Victor Caratini

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."

Joe Maddon has a message for the haters opposed to Cubs position players pitching: 'It is not life or death'

Joe Maddon has a message for the haters opposed to Cubs position players pitching: 'It is not life or death'

If something could be both shocking and still completely expected at once, this is that situation.

Somehow, some way, there are certain factions of the baseball world up in arms about how often position players are pitching in today's game.

Those people were particularly unhappy when Joe Maddon used Cubs backup catcher Victor Caratini for 3 outs and Anthony Rizzo for a batter Monday night. It was the second time in five games (four days) Maddon dipped into his well of position players to take the mound.

When asked if he's heard anything from these naysayers about the use of position players, Maddon pounced:

"I have not and for those that may have said that, let me just inform you about this: People that want to say that do not understand the interconnectedness of the day," Maddon said. "Today's Tuesday. Tuesday could absolutely be won or lost based on Monday.

"If I used one of our better guys yesterday in a game that was not really going anywhere vs. Steve Carlton reincarnated and then we get into a crucial moment today and then either [Steve] Cishek or [Pedro] Strop or [Carl] Edwards is not available because of that, that's the wrong thing to do.

"Relax, folks. It's a baseball game. It is not life or death. I want people to understand that. It's a typical perfect example of it is a game and so I think people that say things like that don't really understand how each day is connected. Yesterday was connected to Saturday, most specifically. Having to come out of the break and having to play five games in four days and the day-night doubleheader impacted Monday's game.

"Whether or not you want to understand that, believe it or not, it doesn't really matter. It's true. And we're not crying, because that's the way the schedule was set up. But yesterday's game was definitely impacted by what had happened prior to that.

"But I did not want today's game to be negatively impacted by a really bad process or method on my part to bring somebody in to emilerate somebody's perception of what it should look like."

Got all that?

Maddon's point is completely valid. 

Typically, when a team is down 7-1 late in a ballgame and haven't been able to muster up much offense against the opposing pitcher (in this case, Patrick Corbin, or "Steve Carlton reincarnated"), the guy that ends the game is the "mop-up" reliever, or the last guy in the bullpen.

In Monday's case, because of the doubleheader Saturday, the Cubs' "mop-up" guy was Luke Farrell, who was forced to start the game. And it's because Farrell was only able to get 10 outs the Cubs were even in a situation to potentially tax their bullpen.

There's the argument that it could be a big injury risk for Maddon to run out position players who are not used to facing live hitters, but he's thought all of that through before deploying this strategy.

That's exactly why Rizzo had never pitched until Monday night, despite years and years of petitioning Maddon to get out on the mound and strut his stuff.

It's not so much about a guy blowing out his arm, but Maddon and the Cubs were worried about a guy getting hit with a comebacker or ending up really sore after going through a throwing motion they're not used to.

That's why he limited how many outs he used Caratini, Tommy La Stella and Ian Happ for Friday and had the same thought Monday.

Monday night could've been just another loss for the Cubs. But instead, with Rizzo finally getting on the mound and throwing two pitches, it became a fun story.

"It played really well," Maddon said. "It's good theater. I've heard from more fans walking around and at The Score today and just driving in, how much they enjoyed that moment yesterday.

"And sometimes we forget about it. Our fans are so into the Cubs and just the enjoyment of the game of baseball itself and its purest moment — having the first baseman, All-Star caliber guy pitch — was very entertaining to them.

"And I get that and I'm happy to be a part of that. But again, yes, the injury component does bother the back of my mind a little bit."

Given their personal history, Victor Caratini is happy about Daniel Poncedeleon's no-hit bid

Given their personal history, Victor Caratini is happy about Daniel Poncedeleon's no-hit bid

Cubs catcher Victor Caratini was very happy last night for a couple reasons. He threw a five-pitch scoreless inning. But it was a game just over 300 miles away in Cincinnati that made him feel just as good, if not better.

Cardinals rookie pitcher Daniel Poncedeleon made his MLB debut against the Reds Monday night and tossed seven no-hit innings. He was pulled due to a high pitch count (116).

But for Poncedeleon, this moment almost never came.

Last season when Caratini and Poncedeleon were in Triple-A, Caratini hit a line drive off the head of Poncedeleon. The result was he suffered a fractured skull and had internal bleeding to the brain, which ultimately could’ve killed him.

Caratini spoke with the media before the Cubs opener against the Diamondbacks and reflected on that moment and their ensuing relationship.

“It was a scary moment last year,” Caratini said. “I’m just very happy for him and his family.”

And ever since that incident, Caratini keeps in touch frequently.

“It’s a very good relationship especially with him and his wife, and my wife and his wife, and we keep in touch every morning.”

In those scary moments, some players would apologize and move on. But for Caratini it meant more to him.

“I went (to the hospital) a couple times in the three to four weeks he was in Iowa.”

“I don’t want to mess with his life, he’s got a family with two kids, so I felt bad in the moment, and I stay in touch with him.”

Cardinals interim manager Mike Shildt spoke with ESPN after the Cardinals-Reds game about Poncedeleon's masterful performance.

"I don't know if words can describe that. Talk about magical," Shildt said. "What he dealt with, what he has come back from, making his MLB debut, throwing seven innings without giving up a hit -- that's what's magical about this game and special about this game is stories like that."

According to Elias Sports Bureau research, Poncedeleon is the fifth pitcher to carry a no-hit bid through seven innings in his MLB debut in the expansion era (since 1961).

Unfortunately, Poncedeleon's performance was spoiled by the Cardinals bullpen after closer Bud Norris gave up a game-tying home run to Eugenio Suarez, and eventually a game-winning RBI single by Dilson Herrera, leaving Poncedeleon with a no decision in his big league debut.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Cardinals sent Poncedeleon back to Triple-A Memphis.