Cubs

Reinforcements coming for Cubs pitching staff

Reinforcements coming for Cubs pitching staff

The Cubs pitching staff is about to get some reinforcements.

Not that they really need it right now — Cubs pitchers entered Sunday with a 1.80 ERA in the last 10 games, the best mark in the league in that span by a wide margin (the Pirates were next-closest with a 2.30 ERA).

But they're about to add two of their most important arms to that group, as a pair of veteran southpaws could return from injury as soon as this week.

Jon Lester threw a simulated game Saturday at Wrigley Field and Mike Montgomery is set to make his second rehab start Monday with Double-A Tennessee.

Lester (hamstring) threw 45 pitches Saturday and reports were all positive as he showed up to the ballpark Sunday. He will throw a bullpen either Monday or Tuesday and then the Cubs will reevaluate from there.

There's no specific timetable, but the Cubs have not yet announced a starter for Thursday's game against the Dodgers and acknowledged Lester could slide into that spot.

"He's looking good," pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said Sunday morning. "We're just still taking it day-to-day to make sure there's no setbacks, he's recovering the way he wants to recover and that everything's on track. He's such a tough guy and competitor — he wants to be out there as soon as he can.

"We got a couple more days to make sure he gets through the bullpen, gets through all the things he wants to get through the next few days, but hopefully we'll be seeing him here pretty soon."

Lester last pitched on April 8 during the Cubs' home opener. If all goes well with his bullpen in the coming days, he wouldn't need a rehab stint to get back up to speed.

Meanwhile, Montgomery (lat) threw 27 pitches with Class-A South Bend last Wednesday and has been working out with the team in Chicago over the weekend. He is expected to throw about 3 innings with Tennessee Monday.

"I felt really good after my last outing," he said. "Even better the last couple days. It's a change and adjusting some of the things I do to prepare — throw/workout-wise to get me feeling right.

"...It's really fun just to go out there and compete. When you're away from it, you kinda miss it and you get that itch to be, 'OK, I gotta do whatever I can do to get back healthy and be effective.' That's where I'm at."

Montgomery knows he's facing minor-league hitters, but he's treating it like a big-league appearance, trying to get himself on track mentally as well as physically. 

He dealt with some shoulder inflammation at the beginning of spring training and he felt like that set him back in terms of getting up to speed and building up strength before the season. 

Montgomery only made 4 appearances before hitting the disabled list, allowing 5 runs on 8 hits in 2.2 innings.

"I feel like I've been playing catch-up so far this year and I haven't been able to get out there and really work on certain pitches in certain zones — working on my cutter/slider and getting that a little sharper, working on curveball command where I can throw it early in counts or bounce it," he said. "That's been missing and so the last week or so, I've gotten back to that.

"...If you're dealing with things physically, it's really hard to work on stuff and perfect the mechanical side of the game. I know with all the tech nowadays, you can shape your pitches the way you want and work on pitches to one side of the plate and the other. 

"When you're really not feeling good, it's more of 'how can I just get through this?' as opposed to really working on stuff. I think I'm at a point where I can really work on stuff and that's a good place to be."

Only Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana have thrown more innings for the Cubs than Montgomery over the last three seasons, as he's made 33 starts and 53 relief appearances. 

Montgomery said he hasn't had any conversations with Joe Maddon or the Cubs about a change in role when he returns, but assuming he slides back into that swingman role, this time off will allow him to build up strength and get stretched out.

He also has a new perspective on life as he and his wife, Stephanie, welcomed their first child early Tuesday morning — a boy named Max. Both sets of grandparents have been in town to help take care of and celebrate the newborn, so Montgomery has also been able to enjoy time with his family and work his rehab activities around that.

"It's been a whirlwind, to say the least," Montgomery said. "But I love it that way. My wife's awesome — she's able to handle the stress of baseball and having a baby. We're still in good spirits; the family's out here helping her out.

"Going home the last couple nights makes you get a little emotional, but at the same time, it makes you really understand what is important. For me, I think that's just me being good at my job of pitching and taking care of the family. 

"That's where I'm at, so it's a good experience to have and we're gonna take it from here."

The Cubs will also have options for the bullpen beyond Montgomery, as both veterans Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette are on the recovery path from their respective injuries. Cedeno made his second rehab appearance with Double-A Tennessee Saturday and Barnette will throw his first outing with Triple-A Iowa Sunday.

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How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

The cheer master’s whistle echoed through the ballpark, and dinosaur mascots wearing giant face masks danced on top of the dugout.

With fans absent due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sunday’s scene didn’t quite do the Korean Baseball Organization experience justice. But it was still the league that taught Ryan Sadowski how to let loose on the field.

"I found that as a player I didn't allow myself to enjoy my success the way I should have because it's the game of baseball,” Sadowski told ESPN in 2016. “You're not supposed to show that you enjoy your success. I think it's something I learned here (in Korea), that I would take to younger kids in the States."

Major League Baseball is well aware that its status in the United States will continue to slip if it can’t figure out how to reach a younger audience. This summer presents an opportunity. If the players and owners can agree to a deal that makes the league’s early July target date a reality, for weeks it will be the only major sport on television.

Sports fans are clamoring for action after a months-long drought. What better time to draw in new fans? In that regard, the KBO could have something to teach MLB.

Sadowski is in a unique position to compare the KBO and MLB. He played in both leagues before becoming a KBO scout. Sadowski’s support for on-the-field expression is one Cubs shortstop Javier Báez would likely get behind.

Báez had a message similar to Sadowski's on MLB’s YouTube channel recently. In a show taped during Spring Training, Báez chatted with Puerto Rican recording artist Residente while running the Grammy Award-winner through baseball drills.

“In my personal opinion, I would like to teach young people growing up to enjoy [the game],” Báez said in Spanish. “And if they fail, fail having fun. And keep doing what is right. Let the kids play.”

Báez has been criticized for his playing style, most famously in 2018 when he bat-flipped after a popup. Afterward, former Pirates manager Clint Hurdle questioned Báez's “respect for the game.”

But Báez's huck wouldn’t have been out of place in Sunday’s KBO game between the NC Dinos and Hanwhu Eagles. The broadcast didn’t feature the kind of ostentatious bat flips that have become so popular on social media. But still, in consecutive innings, players on both teams tossed their bats several feet up the baseline to punctuate base hits. No uproar ensued.

The rate at which KBO bat flips have spread through Twitter speaks to a hunger for showboating among young baseball fans. Why not embrace it?   

“It’s not that it is not the correct way of doing it,” Báez told Residente of his playing style. “It’s just not the way many coaches teach it.”

In the United States, the NBA is the poster child for attracting millennial fans. In 2017-18, young adults led the league’s growth in ratings, according to Forbes. TV viewership among 18- to 34-year-olds was up 14 percent.

The NBA does an especially good job marketing its stars. Admittedly, the game lends itself to that strategy in a way that baseball does not. LeBron James can take over any game down the stretch, but Mike Trout isn’t going to get an at-bat every time the winning run is in scoring position.

But there are other ways NBA stars capture the fascination of young fans. Kids across the country grew up shrugging like Michael Jordan or pumping their arms and pounding their chests like LeBron James.  They take deep dives into YouTube, watching the most devastating dunks of all time – the more embarrassing for the defender, the better. None of that disrespects the game. The NBA and KBO have that in common.

MLB doesn’t have to adopt the KBO’s use of specific chants for each batter and embrace bat flipping for everything from home runs to ground outs – even though, by all accounts, those elements create a delightfully raucous atmosphere.

MLB doesn’t have to abolish baseball’s unwritten rules in one day. But an amendment is in order.

What if demonstrative zeal was instead embraced as a sign of respect for the game? After all, it might be MLB’s best hope of connecting to the next generation.

6 of Wrigley Field's worst 7th-inning stretch renditions in recent memory

6 of Wrigley Field's worst 7th-inning stretch renditions in recent memory

The seventh-inning stretch is a sacred tradition at Wrigley Field. Harry Caray passionately performed “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” every home game during his tenure as Cubs radio play-by-play man, previously doing so late in his tenure with the White Sox.

Caray died in 1998 and the Cubs have continued the tradition in his honor ever since, using a rotating cast of celebrities and former players as guest conductors. Last season, Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster performed at the Friendly Confines.

Some renditions are more memorable than others, though not in an endearing way like Cookie Monster’s. NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon sang 15 years ago Sunday, and not only did he refer to the ballpark as “Wrigley Stadium,” but also was off pace and didn’t really know the lyrics altogether.

Cubs fans showered Gordon with a chorus of boos, to which all he could do was chuckle and finish as fast as possible. 

Singing in front of 40,000 people isn’t easy, so it’s hard to be too tough on those whose appearances go awry. Nevertheless, guest singers know what they’re signing up for. On the anniversary of Gordon’s performance, here are five more of Wrigley’s worst in recent memory.

Mike Ditka — June 5, 1998

Well, Ditka certainly provided some energy. “Da Coach” didn’t take a breath in his 26-second blaring performance; perhaps he was winded from rushing up to the booth, to which he arrived a few moments late.

Ozzy Osbourne — Aug. 17, 2003

This isn’t a ranking of bad performances, but Osbourne sits atop the leaderboard anyhow. The Black Sabbath vocalist started off singing “Let’s go out to the ball game” before breaking into a mumble streak of made-up words. The look on Kerry Wood’s face summarizes things well.

Mr. T — May 25, 2009

It didn’t sound too good, but it sure was enthusiastic. Way to do your thing, Mr. T.

David Cross — Sept. 21, 2013

Hard to say what Cross, a stand-up comedian and actor, was going for here. He starred in three “Alvin and the Chipmunks” films and, fittingly, screeched into the mic a couple of times. Maybe it was all in jest? He ended his rendition by saying, “That was awful. I’m so sorry.” 

Scottie Pippen — Oct. 22, 2016

Pippen performed the stretch in the biggest game in Cubs history (at that point) — the pennant-clincher in 2016. The Bulls Hall-of-Famer was on tune to start before mixing up lyrics, then passing the mic to the animated Wrigley crowd. 

We’ll give Pippen a slight pass here, considering he brought six championships to Chicago during his playing days.  

With that, I'll leave you with this:

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