Tony Kemp

The Cubs were victims of one of the worst strike three calls you'll ever see

The Cubs were victims of one of the worst strike three calls you'll ever see

When the Cubs traded for Tony Kemp two weeks ago, one of the main areas of his game they pointed to was his ability to put the ball in play.

But he can only do so much when he's getting pitches called on him like the one during Tuesday night's loss in Philadelphia.

With a runner on first base and the Cubs trailing by 2 runs, Kemp worked the count to 1-2 before staring at a pitch that seemed clearly high and outside...

...Except home plate umpire Marty Foster had other ideas:

Yes, that was a fastball, so it's not like it had major break like a curveball or slider.

Here's another angle:

And here's a still shot of Kemp's reaction and how far out of the zone the ball was when it crossed the plate:

That pitch is called a strike exactly...never:

Who knows how the inning would've played out if that pitch wasn't called a strike, but it certainly took an out away from the Cubs while they attempted to mount a rally in the ninth against Phillies closer Hector Neris. The game ended a couple batters later when Jason Heyward grounded out with a pair of runners on base.

At the end of the day, the Cubs didn't lose because of the umpire — they finished with only 2 runs on 5 hits and allowed a run off an error when second baseman Ian Happ dropped a routine popup. 

But Foster's call will go down as just another chapter in the wackiness and tough breaks that follow the Cubs wherever they go on the road, running their record away from Wrigley Field to 23-36.

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Young players providing key contributions for Cubs

Young players providing key contributions for Cubs

Even amid a blowout loss Tuesday night, there were plenty of intriguing elements that could impact the Cubs down the stretch.

Duane Underwood's head-turning, record-setting performance out of the bullpen was one. Ian Happ seeing some playing time at second base was another. Kyle Schwarber catching the ninth inning was also intriguing, but the Cubs probably won't be utilizing that much in the future, especially with the signing of Jonathan Lucroy.

Happ has been pushing to play more second base since the end of last season and has worked hard all year to improve his infield defense. He finally earned a shot this week, with Wednesday serving as his first big-league start at second base since Sept. 19, 2017.

The 24-year-old responded with the huge hit of the Cubs' 10-1 win over Oakland — a grand slam in the fourth inning. He also singled and lined out twice, hitting the ball hard all over the field.

As the Cubs try to find the right mix at second base, Happ is aggressively trying to win the battle and climb atop the depth chart.

"[Cubs infield coach Brian Butterfield] has been working with him a lot and he had done a lot of work with Triple-A," manager Joe Maddon said. "When he came back, he wanted to make sure that I knew that he's very capable of doing that. The way he's swinging the bat right now, creatively trying to get him in the lineup and see how it plays.

"This could be very beneficial to us moving down the road."

Maddon's right: as the Cubs work to get into a more consistent offensive groove, they need more production out of second base. They entered play Wednesday ranking 22nd in MLB with a .674 OPS from the position.

Meanwhile, Happ now has a 1.052 OPS on the season in 12 games since being recalled from the minor leagues.

The lineup the Cubs put out Wednesday looks to be their best offensive group, at least until Willson Contreras returns from injury:

1. Jason Heyward - CF
2. Nicholas Castellanos - RF
3. Kris Bryant - 3B
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Javy Baez - SS
6. Kyle Schwarber - LF
7. Ian Happ - 2B
8. Victor Caratini - C

Plus, the Cubs could always look to get a lead early and switch to a more defensive-centric lineup later in games, inserting David Bote or Tony Kemp at second base and moving Happ to the outfield.

As the Cubs hit the road and try to rewrite the script away from Wrigley Field, Maddon confirmed Happ would remain in the team's second-base mix and hinted that could even come this weekend in Cincinnati.

"He's really not missing his pitch right now," Maddon said. "And he's had a pretty good history in that city, including going to university there. You'll see him play down there."

Happ — who attended the University of Cincinnati — hits better at Great American Ballpark than anywhere else on the planet, posting a .405 batting average and 1.457 OPS there lifetime (14 games). 

Then there's Underwood, who tied a franchise record by striking out six consecutive batters while making his 2019 debut:

The 25-year-old right-hander had been lights out in Triple-A since making the switch from a starter to a reliever and continued to flash his potential with Tuesday's dominant outing. 

The Cubs will continue to get looks at Underwood in the big-league bullpen, especially while both Craig Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler are on the injured list.

"You need to try [to see what you have]," Maddon said. "You need to explore it a little bit. When you strike out six guys — regardless of the score, those A's weren't going up there not caring. They weren't going up there like, 'yeah, I'm just gonna strike out.' Those are good hitters.

"And not only that, if you watch the whole event — Duane's appearance, the line with which he threw strikes and command where he wanted the fastball and command of the changeup. I mean, you just don't do that. And 96 mph down to a changeup like that, in a close game, that could also play. So we're gonna find out."

Maddon also pointed to his experience witnessing young pitchers with good stuff (think Francisco Rodriguez in Anaheim) make a name for themselves with good performances down the stretch and acknowledged the potential for Underwood and Rowan Wick to do the same with the Cubs this season.

The changeup has been a key to Underwood's success, especially with his velocity spike that he can more easily maintain working as a reliever. The former second-round pick said he spent time with Kyle Hendricks in the weeks leading up to spring training this year, picking at the veteran's brain about his renowned changeup.

Underwood said he's feeling better with that changeup every time he's using it and gaining more and more confidence each day, which matches up with the advice Hendricks game him:

"The changeup's such a feel pitch and I told him, 'It's just something you have to throw a lot,'" Hendricks said. "You've gotta play catch with it all the time, you have to throw it a lot in your bullpens and sides and it'll start to come around and see what it looked like. 

"[Tuesday] night was unbelievable. The way it played off his fastball, too — just the same look, same plane. It's just awesome to see him go out there and have all his hard work pay off."

Ian Happ, Tony Kemp and the Cubs second base picture

ian_happ_2b_picture_story_slide.jpg
USA TODAY

Ian Happ, Tony Kemp and the Cubs second base picture

Ian Happ's playing time has been more Jekyll and Hyde than the Cubs offense.

After being recalled from Triple-A Iowa, Happ started every big-league game he was around for in July but is still waiting for his first August start.

Happ has been the Cubs position player affected most by the trade deadline additions of Nick Castellanos and Tony Kemp, coming off the bench in six straight games after starting his first five contests on the last road trip. With the division race so tight, the Cubs aren't focused on production over potential and manager Joe Maddon said last week the time for development has come and gone this season. 

Happ hasn't seen any time at second base, working exclusive as an outfielder over the last two weeks. Yet Maddon and the Cubs insist the 24-year-old is still in the second-base picture moving forward.

"He and I have already talked about that," Maddon said Monday. "Happer's very adament that he feels comfortable at second base, so we're not afraid of that, either."

Maddon likes utilizing Happ as part of the Cubs' top defensive outfield late in games when they get a lead, moving him to left with Albert Almora Jr. in center field and Jason Heyward in right. 

But Happ continues to get his work out at second base and played 20 games there for Triple-A Iowa earlier this season. In spring training — before he was sent down to the minors — Happ was determined to be a part of the equation at second base for the Cubs, even texting Maddon over the winter.

However, at the moment, it's been Kemp and David Bote who have been splitting time at second base — a key defensive spot on the diamond for a team that has struggled to find consistency in that aspect all season.

Even in a part-time role, Happ has been contributing, with a game-winning homer Monday night and a single through the shift Sunday afternoon.

For his part, he's just happy to be here again after more than three months in the minors.

"It's great to be back with this group and just to be a part of it, to be able to help any way I can," Happ said. "This atmosphere, getting back to it, the difference is, down [in the minors], you're not playing in front of 40,000 people. You're not in the middle of a pennant race that matters, that is something that people care about.

"To get back to that, to get back to being a part of an organization that expects to be in the playoffs every year and expects to be competing for a championship, I missed that. That atmosphere is what we've been doing since I've been here for three years now and there's nothing better."

Beyond defense, the Cubs like Kemp over Happ at second base because of the former Astro's supreme contact ability. He's also turned heads already with his energy and enthusiasm, including a backflip on the field before each game.

"My brother always told a story about me being dressed in uniform at 7am for a 1pm game when I was little," Kemp said. "I've always loved the game and loved competing and I love watching people have success in the game. This game can beat you up — it's really hard mentally and physically — but if you can surpass that, you'll have fun in this game.

"Sometimes, you forget. Sometimes, you get to this level and people treat it like a job. But you have to keep going out there, having fun and having that little kid in you."

So how does the 27-year-old keep that little kid alive and well inside as he goes out and plays in the big leagues?

"You just have to go out there with a positive attitude every day," Kemp said. "Some days are harder than others. Some days are easier than others and that's just how it is. There's a lot of peaks and valleys, but if you can just remember why you started playing the game, then I think that's when that energy really comes out.

"It's just natural. It's just how I am. It's easy being around guys like this, because these are some of the best guys in the business to do it. Being a small part of it is fun and we're gonna have a fun run these next couple months."