Cubs

At Wrigley, Cubs become baseball's biggest party and best story

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At Wrigley, Cubs become baseball's biggest party and best story

The Cubs are baseball’s biggest party now, a crazy mix of bonus babies and spare parts, led by a mad-scientist manager who loves giving the middle finger to unwritten rules and an Ivy League executive who can casually namedrop rock stars without sounding obnoxious.

The Cubs have been playing (mostly bad) baseball at Wrigley Field for 100 years, but they had never seen anything like this before, clinching a playoff series at Clark and Addison for the first time in franchise history.

Beating the hated St. Louis Cardinals made it that much sweeter for a crowd of 42,411 that wouldn’t sit down in the ninth inning on Tuesday, standing on tiptoes and holding up iPhones trying to snap pictures of the final out.

The roar echoed out into the night when Hector Rondon — a Rule 5 pick who came back so much stronger from Tommy John surgery — struck out Stephen Piscotty swinging to save a 6-4 victory and end this National League Division Series in only four games.

“We’re doing things that we shouldn’t be doing this year,” Anthony Rizzo said. “And we have a great time doing it. This city deserves it. These fans deserve it.”

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez steps into starring role for Cubs to help finish Cardinals]

You could feel the press box shaking after Rizzo blasted the go-ahead shot into the right-field bleachers in the sixth inning, his second home run off Cardinals reliever Kevin Siegrist in two days. The Cubs didn’t win the division like Rizzo predicted back in January, but they do have 101 wins this year.

“When I was popping off at The Cubby Bear, I was thinking 90,” said Joe Maddon, thinking back to his first shot-and-a-beer press conference as Cubs manager last November.

The Cubs whipped this white-towel-waving crowd into a frenzy, clapping along with Starlin Castro’s walk-up music and becoming baseball’s biggest story in October. This franchise rose out of the ashes of five straight fifth-place seasons, advancing to the NLCS to face either the Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Mets on the road for Saturday’s Game 1.

“I was talking upstairs with Eddie,” said Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations who’s tight with Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder. “This is like our first record.

“You put that record out and then things blow up and it’s a whole different time of innocence and exceeding expectations and bursting on the national scene.

“But these guys care so much about each other. Maybe it’ll get more complicated as time goes by. But I don’t think it will get any less special.”

[MORE CUBS: Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder left speechless after Cubs win NLDS]

Epstein doesn’t know if this will be the best chance for the Cubs to win their first World Series since 1908, but the unique chemistry is impossible to miss, all the clubhouse goofiness balanced by a deep roster and the tenacious way this team kept coming at the Cardinals.

The Cubs won Game 4 with seven different relievers and three rookies in the lineup, plus backup infielder Javier Baez, who’s 22 years old, had to wait until September for his call-up from Triple-A Iowa and got the crowd chanting “LAC-KEY! LAC-KEY!” after his three-run bomb off John Lackey in the second inning.

Jorge Soler showed off his rocket arm with a great throw from right field, nailing Tony Cruz at home plate and keeping it a tie game in the sixth inning. It was hard to tell where Kyle Schwarber’s solo home run landed in the seventh inning, soaring out toward Sheffield Avenue and appearing to clear the scripted Budweiser sign atop the video board in right field.

“Our guys don’t buy into the little narratives,” Epstein said. “They’re doing it for each other, for the organization. The pressure, the history doesn’t really bother these guys.

“They’re young. They’re innocent — in a great way. They were in instructional league last year. You think they’re worried about history? They’re worried about getting their laundry done in time for Saturday.”

[MORE CUBS: Despite 100 wins, Cardinals couldn't slow Cubs' momentum]

The Cubs wore their new official postseason T-shirts: “CHICAGO WANTS IT MORE.” A fan held up a sign: “NEXT YEAR IS NOW.” From the top of the dugout, Schwarber and Rizzo high-fived fans, Rondon sprayed champagne into the crowd and arrow-shooting reliever Fernando Rodney puffed a victory cigar.

Forget that stuff about goats and ghosts and curses. The Cubs believe they are a team of destiny now. Rizzo — a two-time All-Star first baseman who just turned 26 in August and has grown into a real leader — believes they are playing for the old Cubs who could only dream about moments like this.

“They left this uniform in a better position,” Rizzo said. “And that’s what we want to do. We want to leave this uniform in a better position. Look at this weather in October with the wind blowing out. It hasn’t blown out all year here. If that doesn’t have something to do with Ernie Banks smiling down on us, I don’t know what does. He would be really proud of this team. Billy Williams said it at Ernie’s funeral: This team is going to win in 2015 as a team.”

The Cubs will never go with a set lineup, but it's time to accept the reality of this offense

The Cubs will never go with a set lineup, but it's time to accept the reality of this offense

There is no quick fix for what ails the Cubs offense.

Manny Machado would certainly help. That much is certain.

But dropping one of the game's elite hitters into any lineup would help boost that team's offensive profile. The only question is: Would the long-term cost be worth it for a short-term gain?

Because Machado wouldn't cure everything with this Jekyll and Hyde Cubs offense.

After hammering Reds pitching in Cincinnati last weekend, the Cubs managed to score just 1 run against the Indians in 18 innings and they didn't even have to face Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco.

They went a combined 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position.

It was also the 42nd different lineup the Cubs have rolled out this season in 46 games.

That's been a point of contention for many, many fans wishing Joe Maddon would stick with one set lineup from 1-through-8 in the order. 

But that will never happen. 

For starters, this way does work. The 2016 Cubs boasted 130 different lineups throughout the course of the season and we all know how that year finished.

A set lineup also won't work because this isn't 1970 and some players are better than others for different matchups against opposing starting pitchers (like Albert Almora Jr. vs. left-handed pitchers and Jason Heyward vs. right-handed pitcher). Also, players need rest to ensure they'll be fresh for the stretch run in August and September and the postseason after that.

"It's such a non-sophisticated conversation," Maddon said. "I don't know how it begins. I've heard it from old baseball dudes — I think fathers pass it down to sons on occasion. It's like teaching your kid how to drive a stick shift; it just gets passed along.

"I try not to comment on it, because really, it's such a poor discussion. There's no sophistication to it whatsoever. It makes zero sense. It doesn't belong in today's game and actually it never belonged in anybody's game."

So what can the Cubs do to find more consistency on offense?

Honestly, not much beyond just continuing to develop. Remember, this is still a very, very young and inexperienced core of position players and growing pains are inevitable.

It's also the nature of the game right now with strikeouts way up and basehits down. 

Offense is naturally an ebb-and-flow, up-and-down kind of thing. Words like "feel" and "confidence" are thrown around so often because they matter.

But with the way baseball has gone, the peaks and valleys have become as prevalent as ever. Try to point to other teams right now that have had no trouble scoring runs on a consistent basis this season.

The Yankees are close, but that's one team. The Braves and Red Sox are the next two closest, but they're not without flaws.

Atlanta has scored just 3 runs in their last 3 games as they dropped a series to Jake Arrieta and the Phillies this week. The Red Sox haven't score more than 6 runs in a game since April 30.

It may seem like the Cubs are on a roller coaster all on their own, but that may just be because of HOW they go through valleys. 

The Cubs still struggle with runners in scoring position, ranking 26th in baseball in that area (.222 AVG). They rank 24th with runners in scoring position and 2 outs (.194 AVG).

But delve deeper and you'll see the Cubs actually rank near the top of baseball in RUNS in such situations. 

With guys in scoring position, they sit 5th in MLB wiith 168 runs. With guys in scoring position and 2 outs, they rank 6th in runs, ahead of the Yankees.

So they're giving themselves plenty of opportunity by getting guys on base and in scoring position often.

Another elite hitter would help things, sure. You could say that for any team in baseball.

But the simple fact of the matter is the Cubs are 4th in MLB in runs scored, 2nd in OBP, 3rd in OPS and 5th in SLG.

They do feast on poor teams and have trouble scoring against better opponents, but every team has that issue to some degree.

Getting Anthony Rizzo — whose 2018 OPS (.661) is almost 200 points below his career mark (.842) — back to his standard MVP-candidate level would certainly help matters, too.

The Cubs are on the right path — trying to use the whole field, hit the ball on a line more, make more contact — but it's not something that will become consistent parts of their respective offensive profiles overnight.

Maddon was actually OK with where his team was at before being shut out Wednesday night.

"I think a lot of guys are doing pretty well right now," Maddon said ahead of the Cubs' 1-0 loss. "...Overall, I kinda like what I'm seeing on the offensive side. I just think that OK, are we doing a better job of not chasing? I think so.

"Are we utilizing the opposite gap a little better? I think so. Strikeouts, I don't think anybody's overtly striking out too much right now. So I kinda like what we're doing with the bats. I kinda do. ... I think a lot of guys are starting to get it."

But there is still one area Maddon will never be satisfied with — getting runners home from third base with less than 2 outs.

"Of course," Maddon laughed, "I'm gonna talk about that for the next 10 years and I'm not gonna like it, probably."

Theo Epstein on Manny Machado rumors: 'It's honestly something we're looking at and just rolling our eyes at'

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein on Manny Machado rumors: 'It's honestly something we're looking at and just rolling our eyes at'

Despite the MLB trade deadline being two months away, rumors of the Cubs potentially acquiring Orioles' shortstop Manny Machado have intensifed recently. Regardless, Cubs president Theo Epstein made his point on the rumor frenzy quite clear Thursday.

"I can say with regards to this particular spasm of media frenzy, it is outrageously outsized when you compare it to the reality of the situation," Epstein said Thursday on 670 The Score.

Machado is having an unbelievable season with the Orioles, hitting .328 with 15 home runs and 43 RBIs entering Thursday. If traded, he would undoubtedly provide a boost to any ballclub, but that is a big "if."

Of course, the MLB season is not even two months old yet, which Epstein pointed out as being a big factor in the situation.

"It's May," he said. "We're still figuring out who we are as a team this year. We're still figuring out our place in the division.

"There's an atypical amount of trade discussion in May this year, which is essentially nil."

Rumors of the Cubs being a potential player in acquiring Machado make sense. At 15-34, the Orioles have the worst winning percentage (.306) in the MLB. With their current positioning, trading Machado could start a rebuild that the Orioles might just need. The Cubs have a 24-year-old shortstop in Addison Russell that the Orioles could acquire to a) replace Machado and b) use as the face of their rebuild.

Be that as it may, Epstein said the rumors are something that the Cubs are "just rolling our eyes at."

"I understand it's natural for people to connect the dots and there to be this kind of frenzy from time to time, but it's honestly something we're looking at and just rolling our eyes at," he said. "It's not like July, where every now and then there's lots of coverage on deals that are actually being discussed or actually might happen.

"This one is just out there in fantasy land at this point."