Heyward), diversify the lineup (Ben Zobrist) and strengthen the rotation (John Lackey). The Mets also exposed those nagging issues with controlling the running game. Theo Epstein’s front office understands the coin-flip nature of the wild-card game.     

“I thought the Mets played almost four perfect games against us,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “I can’t imagine they could play a better four games – in all phases of the game. Their starting pitching was fantastic. They kept us off-balance. They scored in the first inning of four straight games to sort of put us on the defensive. Their defense played great. Their bullpen threw great.

“We didn’t play our best. But certainly we ran up against a team sort of playing as well as they could. And that happens. To me, it just underscores the value of winning your division.”

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The Mets didn’t stay hot against the Kansas City Royals in the World Series. But the Cubs can’t just bank on the hottest pitcher in the world shutting down the Pittsburgh Pirates again, so they built a stronger, deeper team around Jake Arrieta.

“We won the one-game playoff,” Hoyer said. “But I think we’re realistic enough to realize that you go up against a great team like that on the road, you’re not going to win every one of those. The nature of that game makes you want to win the division.

“What you really want to be is the hot team. You make it every year, and you have much better odds of being that hot team that can sustain three straight series and win the title.”

Xs and Os matter: The Cubs have built a strong scouting system that combines video, raw data and human intelligence. But Cubs officials credited the Mets for knowing the 2015 team inside and out, identifying and preying upon weaknesses.

“It still blows my mind,” pitcher Jon Lester said, “the game plan they (followed), attacking our guys soft so much and surprising us with the heater. We’re such a good fastball-hitting team that it’s hard to surprise us with heaters. They did an unbelievable job.

“Sometimes, you have to sit back and you have to just tip your hat. We got beat. They beat us. They had a better game plan – and they executed a little bit better than we did.”

The Cubs hit .164 as a team, struck out 37 times and never led at any point during the NLCS. The Mets didn’t build their lineup around speed, but they still saw opportunities and stole seven bases. New York’s power pitchers – Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom – allowed five runs in 20-plus innings while closer Jeurys Familia finished all four games.  

“They’re an exciting pitching staff,” Lester said. “They’re young, which is a little bit scary. The fact that those guys are going to be around for a long time – that’s exciting, too.

“They’re obviously going to be in it probably every year. And probably the team that we’re going to have to go through to get where we want to go.”

The Undercover Boss is not a fan of The Dark Knight of Gotham: Board member Todd Ricketts – who’s probably best known for his right-wing politics and going on that reality TV show – used a Cubs Convention stage to say “Mets fans are really, really obnoxious” during a Q-and-A session with ownership.

That wound up becoming the main story on the New York Post’s website in the middle of January, showing the crossover appeal of these two teams and how much heat this could generate if really becomes a rivalry again.   

Ricketts explained how his French-Canadian wife, Sylvie, is a huge hockey fan who rooted for the Blackhawks and viewed the Cubs as more of a family business until that playoff ride.    

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“We continued to watch baseball,” Ricketts said, setting the scene for World Series Game 5 and the Mets leading Kansas City in the ninth inning. “My wife and I are sitting in our living room. It’s 10:30 at night. We’re in our pajamas. I don’t know if you guys remember – Matt Harvey refused to come out of the game.

“He did a show on TV. He did his own little drama on TV to show that he was the tough guy and he was going to win this game for the Mets. He went back out on the mound – and I think three batters later the Royals had scored two runs.”

Kansas City tied the game when Eric Hosmer alertly hustled on a groundball, and then scored five runs in the 12th inning to win its first World Series in 30 years.    

“When Hosmer’s left hand went across home plate,” Ricketts said, “my wife jumped up, pointed at the TV and she said: ‘Screw you, Matt Harvey! Screw you, Mets fans!’

“So I’m not certain that she’s adopted baseball as her favorite sport. And I’m not certain that she still would say that the Cubs are her favorite team, because she loves the Blackhawks so much. But I know this for sure: She really, really hates the Mets.” 

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.