Cubs

What Miguel Montero’s brutal honesty meant for Cubs and Kyle Hendricks

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AP

What Miguel Montero’s brutal honesty meant for Cubs and Kyle Hendricks

Miguel Montero picked the worst possible time to second-guess the way Joe Maddon handled the bullpen during the World Series and communicated with his players — a radio interview on the same day (!!!) as the championship parade through the streets of Chicago and a Grant Park rally that may or may not have been one of the largest gatherings in human history.

The cameras also caught Montero popping off at a time when the Cubs were hovering around .500 and running out of ideas to spark the defending champs. So team president Theo Epstein didn’t hesitate to DFA Montero in late June when the veteran catcher ripped Jake Arrieta for letting the Washington Nationals run wild on the bases. Eating almost $7 million in salary and shipping Montero to Canada became another button to press to shake up the clubhouse.

But Montero also came along at exactly the right time for Kyle Hendricks, who had 13 major-league starts for a last-place team on his resume heading into the breakthrough 2015 season that set up last year’s transformation into an ERA leader, Cy Young Award finalist and World Series Game 7 starter.

Montero doesn’t deserve a tribute on the video board when the Toronto Blue Jays come into Wrigley Field this weekend, but he also shouldn’t be remembered only as a loose cannon or a cartoon character.

“Miggy was huge for me,” Hendricks said on this week’s Cubs Talk podcast. “I know he didn’t go out the way he wanted to. He’s even texted all of us here. We have the utmost respect for him around this clubhouse. We know who he is, the teammate he was around here.

“For me in particular, he was probably the biggest influence right when I came up, from the catching side. He taught me a lot about pitching, especially at the big-league level. (He made) me feel comfortable at the big-league level.

“My development, I think, sped up a lot just because of him being around here, his experience, how much he knew the hitters, his feel and his ability just to talk to you. He could sit down and just have a conversation with you whenever.

“I owe a lot to him. And I’m excited to see him back here.”

The Cubs knew they were getting the good, the bad and the ugly when they traded for Montero during the 2014 winter meetings in San Diego, where they also closed the $155 million megadeal with Jon Lester and dramatically reshaped the franchise.

The Cubs wanted Montero’s edge, which only sharpened as he got stuck in various three-catcher rotations. But Montero welcomed Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras into the clubhouse, delivered a wake-up call to Albert Almora Jr. during a rehab assignment at Double-A Tennessee and worked with Arrieta as he blossomed into a Cy Young Award winner. Montero also became a bilingual intermediary last summer when Aroldis Chapman initially refused to talk to the media after making his Cubs debut.

After handling so many different personalities and styles with the Arizona Diamondbacks — everyone from Randy Johnson to Dan Haren — Montero made the case that Hendricks didn’t need to throw 97 mph to thrive when he could nail the edges and deceive and outthink hitters with movement and sequences. Street smarts from Venezuela and an Ivy League education became a great match.

“He always had that confidence in me, from Day 1, when I showed up in this clubhouse,” Hendricks said. “He caught my bullpens. He kind of saw what I could do with the baseball. He probably had more confidence in me than I had in myself when I first came up.

“That’s just how it is. You’re trying to find your footing. He just kept preaching that to me, telling me what he saw in me, what I could do, the ability I had against these hitters. And then we went out there together and kind of saw it happening.”

One Arizona official who knows Montero well theorized that he — like any former All-Star in his mid-30s nearing the free-agent market — simply had trouble coming to grips with the reality that he was no longer The Man.

Even if you may be right on both counts — and no matter how fast Montero patched it up with Arrieta — the backup catcher can’t blast a star manager and a star pitcher like that.

“It was too bad to see him go,” Hendricks said. “But that’s just baseball. That’s how it goes. You got to learn what you can from who’s around while they’re there and then move on. That’s just the nature of the game.”    

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Cole Hamels' dominant start to his Cubs career continued on Friday in stellar fashion, and with some considerable help from his infield.

The 34-year-old veteran not only pitched seven innings of five-hit ball without allowing a run, but induced five ground ball double plays. The Cubs finished with a staggering seven double plays in a 1-0 win at the Pirates on Friday.

The last time the Cubs turned five double plays was in 1985. 

All five hits Hamels gave up were groundball singles. The 16 groundballs induced is the most for a Cubs pitcher this year.

After Hamels exited after seven innings, the Cubs got double plays in the eighth, on a line drive double play with Jorge De La Rosa on the mound, and ninth, on a groundball induced by Jesse Chavez to end the game.

Hamels was initially brought in to provide depth to a struggling rotation and ease the pain of Yu Darvish being unavailable. But Hamels has now started an honest debate over who should be the Cubs' starter in Game 1 of the postseason. He has been otherworldly since joining the Cubs, with an 0.72 ERA, three wins and one no-decision (the Cubs won and he had nine strikeouts). 

The 1-0 win over the Pirates gives the Cubs more breathing room in the NL Central. The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday, pushing the Cubs lead to 4.5 games in the division.

And the Hamels hot-streak comes at an excellent time for the North Siders, who took in Jon Lester's gem of an outing on Thursday, where he went six innings with no earned runs and eight strikeouts in a win against the Pirates. The Cubs starting pitching seems to be turning the corner, and with three straight series against sub-.500 teams following their series in Pittsburgh, this could be the beginning of a great run of outings that carries the Cubs confidently into the postseason.

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season.