Wrigley Field

Former Cub Tommy La Stella is having a special season

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USA TODAY

Former Cub Tommy La Stella is having a special season

If Tommy La Stella was still playing for the Cubs, he would be tied with Javy Baez for the team lead in homers (11) and would be second in OPS (.998) and third in batting average (.301).

But La Stella is not on the Cubs anymore, as they traded him to Los Angeles over the winter. There, the former pinch hitter extraordinaire is now serving as the leadoff man in front of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani in the Angels lineup.

La Stella had 4 hits Wednesday, including his 11th homer of the season. Trout only has 9 dingers to date.

Even more incredible: La Stella has more homers (11) than strikeouts (8) this season. He's the only player in baseball who can make that claim.

That puts the 30-year-old La Stella on track for 41 homers and 94 RBI this season to go along with a .301/.388/.611 slash line. Strangely, he's also only on pace for 8 doubles, as he has just a pair of two-baggers to date.

To say that power is surprising would be an understatement. La Stella already has more homers in L.A. in 2019 than he hit in his entire career prior to this season — 10 HR in 396 games (828 at-bats).

He only hit 9 dingers in four seasons with the Cubs, though he also made just 95 starts in that span while spending most of his time serving as Joe Maddon's main offensive weapon off the bench.

The Cubs have already seen La Stella this season — back in mid-April when the Angels came to town. Fans and former teammates welcomed him back with a video tribute and much of Cubs nation has been following his success all year, including his big game Wednesday:

La Stella became something of a fan favorite with the Cubs, who traded him away for minor-league pitcher Conor Lillis-White in November amid a roster and budget crunch this winter. 

Maddon has enjoyed seeing La Stella pad the stat sheet and even made a joke Wednesday in Cincinnati about why we never saw this kind of power output in Chicago:

La Stella still has one more game at Wrigley this season, as the Angels are set to return to Chicago on June 3 to make up the game that was snowed out back on April 14.

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The unsung hero of the Cubs' 15-inning win over Brewers

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USA TODAY

The unsung hero of the Cubs' 15-inning win over Brewers

When everybody looks back on the Cubs' 15-inning victory over the division-rival Brewers Saturday, they'll remember Willson Contreras' walk-off homer, Tyler Chatwood's gutsy performance in relief and the cold/rainy weather.

They might even remember Cole Hamels' dominant start or David Bote's "El Mago-esque" slide.

All those guys deserve the credit they'll get, but it was Cubs third-base coach Will Venable who will go down as an unsung hero of the 5-hour affair. 

In the bottom of the fifth inning with the Cubs trailing 1-0 in the game, Bote reached on an infield single with two outs. Albert Almora Jr. came up next and served a soft liner into the gap in right-center and Bote motored all the way around from first to score, even though Brewers right fielder Christian Yelich cut the ball off well before it reached the wall. 

The ball beat Bote home, but his incredible slide dodged the tag from Yasmani Grandal and the Cubs had their first run against the Brewers in the series. (It wound up being the only run until Contreras' walk-off blast in the bottom of the 15th inning.)

As Bote rounded third, past baserunning advice from Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce echoed through his head: "Don't just slide, slide to be safe." Bote said he was thinking to himself: "Find a way to get safe and that was just how my body decided to do it."

You don't often see a guy score from first base on a hit that doesn't even get by an outfielder, but this wasn't a conventional play and the Cubs don't even make it to extra innings without it.

With Hamels on deck and the Cubs offense struggling to score runs, Venable was sending Bote all the way to try to make something happened.

And it worked.

"He let me know early we were going," Bote said. "In my head, I'm like 'Score.' I go until he stops me. About halfway to third base, I see we're going, so it wasn't a hesitation — he was convicted about it. It was a great, great call. Obviously it ends up being a huge run for those last 10 innings."

Venable is normally the team's first-base coach, but has seen a lot of time over at third base the last couple weeks while veteran coach Brian Butterfield has battled illness. This is only the second season for the 36-year-old Venable on a coaching staff of any kind after playing in the big leagues from 2008-16. 

"Tremendous," Joe Maddon said. "He knew who was on deck, he knew the out situation, he knew everything about it. Bote had it in his head, also. Albert with a nice piece of hitting. That was absolutely the right thing to do and I know Butter was very proud of the whole moment."

The Cubs also seemed to catch the Brewers by surprise a bit on the whole play, as Yelich kind of nonchalantly got the ball back into the infield and it didn't look like second baseman Hernan Perez was initially planning on going home with the relay.

Part of that can be credited to Venable, who may have let Bote know to keep motoring home, but wasn't cluing the rest of Wrigley Field onto the decision. He motioned to Bote once and then kind of casually put his hands on his knees and watched as Bote flew past him. You typically see third-base coaches waving their arms around like crazy in situations like that to get the message across that they want the guy to score.

Venable was unavailable for comment after the game, but Maddon didn't think he was trying to purposely deke the Brewers at all.

"Probably not," Maddon said, smiling. "There might've been consternation, concern — 'what should I do here?' kind of a thing. If you've never coached third base and you do it here [in the big leagues] for the first time, that ain't easy. The guys that do it for a long period of time, I have so much respect for."

Maddon has coached third just one game in the majors while filling in and admitted "it's weird." But he has coached it a bunch in the minor leagues and knows how it can take some getting used to, so he empathizes with the difficult on-the-job training Venable has had to go through in a very short period of time.

Things are easier at Wrigley, however, as the Cubs dugout is very close to where Venable stands, so Maddon can often relay messages to his coach without even signing.

"I can just say it to him, which we've been doing, so that helps a little bit," Maddon said. "But he's done well. There was a sequence in Miami [last month] where I did a whole bunch of different things — he nailed every one of them and we came out pretty good. 

"He's a very sharp guy. This just adds to his resume. This makes him a better coach — the mind once stretched has a difficult time going back to its original form. All this matters for him. He's doing wonderfully."

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Brewers carrying lessons from Game 163 into 2019 divisional race

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Brewers carrying lessons from Game 163 into 2019 divisional race

It’s been 221 days since the Brewers celebrated a Game 163 victory — and their first NL Central title since 2011 — at Wrigley Field last October. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a player in their clubhouse who spent the last seven months marking days off the calendar.

After all, the 2019 campaign is a new season with new expectations. 

“As a team it was a fun year last year, we accomplished a lot, but we also need to turn the page as well,” said veteran outfielder Lorenzo Cain. “Going into this year, we've got new goals in mind, new things in mind that we want to accomplish. That's what we're trying to go out there and do, go out and create some new memories this year.”

Even fourth-year manager Craig Counsell was quick to turn the page on what was arguably the most seminal moment of his coaching career, joking that it ranked behind walking into the modernized road clubhouses at Wrigley Field.

“It was a big moment for the organization, that's what I would say,” Counsell said. “It was a big day for our fans and that's what makes you remember that day the most.”

But winning that game or not, he believes expectations for the Brewers would have been the same regardless of the one-game playoff outcome.

Infielder Mike Moustakas did note that playing the Oct. 1 game may have been beneficial for a young team, as it allowed for some postseason experience before the true elimination setting took place.

“Last year we went on an incredible run to even have an opportunity to get there but I think the one thing it did to for us was calm this team's nerves down as far as in the postseason now,” said Moustakas, who claimed a World Series title in 2015 with the Royals and knows the importance of experience in October. “When you play an all-or-nothing game like that or in the Wild Card, it kind of takes all the emotions out of you and drains you of all that stuff so you just go out there and play ball again. So I think that's what helped us.”

Six weeks into 2019, this season’s team seems to have picked up right where it left off last year. The Brewers showed up to Wrigley Field Friday having won six straight games and just a game back of the equally hot Cubs in the NL Central standings.

Milwaukee is 10-6 in the NL Central, even with only a +2 run differential. Despite being in a division with four teams at .500 or better, the Brewers seem to relish the opportunities to play divisional foes.

“It means a lot to the standings when you play a division opponent,” Cain said. “You know if you beat them they can only go one way. It's a lot of fun playing division guys.

“You try to treat every game the same, whether it's April or September. A lot more is put on later on in the season when you need the game really bad but you gotta try to treat every game the same because you never know when you might need that game. Every game counts, every game is huge. It's always a little more special when you play divisional opponents, especially the Cubs. Every time we're at Wrigley Field, it feels more like a playoff game.”

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