Why Theo Epstein thinks these Cubs can withstand the pressure


Why Theo Epstein thinks these Cubs can withstand the pressure

Hector Rondon waited around his hotel room, not sure if he should wear his Superman onesie to Dodger Stadium.

The unofficial Cubs closer knew he made the right decision as soon as he got down to the hotel lobby and saw his teammates already dressed up for Joe Maddon’s latest stunt.

With a red cape around his neck, Rondon rolled off the team bus and into the visiting clubhouse around 2:25 p.m. on Sunday, followed by Starlin Castro in a Super Mario Bros. T-shirt and pajama pants. Pedro Strop went with the same look in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Of course, they posed for pictures that would be posted on Twitter and Instagram. This was about two-and-a-half hours before first pitch against a $300 million first-place team in front of a national-television audience.

The Cubs would be back in the same room toasting Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter with bottles of Dom Perignon before boarding an overnight flight home from Los Angeles.

“We’re not guilty of overthinking too many things, which is good,” Theo Epstein said, talking about this specific group and not necessarily his baseball-operations department as a whole.

“The guys are really loose, and it’s not just words. I think if you’re around the team, you feel it. There’s not a lot of weight to the clubhouse on a day-to-day basis.”

As ex-manager Dale Sveum used to say: “Ya think?”

[MORE: Albert Almora named Cubs minor league player of the month]

The Cubs have lost six of their last eight games and still woke up on Thursday with a 6.5-game lead over the San Francisco Giants for the National League’s second wild card. FanGraphs (96.4 percent) and Baseball Prospectus (93.7 percent) projected the Cubs as locks for the playoffs.

“There is a momentum at play in September that’s powerful,” Epstein said. “It’s more powerful than playoff odds and math and things like that that people like to look at this time of year.

“I think being loose and having a really positive vibe — even if we lose a few games in a row — is really important to help keep the momentum going the right way.”

In other words: Save it, nerds.

Epstein was the lead architect for the Boston Red Sox teams that won World Series titles in 2004 and 2007 — and the dysfunctional group that wound up with four words near the top of the 2011 season’s obituary: Fried chicken and beer.

Those Red Sox had been 30 games over .500 on Sept. 3, 2011, in second place in the American League East and nine games up on Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays.

“At this time of year,” Epstein said, “if you start paying attention to the standings, or things aren’t going your way, or you’re not performing up to expectations, or you don’t like what people are writing about you, or you’re scoreboard-watching and not getting the results that you want to get, players and teams and organizations can get too tight.

“And it’s really hard to escape that.”

[RELATED: Cubs awaiting results on Kyle Schwarber’s MRI]

The Rays stormed into the playoffs as a wild-card team while Boston’s collapse led to sweeping changes at Fenway Park, with Epstein leaving for a president’s title and a direct report to ownership in Chicago.

The Cubs have serious issues with their rotation beyond Arrieta and Jon Lester. Injuries to Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler could create bigger holes in a lineup that might already be dragging.

Addison Russell played in only 68 minor-league games last season, and Kris Bryant hasn’t experienced playing through September and into October, either.

But the Cubs could go 15-15 the rest of the way and still win 90 games. This isn’t a fluke team or an accidental contender.

“Our thing is just playing naïve,” outfielder Chris Coghlan said. “Just going out there and doing it (because) that’s really essentially what it’s about.

“When we play in October, it’s the same thing. It’s the same game. Now it’s magnified to the nth degree, but it really is the same thing for us. You’re just critiqued a whole lot more or praised a whole lot more.”

So there goes Strop — his green-and-gold Air Jordans balanced on a two-wheel electric scooter — through a Wrigley Field clubhouse that sometimes smells like stale beer and has a disco ball and DJ lighting equipment hanging from the ceiling.

“Just show up, play hard and compete and try to win a ballgame,” Epstein said. “If you win, celebrate extremely hard for about 15 minutes and then let it go (and) do it again the next day. That’s really valuable and it also helps you avoid the pitfall of getting too tight.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“It’s such a loose group. I don’t think players are out there thinking about the standings or thinking about pressure or thinking about numbers or thinking about the gravity of the situation.

“I think they’re out there relaxed, loose, having fun, playing hard for one another, enjoying the moment and trying to let their talent take over and win a ballgame.”

Beginning Labor Day, the Cubs will have 13 games in 21 days against the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates. Check back then to see if the Cubs are still playing so loose and carefree — or suddenly feeling the weight of history and expectations.

“This team doesn’t strike me as the type that’s going to be overwhelmed by any situation,” Epstein said. “Over the course of 162, we’re going to go through our ups and downs. But I think this team thrives in competitive situations.

“You’ve seen how we’ve performed against good teams, how we’ve performed in certain games with our backs against the wall, limiting losing streaks or facing real tough starting pitching.

“I think this team responds to that type of challenge. And we’ll see this month.”

Cubs embrace Little League World Series experience by going hill-sledding

Cubs embrace Little League World Series experience by going hill-sledding

One of the most iconic aspects of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA, is the hill behind center field at Lamade Stadium. Fans bring carboard boxes with them to the ballpark, using them to slide down the hill while Little League games commence on the ball field. 

Sunday, the Cubs and Pirates visited Lamade ahead of their Little League Classic matchup later in the day. Several Cubs took the opportunity to fully embrace the experience, taking turns sliding down the famous hill at the ballpark.

Anthony Rizzo and manager Joe Maddon demonstrated some A+ form, while former Cubs catcher and current ESPN broadcaster David Ross' care-free form is amazing.

Kris Bryant and Cole Hamels also took turns down the hill, and you've gotta love the pure joy on their faces.

The Little League World Series serves as a friendly reminder that baseball is a child's game. While the competitive aspect of MLB part of the game, it's nice to see the Cubs embracing the experience.

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Cubs bullpen gets another reinforcement with Craig Kimbrel activated


Cubs bullpen gets another reinforcement with Craig Kimbrel activated

The Cubs bullpen has had its share of struggles in recent days, but the team’s new closer is coming back from the injured list.

Craig Kimbrel was activated off the IL ahead of Sunday’s game against the Pirates. The game will be played in Williamsport, Pa., as the Little League Classic.

Kimbrel took the spot of Duane Underwood Jr., who heads back to Triple-A Iowa. Outfielder Mark Zagunis also joined the Cubs roster as the 26th man for Sunday’s game.

Kimbrel joined the Cubs as a free agent in the middle of the season and debuted on June 27. He made 14 appearances before going to the IL with right knee inflammation. He last pitched on Aug. 3.

In 12 2/3 innings, Kimbrel has 17 strikeouts, eight walks and 13 hits for a 5.68 ERA. He has nine saves.

The Cubs suffered back-to-back walk-off losses on Thursday and Friday with the bullpen blowing late leads. Three of the team’s most experienced relievers, Kimbrel, Brandon Kintzler and Steve Cishek were all on the IL at the same time. Kintzler was activated Friday, but promptly blew a lead in Pittsburgh on Friday in his first game back.

Kimbrel’s return gives Joe Maddon another option in the bullpen after going through a rough stretch with relievers.