Cubs

What Cubs need to see during finals week before playoff test

What Cubs need to see during finals week before playoff test

PITTSBURGH – Winning or losing the final seven games of the regular season won’t change the perception of the Cubs as the on-paper favorites heading into the playoffs. It all goes back to the question president of baseball operations Theo Epstein got during his Opening Day media session: Will this year be a failure if the Cubs don’t win the World Series? 

The final judgments will come in October, but for now the Cubs will be running through postseason scenarios, adhering to Joe Maddon’s keep-everyone-fresh philosophy and trying to avoid any catastrophic injuries during this road trip through Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Before Monday’s 12-2 win over the Pirates, Maddon confirmed the Cubs are leaning toward carrying 11 pitchers and 14 position players for their first-round playoff series, with a 12-man staff being a possibility that hasn’t been ruled out yet. The manager had already written out the lineups for these four nights at PNC Park, beginning with Chris Coghlan as a leadoff guy, Willson Contreras as the cleanup hitter and Albert Almora Jr. starting in center field.   

“That fine balance between being rested and being sharp – we’re trying to thread that needle,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “There’s no guidebook for it.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

With the National League’s No. 1 seed, the best record in baseball and 100 wins already secured, the Cubs can focus on:

• Hoping to copy part of the World Series blueprint the Kansas City Royals used last year. The Cubs have built a dominant bullpen that can shorten games and might roll through October. But that depends on Pedro Strop (knee) and Hector Rondon (triceps) coming back from injuries and performing at full strength.   

After Strop pitched a scoreless seventh inning against the Pirates on Monday night, Rondon gave up back-to-back homers to Matt Joyce and David Freese leading off the eighth, which might be written off as lack of adrenaline coming into a 12-run game. Following the playoff script, superstar closer Aroldis Chapman worked the ninth inning with a 10-run lead.

• Maddon dropped into a hitters’ meeting last week at Wrigley Field to send a post-clinch message, stressing the idea of using this time wisely and focusing on the fundamentals the Cubs preached in spring training. That’s grinding out at-bats, understanding a two-strike approach and full-count situations and not relying so much on the home run. 

“That’s the key moving forward for us offensively,” Maddon said. “That’s the little nuance of the game as you get to this part (of the year) that really helps you separate.”

• Keeping a third catcher or not sounded more like talk-show filler than an actual debate around the Cubs. David Ross is locked in as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, but at the age of 39 “Grandpa” plays best in a backup role. Contreras offers the most offensive upside and a rocket arm behind the plate, but the rookie would have to make up for his inexperience with energy and enthusiasm. 

Miguel Montero has caught more than 8,400 innings in The Show and finally seems to have found his left-handed swing – hitting .333 with two homers, three doubles and 10 RBI in his last 18 games – near the end of a disappointing offensive season.

“It’s really tough to find guys like Miggy,” said Kyle Hendricks, a Cy Young Award candidate and projected Game 2 starter on Oct. 8 at Wrigley Field. “There aren’t many catchers that can control the tempo of a game. He keeps me in sync. He keeps me on time. He knows when to take a break and give me a breather. He just has a really good feel.

“We go (in) with a good game plan, but I think his in-game adjustments are probably where he really picks it up the most. He’s been around. He’s seen all these hitters. He can feel when guys are trying to do certain things to you.”   

Getting Jake Arrieta back in the zone that made him the hottest pitcher on the planet last year might require Montero’s presence as a game-caller, pitch-framer and ace whisperer.

• Will wild-card chaos reign? The New York Mets (83-74) and San Francisco Giants (82-74) woke up on Monday clinging to wild-card positions, with the St. Louis Cardinals (81-74) only a half-game behind. The playoff probabilities on FanGraphs project the Mets as a virtual lock (88 percent), making it a coin flip between the Cardinals (57.6 percent) and Giants (54.3 percent).

What do the Cubs have to play for now?

“There’s a lot of self-motivators out there, a lot of accountable people,” Maddon said. “On top of that, we know that Kyle is still in the Cy Young race. We know that Arrieta and Lester are still vying for those individual awards on top of everything else. ‘KB’ (Kris Bryant) wanted that 100th RBI – we got that. We got guys that are in the MVP race. There’s a lot of stuff going on right now. Beyond the team goals, we all would like to see our guys win some personal awards, also.

“We’re rotating the stock. Guys are coming in and out of the lineup. Guys are fresh. And the guys that don’t get a chance to play that often – they want to play and they want to show you what they got. Right now, players want to be on the playoff roster, (and) that’s motivation, too.

“At the end of the day, it’s just about being professional. You want to win.”

• If the wild-card winner gets hot and shocks the best team in baseball in a best-of-five series, the autopsy of this season will inevitably involve second-guessing how the Cubs handled success and if clinching by mid-September dulled their edge.

But in trying to stack the odds in your favor, would you rather be scrambling after the injuries (Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler) that have decimated New York’s power pitching? Or worrying about the flammable bullpen (major-league-leading 30 blown saves) that might torch San Francisco’s even-year hopes? And if the Cardinals haven’t put it all together by now, what makes you think the flip will be switched in October?

“As a whole, this gives us a chance to get everybody healthy and on the same page,” Ross said. “Throughout the year, we’ve done a good job of focusing on the day and what’s to come. As long as we focus on being the best team that we can be, I don’t think we’ll have a problem.

“If you want to put a negative spin to clinching early, you can, but I’m pretty excited about it. I think the guys in here are very excited about it. I think there are a lot of other teams that would love to be in our position right now.”

Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Cubs fans may remember Dan Straily. The right-hander pitched for the club in 2014, making seven appearances (one start) before getting dealt to the Houston Astros the ensuing offseason in the Dexter Fowler trade.

Straily now pitches for the Lotte Giants in the KBO, South Korea's highest level of pro ball. The league kicked its season off earlier this month without fans in attendance, a model MLB will likely follow for most (if not all) of its potential 2020 season.

Jon Frankel, a correspondent for HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," recently interviewed current and former KBO players about the league's return during the coronavirus pandemic. In an excerpt made available via press release, Frankel asked Straily if he misses playing in front of a crowd.

MORE: Why one medical expert remains skeptical of MLB's COVID-19 precautions

"Of course. Like, even if you're on the road, and people are just telling you how much you suck — you thrive off it," Straily said. "You feed off that energy.”

Crowd noise obviously plays a big part in an athlete's adrenaline. Not having that factor will be an adjustment for MLB in 2020, and Straily took things a step further regarding the circumstances players face without fans in attendance.

“My shortstop dove for a ball. And he missed it by, like, an inch," he said. "Like, it was an incredible effort. When he hit the ground, I heard the air leave his lungs. And we've talked about that in the dugout. Because I've never once in my life heard that.”

Not having crowds to drown out on-field noise could make for a unique viewing experience for fans at home. UFC returned on May 9, and many punches and kicks were audible on ESPN's TV broadcast.

MLB teams could play proxy crowd noise in games, but nevertheless, fans may pickup noises on their TVs previously unavailable from home.

The full episode will air Tuesday at 9 p.m. CT on HBO.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

The cheer master’s whistle echoed through the ballpark, and dinosaur mascots wearing giant face masks danced on top of the dugout.

With fans absent due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sunday’s scene didn’t quite do the Korean Baseball Organization experience justice. But it was still the league that taught Ryan Sadowski how to let loose on the field.

"I found that as a player I didn't allow myself to enjoy my success the way I should have because it's the game of baseball,” Sadowski told ESPN in 2016. “You're not supposed to show that you enjoy your success. I think it's something I learned here (in Korea), that I would take to younger kids in the States."

Major League Baseball is well aware that its status in the United States will continue to slip if it can’t figure out how to reach a younger audience. This summer presents an opportunity. If the players and owners can agree to a deal that makes the league’s early July target date a reality, for weeks it will be the only major sport on television.

Sports fans are clamoring for action after a months-long drought. What better time to draw in new fans? In that regard, the KBO could have something to teach MLB.

Sadowski is in a unique position to compare the KBO and MLB. He played in both leagues before becoming a KBO scout. Sadowski’s support for on-the-field expression is one Cubs shortstop Javier Báez would likely get behind.

Báez had a message similar to Sadowski's on MLB’s YouTube channel recently. In a show taped during Spring Training, Báez chatted with Puerto Rican recording artist Residente while running the Grammy Award-winner through baseball drills.

“In my personal opinion, I would like to teach young people growing up to enjoy [the game],” Báez said in Spanish. “And if they fail, fail having fun. And keep doing what is right. Let the kids play.”

Báez has been criticized for his playing style, most famously in 2018 when he bat-flipped after a popup. Afterward, former Pirates manager Clint Hurdle questioned Báez's “respect for the game.”

But Báez's huck wouldn’t have been out of place in Sunday’s KBO game between the NC Dinos and Hanwhu Eagles. The broadcast didn’t feature the kind of ostentatious bat flips that have become so popular on social media. But still, in consecutive innings, players on both teams tossed their bats several feet up the baseline to punctuate base hits. No uproar ensued.

The rate at which KBO bat flips have spread through Twitter speaks to a hunger for showboating among young baseball fans. Why not embrace it?   

“It’s not that it is not the correct way of doing it,” Báez told Residente of his playing style. “It’s just not the way many coaches teach it.”

In the United States, the NBA is the poster child for attracting millennial fans. In 2017-18, young adults led the league’s growth in ratings, according to Forbes. TV viewership among 18- to 34-year-olds was up 14 percent.

The NBA does an especially good job marketing its stars. Admittedly, the game lends itself to that strategy in a way that baseball does not. LeBron James can take over any game down the stretch, but Mike Trout isn’t going to get an at-bat every time the winning run is in scoring position.

But there are other ways NBA stars capture the fascination of young fans. Kids across the country grew up shrugging like Michael Jordan or pumping their arms and pounding their chests like LeBron James.  They take deep dives into YouTube, watching the most devastating dunks of all time – the more embarrassing for the defender, the better. None of that disrespects the game. The NBA and KBO have that in common.

MLB doesn’t have to adopt the KBO’s use of specific chants for each batter and embrace bat flipping for everything from home runs to ground outs – even though, by all accounts, those elements create a delightfully raucous atmosphere.

MLB doesn’t have to abolish baseball’s unwritten rules in one day. But an amendment is in order.

What if demonstrative zeal was instead embraced as a sign of respect for the game? After all, it might be MLB’s best hope of connecting to the next generation.