Cubs

Why Cubs won't turn their back on Javier Baez

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AP

Why Cubs won't turn their back on Javier Baez

LOS ANGELES – Without Javier Baez, the Cubs would still be hearing about 1908 and feeling the suffocating pressure from not winning a World Series.

The Los Angeles Dodgers brought the best out of Baez during last year’s National League Championship Series, when his co-MVP performance showed the rest of the country what the Cubs already knew about his game-changing instincts, highlight-reel defense and unique style.   

That’s why manager Joe Maddon will keep giving Baez the benefit of the doubt, even with his second baseman stuck in an 0-for-17 slump to start the playoffs and the Cubs struggling to generate any consistent offense.   

“Javy loves this time of the year,” Maddon said before Sunday’s Game 2 at Dodger Stadium. “Javy’s been that guy throughout his minor-league and even major-league career who can be awful for a couple days at the plate, and then all of a sudden be spectacular, so I always have that in my mind with him.”

The Cubs have scored 10 runs combined in five playoffs games, plus nine in the thriller that eliminated the Washington Nationals from the NL Division Series. One of Maddon’s takeaway moments from that epic game: The Baez arm strength beating Trea Turner’s speed to home plate in the first inning.

Maddon believes defense wins championships, likes Ben Zobrist as a left-handed pinch-hitter/defensive replacement off the bench and realizes Ian Happ is still near the end of his rookie learning curve.

“The backup quarterback’s always the most popular guy in the building,” Maddon said. “Listen, Ian is very valuable in the role that we have him in right now. But among the guys that are on the field today, if you want to argue against Baez just because of his hitting, I’ll take it.

“But we’re not sitting here right now if (Javy) doesn’t make that play in the first inning on that groundball to second. I think he’s the only second baseman – or one of the few in all of baseball – that could have thrown Turner out at the plate right there.”

This hits on a larger point about the defending World Series champs. There is no NLCS trade deadline to fix the bullpen, or a magical swing adjustment that will rewire Baez as a hitter.

The Cubs invested a first-round pick in Baez, didn’t trade him for a frontline pitcher, watched him develop into a breakout playoff star and saw even more progress this season (23 homers, 75 RBI, .796 OPS).  

“He could get just as hot,” Maddon said. “I’ve seen guys. I’ve had guys like that before. Listen, these are our guys. This is how we got here. I do not run away from that.”

Cubs feel Yu Darvish is 'on a mission' to return and provide boost in pennant race

Cubs feel Yu Darvish is 'on a mission' to return and provide boost in pennant race

Yu Darvish cursed and snapped his head in frustration.

He had just spiked a fastball in the dirt to Cubs backup catcher Victor Caratini as Tuesday morning's sim game was winding down.

A couple moments later, Darvish fluttered one of his patented eephus pitches way up and out to Caratini and again let an expletive slip out.

Darvish threw about 55 pitches in three "innings" worth of a simulated game (meaning he sat down and rested for a few moments in between each "inning") while facing Caratini and David Bote with a host of onlookers including a gaggle of Chicago media, Joe Maddon and his maroon Levi's and Van's kicks, Theo Epstein and a group of Cubs coaches.

"It was good," Epstein said minutes after Darvish wrapped it up. "He was competing well out there, spinning the ball really well. Maybe his best spin of the year. That was good to see.

"We'll see how he feels tomorrow, but seems like he's just about ready for the next step, which should be rehab games."

Nobody knows how many rehab outings Darvish may need at this point and there's still no timetable for when the Cubs will get him back in the rotation. 

Epstein acknowledged that at this point in the season — with less than seven weeks left until playoffs begin — the Cubs have just one shot to make this work with Darvish. Any setback now is essentially the dagger in any hopes of a comeback.

You can get giddy about the spin rate all you want, but the real telling sign to the Cubs was Darvish's attitude. Instead of worrying about his arm or any lingering pain out there, he was getting pissed at himself for missing spots as he started to tire in the sim game.

It was a sign to both Epstein and Maddon that Darvish is getting back in the right head space to return to a big-league field in the middle of a tight pennant race.

"I think he wants it," Epstein said. "The guys that are around him every day feel like he's really eager to get out there and compete. Even in the sim game today, when Vic had a good swing on the fastball, he came back on the next one a little bit harder and was mixing all his pitches.

"He's going about his business like someone who's on a mission to come back and help this team."

Maddon concurred.

"Totally engaged, looked really good, was not holding back," the Cubs skipper said. "...We were all very impressed."

All that being said, the Cubs still aren't in a place where they feel confident enough to just plug Darvish back into the rotation for the final few weeks of September and into October (assuming they make it there). 

Darvish has said himself he feels like he turned a corner a couple weeks ago and is back in a good place physically.

Still, his journey back has already experienced several hiccups and there's no telling everything will be perfect from here.

At the end of the day, Maddon and his staff have no choice but to try to win ballgames with the guys who are on their active roster and can't worry about what "might be" with Darvish, Kris Bryant, Brandon Morrow or even Drew Smyly.

Of course, getting those guys back healthy would be a heck of a boon to this Cubs team, but it's not something they can count on.

"I don't think you ever get to that point," Epstein said. "... Anytime a player's injured, there's a certain probability that he returns and on a certain timetable and there's a spectrum of outcomes when he comes back. From being significantly better than he was before he went down to performing the same to not being effective.

"None of us can predict exactly what the outcome is gonna be, so you have to be prepared for all the possible outcomes. You never want the performance of any one player to be the linchpin of the success of the club. Because if you are, you're being irresponsible and setting yourself up to fail.

"At the same time, you're never gonna be as good as you might be if one of your most talented players returns and returns in really good form. We're hopeful and we're trying to do everything we can to put him in a position to succeed and right now, there've been a lot of good signs, which is certainly better than where we were six weeks ago."

Brewers' faltering bullpen not doing them favors in NL Central race

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USA TODAY

Brewers' faltering bullpen not doing them favors in NL Central race

At a time when the Cubs are missing their closer and continuing to hold their lead on the division anyway, the Brewers are in a very different place. 

Coming in to a short but weighty series at Wrigley Field, Milwaukee has dropped two games via bullpen meltdown in their last four. Corey Knebel, who saved 39 games for the Brewers in 2017 with a 1.93 ERA, has seen much more limited time in the closer's role this year. But getting him right will probably make the difference for Milwaukee down the stretch.

"It’s important that we get him going," Brewers manager Craig Counsell told reporters before Tuesday's game. "Getting Corey on track is probably the bigger equation in this that kind of normalizes the bullpen."

Last Thursday, Knebel loaded the bases in the 9th when Milwaukee was leading, 4-2, and eventually left for Joakim Soria after allowing a run on a single. This set the stage for Hunter Renfroe's grand slam that cost the Brewers the game. In his next appearance, Knebel pitched in the 5th inning against the Braves and gave up a run in Milwaukee's eventual 8-7 loss.

Without a reliable Knebel, the Brewers have had to play mix and match with their bullpen, a recipe that doesn't usually work. It's been successful so far for the Cubs in the absence of Morrow, but that hasn't been the case for Milwaukee lately. 

The Brewers acquired Joakim Soria from the White Sox on July 26 in hopes of shoring up their bullpen, but after giving up the grand slam to Renfroe last week, Soria hit the DL with a right quadriceps strain. Counsell said that it isn't likely for Soria to return very soon, however.

"We’re not going to be at 10 days, I’ll tell you that," Counsell said, adding that Soria is still only doing stationary bike work at this point.

But help might be on the way. Taylor Williams, who was placed on the 10-day disabled list on August 3, is eligible to return. For now, the Brewers opted to keep outfielder Keon Broxton on the roster, but Williams could prove to be a boon for the Milwaukee reliever corps. Before being shelved, he was averaging more than a strikeout per inning. 

Otherwise, the Brewers have Matt Albers rehabbing in Biloxi, Mississippi, where they plan to let him appear in at least a couple games before activating him.

Milwaukee has a chance to cut the division lead to a single game these next two days, but without a reliable bullpen, that could prove especially difficult.