Why Giants pose bigger wild-card threat for Cubs

Why Giants pose bigger wild-card threat for Cubs

Jake Arrieta’s reflexive answer to the wild-card question – ‘Who gives a s---?’ – will either be remembered as the symbolic moment where a Cy Young Award winner got locked back into the zone. Or those four words will go on the headstone of the 2016 Cubs if they don’t win the World Series.

Because if Madison Bumgarner puts the San Francisco Giants on his shoulders and beats New York Mets ace Noah Syndergaard on Wednesday night at Citi Field, then remember how Cubs manager Joe Maddon framed any National League first-round opponent: “Be careful what you wish for.”          

Especially in a best-of-five series where the Giants can line up Johnny Cueto to start Games 1 and 5 at Wrigley Field, with one-time All-Star lefty Matt Moore, World Series MVP Bumgarner and motivated ex-Cub Jeff Samardzija in between, making this a simple question: Which team is more dangerous? 

“It’s the Giants,” an NL Central scout said, “because if their starting pitching gets hot, then they can do some damage. But the only problem is, they need their bullpen to shore things up a little better at the end of the game.

“They have pedigree. They have experience. They have starting pitching. It’s just a matter of the back end (of the bullpen) when they’re winning: Can they hold it together?”   

The Giants certainly have their flaws, leading the majors with 30 blown saves, sinking to 30-42 in the second half after having the best record in the game at the All-Star break (57-33). But San Francisco could once again be clicking at the right time, sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers over the weekend at AT&T Park to avoid a road Game 163 against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Elite rotation pieces and a defense that tied for the major-league lead in fielding percentage (.988) can help mask some of those bullpen issues. Offensively, the Giants can make up for a power outage – Brandon Belt led the team with 17 home runs – with a lineup that doesn’t give away at-bats and features battle-tested hitters like Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Brandon Crawford. 

“You’ve got an experienced, mature bunch that will figure out a way to beat you,” an NL East scout said. “It’s an even-number year. That’s what (would scare) me. Look at what they did two years ago. They were in the cellar then, and look what they did.”

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The 2010 Giants didn’t clinch an NL West title until Game 162 and won the World Series. The 2012 Giants won elimination games against the Cincinnati Reds and Cardinals before sweeping the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. The 2014 Giants watched Bumgarner throw a complete-game shutout in a wild-card showdown against the Pittsburgh Pirates and come out of the bullpen for a five-inning save to beat the Kansas City Royals in a World Series Game 7.    

“This is 2016, so they’re going to be tough to beat, no doubt,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Same with the Mets and the experience they gained last year. That will be a fun game to watch, especially with Syndergaard and Bumgarner. I’m sure they’re both going to throw 200 pitches each if they have to. 

“It’s fun for baseball – those wild-card games – and we’re happy we’re not partaking in that this year with that anxiety and the stress level.”

Where the Mets have lost three frontline pitchers who shut down the Cubs during last year’s NL Championship Series – Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz are all recovering from season-ending surgeries – the Giants invested $220 million in Cueto (18-5, 2.79 ERA) and Samardzija (12-11, 3.81 ERA) and gave up the kind of young position player (Matt Duffy) the Cubs refused to surrender to the Tampa Bay Rays in a trade-deadline deal for Moore (13-12, 4.08 ERA).

After burning Syndergaard in the wild-card game, the Mets could be leaning on a 43-year-old control artist (Bartolo Colon) and two rookies (Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman) who didn’t arrive in New York with any hype. 

“The Mets – I don’t know – they got some mojo,” an NL West scout said. “When you got a guy like (Yoenis) Cespedes, he can turn (everything) around (in that lineup). Bartolo’s pretty good, but I’m shocked that they’ve put this run together.” 

The Giants and Mets are 87-win teams that didn’t flip off the switch. The Cubs held a double-digit lead in the NL Central since the first week of August, clinched a division title in mid-September and spent the final week of the regular season playing non-contenders. One reward for 103 wins will be a four-day layoff.

“Listen, we’re going to play a good team in the first round,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “By definition, you’re going to play a team that gets on a plane feeling awesome about themselves after Wednesday’s win. 

“We were that team last year. You get on that plane, you feel like world-beaters after winning that (wild-card) game on the road. We’re going to play a good team that feels good about themselves. That’s why I think the focus has to be on us and why we need to play good baseball.”

Arrieta gave his teammates that invincible feeling, suffocating the Pirates and setting off the champagne-soaked celebration inside PNC Park’s visiting clubhouse, the Cubs flying to St. Louis and then knocking out a 100-win Cardinals team. 

“We can go toe-to-toe in the playoffs with any lineup or any rotation,” Arrieta said. “We’re more than equipped and more than capable of taking care of business and moving forward. But you got to start with the first game October 7.”

Matt Carpenter giving the Cubs Daniel Murphy PTSD

Matt Carpenter giving the Cubs Daniel Murphy PTSD

Say the name Daniel Murphy around Cubs fans (who have been around since before they won the 2016 World Series) and expect a dirty look or shade of some sort.

What Murphy did to the Cubs in the 2015 National League Championship Series still haunts the fanbase, even if they did end the championship drought the following fall.

Now, the Cubs are seeing it again and their PTSD is in overdrive.

St. Louis infielder Matt Carpenter has been on an unreal tear of late, setting Cardinals franchise records in the process.

Throughout this five-game series at Wrigley Field, Carpenter is 9-for-16 with 6 homers, 10 RBI, 8 runs scored, 3 walks, a pair of doubles and a bunt single to lead off Sunday's game against the Cubs' shift.

"We're seeing this guy probably at his best moment in his life as a baseball player," Joe Maddon said. "My god. We saw it a couple years ago in the playoffs. We're seeing it all over again.

"Similar kind of a swing, not missing anything. It's pretty impressive."

In that 2015 NLCS, Murphy — then with the New York Mets — homered in all 4 games while hitting .529 with a 1.850 OPS, driving in 6 and scoring 6. 

To put that in perspective: The Cubs scored only 8 runs as a team in the 4 games.

Maddon and the Cubs don't know what to do to get Carpenter out right now, so they've resorted to walking him whenever possible, like in the second inning Sunday when they just dealt out a free pass to the Cardinals infielder with runners on second and third and two outs.

They also tried out a funky shift in the seventh inning Sunday, with Kris Bryant as a fourth outfielder in left-center, Addison Russell as the only defender on the left side of the infield and Javy Baez playing on the grass in shallow right field. It worked, as Carpenter grounded it to Baez for a routine out.

Beyond that, all the Cubs can do is hope time eventually wears Carpenter down. After all, nobody can stay this hot forever.

Even though Carpenter and the Cardinals are leaving town after Sunday's game, these two team square off against each other again next weekend for the final series in St. Louis.

"For them, it's a blast to watch," Maddon said. "Give the guy credit. What he's working right now is unique. The last time I saw it was Daniel Murphy. 

"Before that, I think, was Barry Bonds in the World Series in 2002. Playoffs with Murphy a couple years ago, where the guy — every pitch that is thrown — he's on time, he's on balance with a forceful swing that looks like the ball can go out of the ballpark every time. Bonds, Murphy and now him."

That's some serious company to be in.

So what's led to this insane stretch from Carpenter?

Maybe it's the salsa.

When told about that theory, Maddon laughed and said:

"Listen, that makes total sense to me. Can he send a jar over here, please?"

With trade deadline approaching, Cubs know they can't rely on Yu Darvish

With trade deadline approaching, Cubs know they can't rely on Yu Darvish

Sunday began like most days have around the Cubs recently: No update on Yu Darvish.

But while the skies opened up over Wrigley Field about 90 minutes before game time, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein sat in the third-base dugout and spoke candidly about where Darvish is at currently and how much the Cubs can count on him during the stretch run.

Darvish threw from flat ground — 135 feet — Sunday morning and Epstein said it was "his best day in a long time. He threw really well and felt really good."

Still, there is no specific timetable for when Darvish may be back on the Wrigley Field mound, facing live hitters in a game that matters.

The next step for Darvish will be throwing off a mound, but the Cubs aren't yet talking about where or when the 31-year-old pitcher will go on a rehab assignment.

With the non-waiver trade deadline approaching in just over a week, Epstein and the Cubs know they can't simply project Darvish into the September — or October — rotation.

"I think just making an educated guess," Epstein said. "You can't be overly reliant on somebody who hasn't been able to stay healthy and perform this year. At the same time, you track the rehab closely because you know you have to try to anticipate what he might be able to give you.

"...If you put yourself in a position where you're overly reliant on something that hasn't been dependable up to this point and then it doesn't come through, it's probably more on you than on the fates."

Darvish has accounted for only 40 innings for the Cubs this season and hasn't pitched since May 20. He made it through 5 innings just three times in his eight starts on the campaign.

This is the second DL stint for Darvish this season. He had a bout of the flu in early May and then initially went back on the shelf over Memorial Day Weekend with a triceps issue. The triceps strain has morphed into an elbow impingement after Darvish made a rehab start with Class-A South Bend and he received a cortisone shot in the elbow in late June.

Mike Montgomery has taken Darvish's place in the Cubs rotation and the southpaw has had a lot of success in the role with a 3.02 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 10 starts, averaging nearly 6 innings a start.

Of course, Montgomery's insertion into the rotation has left a bit of a hole in the bullpen as the Cubs have been without their top long man and down one reliable left-handed option.

The long relief role was filled last week with the trade for Jesse Chavez, but the Cubs could probably still use another lefty in the bullpen with Justin Wilson's control issues, Brian Duensing's struggles and Randy Rosario's relative inexperience and worrisome peripheral numbers.

Whether the Cubs will acquire another starting pitcher before the trade deadline is unknown. Epstein's front office knows they need more pitching and understands it's much harder to acquire arms after July 31 than before.

But with Montgomery already filling the last spot in the rotation, Drew Smyly on the comeback trail from Tommy John surgery while being stretched out as a starter and now Chavez in town, the Cubs have some veteran starting pitching depth beyond the inexperienced Luke Farrell and Duane Underwood Jr.

The starting pitching market is relatively thin at the moment in terms of arms a team like the Cubs could acquire and plug into a potential playoff rotation. And that's saying nothing of the pieces it would require to pull off such a move, as the Cubs don't have the elite-level prospects they once had to acquire Aroldis Chapman and Jose Quintana the past two summers.

But with Darvish's status unknown and Tyler Chatwood currently boasting more walks than strikeouts through 18 starts, the Cubs aren't exactly sleeping easy at night trying to project their October rotation.

Epstein acknowledged the front office is focused primarily on pitching ahead of the deadline and though it may be tougher to make those big-name deals compared to years past, that doesn't necessarily take the Cubs out of the running on the impact guys.

Still, don't expect Jacob deGrom or Chris Archer to be walking through that door anytime soon.

"I think we're in a more difficult position to do so. I don't think it's impossible," Epstein said. "But certain years lend themselves to being able to participate in more hands. Other years, because of the way your prospects are performing or because of your desire to keep growing the farm system or just the nature of what's available and how much you need, you have to be more selective.

"I think we're hopefully pursuing a lot of different things, but I think in terms of what's realistic for us, we have to be a little bit more targeted, more selective and a little more opportunistic. And that's fine. Sometimes those end up being the best deals. The Chavez deal is an example of that. He's probably not a name anyone had mentioned at all. We think he's a really good fit for us.

"So that's [an example of] the kind of stuff we're looking to do. While participating in everything else, but knowing that most of the stuff we talked about we won't be able to get done."