Cubs

Youth movement will pay off for Cubs in 2016

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Youth movement will pay off for Cubs in 2016

The Hall of Fame shutout for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens — and the Baseball Writers’ Association of America shunning Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire — reinforces the idea this is a young man’s game again.

Professional athletes aren’t supposed to be record-shattering peak performers through their mid-30s and still playing at an MVP/Cy Young level around their 40th birthday.

It would be naïve and foolish to think the game is completely clean, that every trace of ego, greed and insecurity has been scrubbed away now or that Major League Baseball is somehow on top of all the cutting-edge chemistry.

But at a time of tougher testing for performance-enhancing drugs — when players should in theory break down faster, come back from injuries slower and might not be getting the same pick-me-ups to combat the brutal travel/day-night schedule — it pays to be young, deep and flexible.

That’s what the Cubs are now, making them a World Series favorite, the champions of the offseason, a team that will be playing with a target on its back from the moment pitchers and catchers report to Arizona in February.

This lineup is built around young power hitters: Anthony Rizzo (26), Kris Bryant (24), Jorge Soler (24 in February), Kyle Schwarber (23 in March). Addison Russell — who stabilized the team’s defense once he took over at shortstop — will turn 22 this month. Jason Heyward — the Gold Glove outfielder with $184 million guaranteed — is actually a day younger than Rizzo.

[MORE CUBS: Sammy Sosa (barely) stays on the Hall of Fame ballot for another year]

Besides primary second baseman Ben Zobrist — who perfected the super-utility role on Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays teams — this roster also features other versatile players who can handle multiple positions: Bryant, Javier Baez, Chris Coghlan.

Maddon can get creative, play matchups and keep everyone fresh with four swingmen who can pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen: Adam Warren, Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard.

The experience of winning 97 games and advancing to the National League Championship Series will also pay dividends. Jon Lester — the $155 million lefty who won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox — talked about that amid the celebration at Wrigley Field after the Cubs eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals.

Lester — who once tipped his cap to Derek Jeter in that farewell Nike commercial — used the New York Yankees and their homegrown core as his reference point.

“They taught the young guys,” Lester said. “They taught the other guys how to win — and how to be a Yankee. So these guys in the future will be able to teach the young guys how to be a Cub — and how to do it the right way — and how to win at the same time. That just sets us up for success for a long time.

“That’s one of the reasons why I really wanted to come here. I wanted to be a part of this and be a part of that group. Even though I’m a little bit — well — a lot older than them. Because I believe in having that core.”

[MORE CUBS: Starlin Castro thanks Chicago in vulnerable open letter for Players' Tribune]

The Cubs Way still has a lot to prove, but catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello sees some of those parallels after working on the Yankee teams that won four World Series titles between 1996 and 2000.

“They’re not in awe at all,” Borzello said. “I feel like the whole game’s changed now where the young players come right in and seem to have no problem adjusting to being a big-league player.

“Twenty years ago, there were very few Derek Jeters that belonged right from Day 1. Most of them had to come up — and go down — and kind of fail and understand it all first. Here, I feel like they all show up and they’re ready to go. Almost like: ‘What took you so long to call me up here?’

“That’s what’s impressed me — not only just about our team — but all of baseball, (how) these young players come up and are ready to jump right in and take the responsibility on.

“With this team in particular, to have so many at one time is incredible. You’re having all these 22-year-olds and 23-year-olds thrown not (just) onto the team, but right into the starting lineup. They’re your core players right from Day 1.

“To be able to handle the hype — and also produce right when you get here — is astounding.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Not that Maddon has trouble getting his players’ attention, but after hearing how great the Cubs were in 2015, the manager will point to the breakdowns during that four-game sweep against the New York Mets, so that veteran catcher Miguel Montero stays prepared, Baez keeps himself focused and Schwarber and Soler better understand the subtleties of playing a corner-outfield spot.

“You’re always, always looking to get better,” Maddon said. “So when you want to preach something about maybe the little things in spring training — and then point out what occurred last October — it actually helps a lot. Because the guys that have never been through it before — we’ve talked about the minutiae and how important it is — (but) it doesn’t really resonate with them sometimes.

“Now, having gone through this — putting the bunt down, hitting the cutoff man, being in the right position or whatever — it’s an easier sell.”

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

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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

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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.