Cubs

Why Cubs believe in Alex Avila when Willson Contreras goes down

Why Cubs believe in Alex Avila when Willson Contreras goes down

SAN FRANCISCO – Standing in the corner of AT&T Park’s visiting clubhouse, Alex Avila projected a sense of calm and spoke in a deep voice, reminding reporters that the first-place Cubs were still in a great position, even if they had just lost their most valuable player.   

The lasting image from Wednesday’s brutal loss to the San Francisco Giants became Willson Contreras grabbing his right leg while running out a groundball, hopping in pain past first base and crumpling onto the outfield grass.       

But whatever Thursday’s MRI on that hamstring reveals, Contreras hobbling off the field shouldn’t be the end scene for the defending World Series champs. A mediocre division is still up for grabs. The reigning National League MVP is still in the middle of this lineup. The rotation revolves around Cy Young Award-caliber pitchers. And Avila is an accomplished catcher from a proud baseball family with high-level experience.      

“We just got to pick up the slack,” Avila said. “I’m not sure how long, but that’s part of the game. Unfortunately, you play hard and sometimes you get hurt, and you have to deal with injuries.”

Before Avila’s dad, Al, the Detroit Tigers general manager, packaged him with lefty reliever Justin Wilson in a deal before the July 31 deadline, the Cubs looked into a group of catchers and figured they would only need someone to play once, maybe twice a week.     

“It’s a luxury,” pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “It’s a good thing we got him now. He’s solid back there.”

The Cubs had questions about Avila’s defense and how well he would work within their system. But a creative front office that prides itself on being thorough can also overanalyze things at times, talking with the Tigers for about a month before finalizing a deal that essentially cost them a talented Triple-A player (Jeimer Candelario) who didn’t fit into their plans and struggled during his brief appearances in the big leagues.

Avila worked with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer during Cy Young Award seasons in Detroit and caught Chris Sale and Jose Quintana last year with the White Sox. Avila made the American League All-Star team in 2011, the beginning of a run where the Tigers won four straight division titles and he played in eight postseason series.

“I’ve caught most of the guys already and I feel comfortable with most of them already,” Avila said. “It usually doesn’t take me too long to feel pretty comfortable with a pitcher back there, as far as receiving. Overall – as far as the game-planning and everything like that – it’s been not that much different than I’m used to. It’s been a smooth transition.”

The most pressing issue for Avila will be establishing a working relationship with Jon Lester, who had personal catcher David Ross around to help minimize his throwing issues during the first two seasons of his $155 million megadeal.

Contreras didn’t know all the emotional buttons to push with Lester, but he did have a rocket arm that controlled the running game. That will be a storyline during Lester’s closely watched start against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Saturday at Chase Field.  

“The biggest thing now is going to be Jonny Lester, the involvement with the new catcher,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s going to be the difference. I have a lot of faith. I’ve liked what Alex has done so far, watching him and watching his method behind the plate. He’s actually thrown the ball really well, too. There’s a lot to like there.”

In the middle of his first full season in the big leagues, Contreras emerged as the hitter other teams really needed to be careful with. Avila’s production is more matchup-driven as a left-handed hitter who kills right-handed pitching, putting up 11 homers and an .869 overall OPS in 77 games with the Tigers this season.

Avila is new here, but he grew up in this business and instinctively understands the next-man-up attitude when something like this happens to a dynamic player like Contreras.    

“He’s a huge part of our team,” Avila said. “Hopefully, he gets back as quickly as possible. We’ll just have to figure out how to pick up the slack from here throughout the lineup and find a way to get some runs across the board and get a little consistency on the offensive side.”

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

0716-kyle-schwarber.jpg
USA TODAY

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

WASHINGTON, D.C. — How could someone like Kyle Schwarber play the villain?

The fan favorite who’s always quick with a smile — or an Uncle Sam costume on the Fourth of July — Schwarber doesn’t fit the mold of a loathsome target of boos. But he made quite the heel turn in the minds of Washington Nationals fans Monday night, and of course he knew it was coming.

Schwarber went from getting cheered by the legions in attendance at the Home Run Derby to getting booed when he took on, and eventually lost to, hometown hero Bryce Harper in the final round.

“I was down in the tunnel saying, ‘If we get to the finals, Harp, they’re all going to be against me. I think they’re all going to be against me,’” Schwarber said Monday night. “And then I went out there and got booed after they all got pumped up for me. That’s just the beauty of it, and I was happy for Bryce that he won it in front of the home crowd.”

Harper delivered an incredibly memorable baseball moment Monday night, catching up to Schwarber’s 18 home runs with a ridiculous display of repetitive power to win a Home Run Derby for the ages. The format of this event, revamped a couple years ago, made for a dramatic and hugely entertaining evening. Harper smacked nine homers over the final 47 seconds of the final round to tie Schwarber, then bested him in bonus time. Unsurprisingly, the home crowd was going ballistic for their boy.

But earlier in the night, it was Schwarber getting all the cheers, when he made his own last-second comeback to beat Philadelphia Phillies slugger Rhys Hoskins in the second round. Schwarber was pumping up the crowd, pumping his fists and screaming while putting on a show of his own to catch and pass Hoskins' 20 home runs and advance to the finals.

How quickly the locals forgot.

By the finals — during which Schwarber looked understandably exhausted — the crowd had turned on him, trying to get every advantage for Harper.

“As soon as I got done with that round, I told myself that he had it,” Schwarber said. “I knew that he had the home crowd behind him, and I knew that he was a very prolific power hitter with a great swing. For him to come in and do that and started getting down to the wire, all of a sudden he started racking them up one at a time. You kind of just accept your fate there.”

Perhaps the night could’ve ended differently for Schwarber had he listened more closely to the advice of his teammates, Javy Baez and Willson Contreras, who were quick with Gatorade, a towel and words of encouragement on Monday. Baez hit 16 home runs in his own first-round appearance, though Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Max Muncy knocked him out.

“I was just telling him to slow down,” Baez said. “He was kind of rushing a little bit, that’s why he was jumping to the ball.”

“They were actually giving me really good advice that I didn’t take because I was really dumb-headed,” Schwarber said. “‘Make sure you take some pitches and get the pitch that you want.’ At the end, I felt like I was swinging at everything. I was just running out of gas. I felt like I had to put up as many swings just to try to put a couple out.”

Schwarber was totally content with losing out to Harper’s home-field advantage. Though as his homers flew out deep into the right-field seats Monday night, you couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if Schwarber was instead taking aim at Sheffield Avenue and getting his own home-field advantage from Cubs fans.

The North Side hasn’t played host to the All-Star Game since 1990, so perhaps Schwarber will still be slugging the next time the Friendly Confines are the site of the Home Run Derby.

“That’d be really cool one day if the All-Star Game’s at Wrigley,” Schwarber said, “and to participate in the Derby, that’d be fun.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 36th homer in 1998

sosa_generic_1998_road_hr_slide.jpg
AP

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 36th 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.

 

Sosa went down and golfed a pitch out for his 36th homer on July 17, 1998. He smacked Marlins reliever Kirt Ojala's (who??) pitch just over the wall in center field at Pro Player Stadium for a 2-run shot that closed out the Cubs' scoring in a 6-1 victory.

 

The blast accounted for Sosa's 88th and 89th of the season. By comparison, Javy Baez currently leads the Cubs (and the National League) with 72 RBI on July 17, 2018.

 

Steve Trachsel tossed a complete game for the Cubs in the victory that day and Sosa finished with the only extra-base hits for either team (he also had a double).

 

Fun fact: Former Cub Ryan Dempster started the game for the Marlins, but lasted just 4.1 innings to run his season record to 1-4 with a 6.70 ERA.