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Why Theo Epstein almost reached the breaking point and sold pieces off this Cubs team

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USA TODAY

Why Theo Epstein almost reached the breaking point and sold pieces off this Cubs team

Divided, tone-deaf, gridlocked, the Cubs reflected Washington the last time they played at Nationals Park, where veteran catcher Miguel Montero went rogue during an epic postgame rant and the defending World Series champs kept stalling around the .500 mark.

Team president Theo Epstein watched the Nationals run wild across his iPad on June 27 while he was visiting the Class-A Myrtle Beach affiliate, a breakdown that had Montero pointing the finger directly at Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta for those seven stolen bases.

Within seconds of seeing those explosive comments in his South Carolina hotel room, Epstein knew he wanted to get rid of Montero, who couldn’t hide his frustrations with manager Joe Maddon…during a radio interview the day of the championship parade and Grant Park rally last November.

Montero wasn’t exactly a lone wolf, speaking out for players who didn’t always see the communication skills that Maddon showed off during his media sessions. Even Arrieta appreciated Montero’s honesty, saying: “I love Miggy.”

Looking for a button to push with a team that wasn’t getting a jolt from The Cubs Way culture or Maddon’s laissez-faire style, Epstein DFA’d Montero and eventually shipped him to the Toronto Blue Jays.

The next day, about half the team showed up at the White House, where board member Todd Ricketts told Donald Trump the Cubs would run into the Nationals in the playoffs and predicted: “You’ll see them crumble.”

In reality, the Cubs were dangerously close to imploding, which will make it fascinating to watch which team crumbles during the best-of-five National League Division Series that begins Friday night in Washington.

As Epstein consulted with a few players about the Montero decision, he sent this message: Get your stuff together and play with an edge if you want us to trade the Class-A talent here in Myrtle Beach for big-league reinforcements this summer.

The Cubs also quietly put the word out to teams looking for starting pitching and bullpen help: There was a remote possibility that looming free agents Arrieta and Wade Davis would be available at the July 31 trade deadline. A new collective bargaining agreement – with the international spending restrictions, luxury-tax implications and a modified qualifying-offer system – would have been part of the rationalization.

“Not blowing it up,” Epstein said. “But when you’re five-and-a-half out, if you have a bad road trip and a bad homestand and then you’re 10-and-a-half out, absolutely, we would have sold.”  

[MORE CUBS: How Jon Jay brought Cubs clubhouse together for big finish]

That’s the deficit the Cubs faced on July 9, when Jon Lester got rocked during a 14-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field that left the defending World Series champs with a 43-45 record. During that final game before the All-Star break, Epstein received a text message from White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, sparking the Jose Quintana trade talks.

Davis – who wasn’t even a part of last year’s championship team – would be the only player representative at the All-Star festivities in South Florida. Epstein went into stealth mode that week – credit Reddit users Wetbutt23 and KatyPerrysBootyHole with the scoop – and gave up top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease in a blockbuster deal for Quintana that would solidify the rotation through 2020.

Epstein left his family’s beach vacation in Massachusetts to join the team at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where he got his start in professional baseball as a summer intern out of Yale University in 1992, the same year that trendsetting stadium opened in downtown Baltimore.

Epstein noticed the mood in the visiting clubhouse after that first game back from the All-Star break on July 14 – a 9-8 victory where the Cubs got homers from Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Addison Russell, still almost blew an eight-run lead and began a six-game winning streak.

“In the first half, we were kind of tired of the postgame celebration,” Epstein said. “It was getting kind of old.

“Folks don’t understand. Once you win it all – and you’ve given everything you’ve had – the specter of playing 162 games and making them all meaningful is really overwhelming. It’s hard to get up for all of them.

“The first half, there were just a lot of things, different gripes going on. It was kind of more a collection of individuals than it was anything else.

“And then as soon as we hit the break – and we had to answer the bell – our guys did. We came back from the break as a team – and as a really good team – and we celebrated that win like it was a postseason win.

“We took off from there. That vibe of a loose atmosphere – but very connected group – was back. And we kind of rode it the whole second half.”

The Milwaukee Brewers, a rebuilding team with an Opening Day payroll around $56 million, spent 69 days in first place, but never after July 25. Epstein’s front office never got to the point of exchanging names or discussing any white-flag deals in depth or really considering a breakup of their young core. But the Cubs now believe that adversity will make them stronger in October.

“Look, it was crunch time early this year,” Epstein said. “If we had had a bad road trip and a bad homestand to start the second half, we’re selling. We didn’t. We started to play pretty good baseball right off the bat. We added and our guys elevated their level of play and had a hell of a second half and a great closing kick.

“And now we’re going into the playoffs with as much momentum as anybody.”

Cubs map out next steps for closer Craig Kimbrel

Cubs map out next steps for closer Craig Kimbrel

Craig Kimbrel is one step closer to joining the Cubs bullpen.

According to Patrick Mooney of The Athletic, Kimbrel will join Triple-A Iowa and make his first appearance on Tuesday, against the Sacramento River Cats.

While the Cubs officially signed him on June 7, Kimbrel has yet to pitch in actual games. The 31-year-old has been in a condensed spring training program at the Cubs' Arizona complex, throwing live batting practice on both Thursday and Saturday.

The Cubs haven't revealed an official timeline for Kimbrel to join the 25-man roster, as they are basing things off of how he feels. The expectation is he will pitch in about five games with Iowa before joining the Cubs. However, both Theo Epstein and Kimbrel acknowledged how the goal isn't to rush the closer back into MLB action.

"We're not gonna rush it," Epstein said. "It's gonna be tempting to get him here as soon as possible, but we're trying to plan this thing the right way so that he could be in a position to succeed not just immediately but in October. That's gonna be our guiding principle as we go."

"We sat down and put a gameplan together — something to work off of," Kimbrel said. "But at the end of the day, it's based off how I recover, how I get ready. This isn't about getting back on the field as fast as I can. This is about being the best that I can be in October and down the stretch and doing what I came here to do for this team."

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Yu Darvish and Cubs pull off dramatic comeback win over Dodgers

Yu Darvish and Cubs pull off dramatic comeback win over Dodgers

There were some added stakes to Saturday night’s Cubs-Dodgers matchup. Darvish made his first start at Dodger Stadium since his infamous Game 7 loss in the 2017 World Series, looking for a great effort in front of a fan base that had their up-and-downs in terms of their relationship with him. He (maybe) took a small jab at the Dodgers before the game had even started, telling the Los Angeles Times that he wasn't worried about being booed because “the Dodgers don't have many fans here in the first three innings, so maybe it will be on the quieter side.”

Well Dodgers faithful certainly got the message and made sure to let Darvish hear it.

However, Darvish got the last laugh on Saturday night. He pitched a stellar seven innings. Over those seven innings, Darvish gave up 1 ER on 2 hits and also notched 10 strikeouts.

Darvish has been hitting his stride as of late, maintaining a 2.96 ERA over his last four starts.

All of that being said, it would be remiss of me not to mention the contributions of Darvish’s teammates. His great outing helped keep the Cubs in the game, but the gutsy performances of Anthony Rizzo and Pedro Strop are what won the contest.

Dodgers All-Star relief pitcher Kenley Jansen had a 10-game scoreless streak coming into Saturday night, but one swing of Rizzo’s bat was all that was needed to restore balance to the everlasting battle of pitcher versus hitter. After Jansen hit Kris Bryant with a pitch to put him on base, Rizzo activated “clutch mode”, mashing a 400-foot bomb out to right field.

Though small, Saturday night’s homer gives Rizzo a three-game hitting streak, perhaps forecasting that things are trending  upwards for the first baseman as the Cubs look to close out the series against the Dodgers with a win on Sunday night. And not to be left out of the fun, Pedro Strop came in to face the Justin Turner, MVP hopeful Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Matt Beaty to nail down the save.

Never afraid of high-pressure moments, Stop came through big time.

Strop got a ground out from Turner, struck out Bellinger and Beaty in his 15-pitch save effort. This was a much-needed win for the Cubs, who have well-documented struggles on the road. As they look to split the four-game set with the Dodgers on Sunday night, the Cubs can be pleased with their fight this week.

Saturday’s win over the Dodgers was the Cubs first win of the season after trailing through six innings, as they were 0-23 in such situations prior to the victory. Amid a season that has been fraught with injury and general roster construction concerns, it was wonderful to see the Cubs pull out a tough win lead by the much-maligned Darvish and the never-quit attitude of his teammates.