Cubs

Why Cubs are better positioned to beat the Zack Greinkes this year

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Why Cubs are better positioned to beat the Zack Greinkes this year

PHOENIX – When a Clayton Kershaw or a Madison Bumgarner schooled the Cubs last summer, manager Joe Maddon wrote it off as getting ready for October, young hitters learning how to handle the velocity, movement and sequencing they would see in the playoffs.

Zack Greinke could have rejoined Kershaw on a Los Angeles Dodgers team that was supposed to have unlimited resources — or teamed up with Bumgarner on the San Francisco Giants to try to create a dynasty and stoke that West Coast rivalry.

That would be Greinke’s decision. Until the Arizona Diamondbacks swooped in with a six-year, $206.5 million offer, stunning the baseball world before the winter meetings ever started.

The Cubs spent almost $290 million this offseason — even without that kind of pitching megadeal — trying to build a better team to get back to the National League Championship Series and beyond.

The new-and-improved lineup jumped Greinke in the first inning on Saturday night at Chase Field, scoring three early runs on the way to a 4-2 win over the Diamondbacks and showing their blueprint for October.

“He’s obviously still a Cy Young-caliber pitcher,” Maddon said. “I just think our guys might be better equipped to handle the moment. Greinke is still pretty much the same guy he was last year. I think our younger guys might be a little bit more than they were last year, based on experience.

“That doesn’t mean we’re going to go out there and hit him all over the ballpark. I just think from the mental perspective, our guys might not be — I don’t know if the right word is ‘in awe’ — or just a better understanding of what they’re going to face.”

[MORE: Kyle Schwarber vows to come back to Cubs bigger, faster, stronger]

Greinke’s arsenal and baseball IQ had drawn comparisons to Greg Maddux during the free-agent process, creating the belief that he could age gracefully over the life of a long-term contract. Knowing that Greinke had bombed in his Opening Day debut — a 10-5 loss to the Colorado Rockies — the Cubs couldn’t allow him get into a rhythm.

It started with back-to-back-to-back singles from Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Anthony Rizzo. Kris Bryant then smashed a ball off diving shortstop Nick Ahmed, hustling for a double while Rizzo ran from first to third base. Miguel Montero’s sacrifice fly to deep left field made it 3-0 in the first inning.

“We didn’t want to let him settle in,” Rizzo said. “We were going to try to be aggressive, right out the chute and we did a good job of getting those runs early. He ended up settling in against us and doing what he does to everyone. But those runs were huge for us.”

Even with Kyle Schwarber on crutches and sidelined for the rest of the season with a torn ACL and LCL in his left knee, the Cubs still have a deeper, more diversified offense than last season.

Zobrist changed the Kansas City Royals lineup during last year’s World Series run after a midseason trade from the Oakland A’s. He tacked on another run against Greinke in the fourth inning when he slammed a two-out double off the wall in center field.

“When our guys go up to hit, man, it’s contagious,” Maddon said. “They’re talking in the dugout. It’s not just happening at home plate. They’re talking about grinding out the at-bats. You hear that all the time. But then you actually have to do it. And our guys are doing it right now. It’s beautiful.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Kyle Hendricks never looks like he’s in awe or confused or overwhelmed, and the No. 5 starter allowed only two runs in 6.2 innings, outpitching Greinke, who finished second to Jake Arrieta in last year’s NL Cy Young race. Adam Warren (Cubs debut) and Hector Rondon (first save this season) combined to get the final seven outs.

After winning the offseason, the Cubs are now 4-1 and no longer the young team learning how to win. This didn’t have the all-or-nothing feel that sometimes made last year’s games so unpredictable (major-league leading 1,518 strikeouts) or the NLCS sweep by the New York Mets so disappointing.

“The power’s still there,” Maddon said. “The power’s definitely prevalent. But it’s more like we’re seeing the line-drive, base-hit, eking-out-to-score-a-run kind of an offense, which I love. So if you could combine those things — that’s what’s going to help you at the end of the year.

“When you get to the playoff time and you’re facing really good pitching, to be able to move the baseball in counts matters a lot, as opposed to swinging and missing and coming back to the dugout.”

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

With the Milwaukee Brewers about to kick off the NLCS, many Cubs fans and pundits have taken to comparing them to the 2015 Cubs.

At first glance, it's easy to see why — they're in the playoffs for the first time as something of an underdog and "surprise" team — but that's not the recent Cubs squad we should be comparing the 2018 Brewers to.

This Milwaukee team is a lot more like the 2016 Cubs.

Here's why:

1. They're not a surprise.

Nobody expected the 2015 Cubs to win 97 games and wind up in the NLCS. They were expected to compete very soon, but everything went right in a red-hot August, they rode Jake Arrieta's right arm to the NLDS and then toppled the Cardinals to get to the LCS, where they ran into the brick wall that was Matt Harvey and and the Mets pitching staff.

The 2018 Brewers are not — and should not be — a surprise. Anybody who was caught off guard by this team being so good hasn't been paying much attention. The Brewers were leading the NL Central in 2017 for much of the year before a late-season fade that coincided with the Cubs' late-season surge.

This Milwaukee squad was always supposed to be one of the top teams in the NL in 2018 and they really hit their groove in September to chase down the Cubs. Still, it took a Game 163 to force a changing of the guard atop the division.

2. They greatly improved expectations with a big free-agent OF signing over the winter.

The Cubs had Jason Heyward in between 2015 and '16. The Brewers had Lorenzo Cain.

Cain has provided quite a bit more offense in the first season of his 5-year, $80 million contract but both Cain and Heyward provided leadership in the clubhouse and elite defense in the outfield in the first years with their new teams.

3. The Brewers have the NL MVP.

This one's an easy comparison to make, though Cubs fans will hate it.

Christian Yelich is this season's NL MVP. Sorry, Javy Baez fans. "El Mago" had a great season, but it's impossible to give the award to anybody but Yelich.

Yelich winning the league's most coveted accolade would be another perfect tie-in to the 2016 Cubs, who had Kris Bryant take home NL MVP.

4. They have a dominant LHP out of the bullpen.

Josh Hader has been doing his best Aroldis Chapman impression in 2018 as an absolutely dominant southpaw out of the bullpen. Unlike Chapman, Hader's spent all season with the Brewers, but like Chapman in '16, Hader will be leaned on heavily for multiple innings throughout the rest of the playoffs.

5. They picked up some valuable in-season assets.

The 2016 Cubs dealt for Chapman, but they also traded for reliever Joe Smith and called up Willson Contreras in the middle of the year, who provided a spark for the offense.

The 2018 Brewers have acquired plenty of valuable assets along the way this season from Mike Moustakas to Jonathan Schoop to Erik Kratz (more on him later) to Gio Gonzalez. But one of their most important additions (especially in October) was the promotion of top prospect Corbin Burnes, a flame-throwing right-hander who posted a 2.61 ERA in 30 regular-season games and allowed only 1 hit in 4 shutout innings in the DS.

6. They're on a mission with a chip on their shoulder.

The 2015 Cubs had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder as they attempted to take down the divisional powerhouse that was the St. Louis Cardinals. But again, they were a surprise contender - even within that clubhouse (especially early in 2015). But after falling short in the NLCS, the Cubs retooled over the winter and came back with one goal in mind - to win the World Series.

It was a goal they accomplished. We'll see if the Brewers will be able to do the same, but they certainly came to play in 2018 with a chip on their shoulder and the ultimate goal of winning the final MLB game of the year.

The Brewers didn't lead the division from Day 1 and weren't able to coast into October, but they still wound up with homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

7. They have journeyman catcher who is winning over fans' hearts.

This is a fun one.

The 2016 Cubs had David "Grandpa" Rossy who still elicts deafening cheers whenever he's shown on the giant video board at Wrigley Field. The 2018 Brewers have Kratz, who has become a fan favorite recently and was mic'd up for the final out of the NLDS.

Ross was 39 when he helped lead the Cubs to the 2016 World Series and Chicago was his eighth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey. Kratz is 38 and on his ninth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey.

In fact, Ross and Kratz are so intertwined, they've already been compared to each other by MLB.com.

But the major difference is Kratz has zero postseason playing experience until a week ago. Will he be able to ride off into the sunset with a championship ring on his finger the way Ross did?

We'll have an answer to that over the next few weeks in the final chapter of the Brewers' 2018 season, though Cubs fans surely wouldn't be too happy to see their division rivals celebrating with a World Series parade just 90 minutes north of Wrigley Field.

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

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USA TODAY

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

The Cubs just lost one coach with hitting coach Chili Davis getting fired. Another opening on Joe Maddon's coaching staff could also open up.

According to report from MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan, bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed with the Rangers on Thursday.

Rangers farm director Jayce Tingler was the first candidate the club interviewed, but Hyde and Astros bench coach Joe Espada were also interviewed.

The 45-year-old Hyde has been with the Cubs since 2014. He was a bench coach in 2014 under Rick Renteria before moving to first base coach from 2015-17. This past season he moved back to his original role as bench coach.

He played four seasons in the minors for the White Sox.

The Rangers job opened up when Jeff Banister was fired on Sept. 21. Banister won AL Manager of the Year in 2015 and guided the Rangers to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016, but couldn't get out of the ALDS either year. A 78-84 season in 2017 was followed by an even worse 2018, which led to his firing late this season.