School’s In For The Professor

Chicago Cubs

National League MVP Kris Bryant signing a jersey. 

Perhaps it’s the vision of seeing grass at these spring training games that is exciting at this time of year or it could be reminiscing about last November’s World Series but as we get closer to the regular season, hearing the “Pop” of the bat is music to this baseball starved fan.

The Cubs lost to the Reds 8-4 yesterday but in a league where the focus is more on getting the kinks out of the machine than going for victories, the Cubs will take what they can get. In the case of prospect Eloy Jimenez, he hit his first home run and the 15, 000+ fans took it all in. Chances of him making the squad are slim to nil but it’s the opportunity to strut their stuff.

The pressing questions that I have for this year’s team are:

“He is a left fielder slash catcher right now,” Maddon said of Schwarber. “Maybe as the years progress and the knee gets better, we’ll look at him differently, but for right now, him understanding all of that is very important to his success and ours.”

One of the locks for this season is the Opening Day starter. Jon Lester gets the call and that’s the wisest choice. He was a bulldog in the playoffs and garnered my total respect for him.

“Not many groups have that luxury — we do,” Maddon said. “Jake, two years in a row, has done an outstanding job, so has Jon Lester. Of course, there’s the ascension of Kyle. It has to go to Jon Lester based on the body of work. We feel good about that. However we want to set up three, four, five will follow.”

The ascension of Kyle Hendricks has been awesome. Whether he continues that ascension is up to him but “The Professor” is my favourite Cub and although it was incredible to see the Cubs win the World Series, for me it was that NLCS game 6 that was pure poetry. Hendricks carved up the Dodgers and if that is the defining game that turns this Dartmouth grad into Hall of Fame material, well for me, it was the most thrilling ballgame I’ve ever seen.

The Professor gets the start today against the Dodgers. Consider it a rematch of sorts. I’m not expecting much today but baseball is officially begun when your favourite player takes to the mound.

Believe it

 

Heyward Getting In The Swing Of Things

Cactus League

When the Cubs play the White Sox, it always makes for interesting games. No matter how good one team is or how bad the other is, when the two duke it out, they play each other hard. Yesterday’s game ended in a 4-4 draw.

Both Addison Russell and Wilson Contreras connected with their first home run of the season, even if it doesn’t count for much it means something for players trying to find their groove before the official season begins.

“It was good to get back in a game and face some competition that’s not your own guys,” Brett Anderson said after making his first start in over a year. “Hopefully, now I can get used to being in a routine every five days and multiple outings.”

One of the best parts about spring training is seeing these fresh faces like Anderson vying for their spot in the rotation. For Anderson’s case, he was off for a year with a back injury.

“He’s not trying to re-invent the wheel,” Anderson said of Pitching coach Chris Bosio. “It’s more trying to limit the pressure on my back and a mild mechanical adjustment so I don’t land on my heel as much and land on the ball of my foot or my toes so it’s not such a whiplash affect. It’s small things. He’s said he likes what my pitches do.”

This is probably going to be the most interesting season for the Cubs and their fans. It’s the first time in over a century that the pressure is on. The Cubs will receive their championship rings on the April 12th game. Call Joe Maddon superstitious but he has no plans on wearing the shiny reminder.

“I don’t wear that,” Maddon said Monday. “I gave [my] 2002 [ring] to my mom [Beanie]. She has it. [Wife] Jaye has 2008. So, 2016, I don’t know — my inclination, I’ll talk to Jaye about it [to see] if she wants to hold onto it or if she wants to give it to my mom.”

So as the Cubs do their best to prepare for the crucial season to define their legacy, another player looking to rebound from a not so spectacular season behind the plate is Jason Heyward. He’s changed his approach at the plate with a new swing.

“His hands are working so much better,” Maddon said. “Our game, as a hitter, is played between your fingertips and your elbows. Guys who get a little bit long, a little arm-y — we call it the ‘military swing’, they get a little bit arm-y. Get it? So, if you can engage from your elbows to your fingertips and use your hands and wrists — they used to talk about Hank Aaron — that’s where it happens. That’s what I’m seeing. A lot of it has to do where you start. He’s starting in a manner that promotes, for me, better hand usage.”

I think it’s going to work for him but maybe not so much Joe’s Dad jokes.

Believe it.

 

Is It Time For Spring Training To Count?

Arizona League

As Spring training officially got under way, the excitement or honeymoon phase of the Chicago Cubs World Series victory is in full force. Yesterday, in front of a sold out Sloan park in Arizona, the Cubs treated the Oakland Athletics to a lesson of why they have the hardware. A 4-3 win.

“It was different,” Chicago starter Mike Montgomery said of the loud reception. “I’ve been in a few Spring Trainings now, and it was definitely a different experience. It was hard to control the adrenaline today a little bit. Usually in spring, it’s more laid back. Today, there was a lot of energy out there.”

This also marks an important transition for Kyle Schwarber as he takes on the Lead off role vacated by Dexter Fowler.

“What does a leadoff hitter look like anymore?” Maddon said. “There aren’t many of those high-on-base-percentage basestealing types. Guys don’t want to run as much because it beats their bodies up. It’s not easy to be a 50-bag guy or more because of what it does to your legs, your wrist, your hands. You’ll see, on occasion, guys who will go, but not like [Lou] Brock or [Maury] Wills or [Tim] Raines or guys who went all the time.”

A high point in yesterday’s game occurred when Len Kasper asked Joe Maddon some questions and Rajai Davis went up to bat and Maddon quipped, ‘You remember him?”

Yeah, we remember him Joe. These are the cool moments that happen in spring training that don’t necessarily occur during the regular season.

For the first time in a long while, the Cubs have a lot of expectations. They’re the champs after all. They’ll have to whip out the WD-40 and remove any rust from the machine, which brings me to another topic.

We all know that Cactus League games don’t amount to much other than an opportunity for players to strut their stuff and for rookies vying for a spot on the roster come Opening Day and for Canadian snowbirds to enjoy Cub baseball and the Blue Jays in Dunedin.

But what if spring training meant something?

With the recent rule changes regarding intentional walks, I believe it’s the right time for baseball to create a Sunshine Series pitting the Cactus League against the Grapefruit League.

Whether it be for bragging rights or playing for a different charity, it would be an opportune time to showcase some of the best rookies and players that might not make it onwards. It would also satisfy those south bound snowbirds. They could even have the defending World Series champion having to host it for example, this year’s championship would be in Arizona.

What do you think?

Schwarber Takes The Lead For Cubs

Kyle Schwarber

We’ve all come to know and love the bold choices of Joe Maddon. Yesterday he made the choice of Kyle Schwarber in the lead off role that was vacated by “You go, we go” Dexter Fowler.  Let me put it to you this way; Fowler is an exceptional lead off guy and could go down in history as one of the best ever. Sometimes it’s hard to get onside with Joe’s decisions; (That game 7 “possible disaster” still lingers as we all know that Hendricks should have pitched another inning).

This move having Schwarber in the lead off spot is interesting and worth considering. Schwarber can hit. We all know that but what else can he do? This will be an important spring training to determine his future. He’s a likeable guy but I’m afraid he’s destined to join the ranks of the American League.

“Schwarber is the frontrunner,” Maddon said Thursday at the Sloan Park complex. “You could always consider (Ben) Zobrist if you wanted to. You could talk about Jon Jay. I’d say they’re the leaders in the clubhouse right now. But primarily I like the idea of ‘Schwarbs.'”

It’s going to be intriguing as today marks the “Official” start to spring training. Games that are on MLB.TV always get me excited. After a long cold winter, although where I am it’s been unusually warm and we don’t have snow anymore so it’s hard to get into baseball, but today is here.

The Cubs have bigger shoes to fill. They’re the defending champs and few teams will try to take that championship from them. We saw what the Cubs are capable of with Schwarber in the lineup, so imagine a full season of “Schwarbs?”

“There’s pause involved there,” Maddon said. “If you don’t want to pitch to Schwarber, the guys coming up behind are pretty interesting. It’s formidable so it’s uncomfortable from the other side.”

Yes, baseball season is underway… Naw, I’m not even going to attempt it.

Believe it.

Cubs Force Game Six in Thrilling Win

Wrigley Field

There’s no denying that Joe Maddon is baseball’s most creative manager out there, but last night at Wrigley Field, with the Chicago Cubs down 3-1 in the series, he pulled the most creative stunt to date; Aroldis Chapman‘s entry into the seventh inning. The creativity worked. Eight outs later, and the Cubs defeated the Cleveland Indians 3-2 and force a game 6 in Cleveland.

“That was our best opportunity,” Maddon explained. “I thought right now, based on the bullpen usage recently, he’s actually kind of fresh. He hasn’t been overused in the last part of this season nor throughout the playoffs. So, again, with him, like a lot of relief pitchers, late-inning relief pitchers, you want to talk in advance of the moment. We did. So he was definitely aware of what may happen tonight.”

I’ve always thought of Chapman as a three out pitcher as we’ve witnessed earlier in the postseason. He has a tendency to get into trouble if he’s stretched out for at least six outs.

“I always appreciate it if they let me know that I’m going to pitch more than the ninth inning,” Chapman said. “I physically prepared myself to come in as early as possible.”

The Cubs are facing elimination. It sucks, but there’s no use in sugar coating it. The big bats have to come out and in the fourth inning they did. Kris Bryant led off with a home run and the faithful at Wrigley roared. Anthony Rizzo didn’t want to be out done by his Cub  brother and connected with a double one At Bat later. Addison Russell launched a single and then, in his final Wrigley Field appearance, David Ross sacrificed a fly ball in order to get the  three runs in. Jon Lester was brilliant through six innings.

“It’s a grind,” said Lester, who threw 90 pitches allowing two runs and four hits while walking none and striking out five. “I mean, that’s what postseason … that’s what makes it fun at the same time.”

That’s what they pay him the big bucks for.

“There’s not a crazy sense of urgency, but certainly we want to get some runs there so that they’re not going to go to [Andrew] Miller and Allen with the lead,” Bryant said. “For me, I wasn’t going out there trying to hit a homer or anything like that. It was, ‘Have a good at-bat,’ and it’s nice that it went over the fence. Obviously, I haven’t been swinging the bat too great, but it was nice to kind of get one to kind of help us all out.”

So there you have it. The Cubs are sort of back in the series, although I’m hesitant to say that facing elimination. They go back to Cleveland tomorrow with Jake Arrieta on the mound and the DH rule in effect. I think normally this wouldn’t fare in the Cubs favour but with the way Kyle Schwarber‘s been swinging, it could be the series changer. The Cubs were down in their series against Los Angeles and look how that turned out?  The Cubs are in good shape. They’re two wins away and I’m confident that if they win Tuesday, they’ve got the series.

“From an entertainment perspective, if you’re a baseball fan or looking to become a baseball fan, it was wonderful tonight, outstanding. But I like to believe we’re going to catch or gain some momentum from this game going back over there.”

Believe it

Cubs Prepare For Greatest Comeback In World Series History

World Series

The Chicago Cubs are in deep. last night, the Cubs fell to the Cleveland Indians 7-2 and have a 3-1 deficit in the World Series. It seemed that for everything the Cubs did, the Indians answered back . That’s October baseball. The real question is, Can the Cubs come back?

“We know we have to win out,” Chicago’s Kris Bryant said. “If we want to get to the last game, we have to win the first one, then the next one. It’s one game at a time, don’t change anything, have fun, smile, just be ourselves.”

He’s partially right. If you’re going to play that cliche, then yeah, it is one game at a time. The good news is that next up is Jon Lester tonight, then Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks. Now is not the time for the Cubs to panic. Within a 24hr period, they’ll have to reconnect with the team that won 103 games and reach down deep and play ball. They can come back in this series. They’ve had 16 three game winning streaks this year. Of course, none of them were against this Cleveland Indians team. Only five teams in World Series history have come back from a 3-1 hole.

1985 Kansas City Royals

1979 Pittsburgh Pirates

1968 Detroit Tigers

1958 New York Yankees

1925 Pittsburgh Pirates

So you see, it’s not impossible. If there is any team in baseball capable of staging the greatest comeback in post season history, it’s these 2016 Chicago Cubs.

Why?

They’ve gotten to know this Cleveland team. Joe Maddon is going to keep things loose in the locker room by not allowing players to report until 90 minutes before the game. Hey, they know what’s at stake and I feel that if they try to do too much at this point, it might throw the equilibrium way off balance.

“They’re all trying to hit a grand slam with nobody on,” Miguel Montero said of the Cubs’ young hitters. “It’s not going to happen. We need to take our walks. We need to be a little bit more patient at the plate. We need to play small ball. … We’re all trying to launch the ball 110 miles per hour off the bat, launch angle, whatever. No, we need to get a freaking ground ball through a hole. As simple as that.”

There you have it. Small ball. Forget Bryant’s home run capabilities, get Dexter Fowler on base, move the runners and perhaps lay down a bunt.  They key is exactly what Montero said. Guys like Javier Baez, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras have to keep the ball on the ground because if the Cubs win tonight, it goes back to Cleveland where the DH rule applies and you know what that means?

Kyle Schwarber is back in the game.

“We have to have a one-game winning streak tomorrow,” manager Joe Maddon said. “And if we do that, I really would be feeling pretty good about going back to Cleveland.”

Believe it

Cubs Win, Now It’s Sweet Home Chicago!

Anthony Rizzo

Last night’s win was a must win situation for the Chicago Cubs and they delivered. The Cubs sent payback to Cleveland with a 5-1 victory and now head home to Wrigley Field for Game 3 on Friday. The series is tied and the next three are in Chicago. How sweet is that? On a night which saw Kris Bryant receive the Hank Aaron award, the Cubs delivered.

Jake Arrieta restored the order by pitching the longest no hit in a World Series since 1969 with 5 2/3rd innings of zero hits. Arrieta’s been seeking a new contract worth 150 million stretched through seven years. He’s going to make it tough on the Cubs but first things first, that’s a World Series ring.

“I knew I hadn’t given up a hit all the way to the sixth,” Arrieta said. “That’s really not the focus in a game like this. You really want to try to continue to pile up outs as often as you possibly can. Whether they get a hit or not really doesn’t affect the way you continue to approach that lineup, especially with a five-run lead.

“I wanted to stay aggressive and continue to allow these guys to put the ball in play on quality pitches in the bottom of the strike zone, and that was the mindset throughout, regardless of whether I gave up a hit or not.”

The first inning was beginning to look like game one’s struggles when Cleveland loaded the bases which led to the announcers suggesting that the addition of Willson Contreras over Miguel Montero, who’s backstopped Arrieta through the majority of the season, wasn’t the wisest decision by Joe Maddon. It got Arrieta out of his comfort zone but Contreras’ arm is stronger than Montero’s so he’d be more able to throw runners out at second.

Kyle Schwarber has pretty much shaken off any signs of rust,  but there’s one question that needs to be answered going back to Chicago for the next three games where National League rules will apply.

Where to put him?

He’s been in the designated hitter role but will Maddon stick him in the outfield or pinch hit? Does he give up Jason Heyward‘s defence for Schwarber’s offence? Tough decision which will be answered soon.

So the Cubs head back to Wrigley Field for Friday’s game three. Folks, there hasn’t been a World Series game on Wrigley Field soil in 71 years. The place will be packed and full of energy, we’ll see Bill Murray crying and one of baseball’s hallowed grounds just soaking it all in.

Game time is 7:30 eastern with Kyle Hendricks on the mound.

“It’s going to be incredibly special,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s the finest venue there is in professional sports, and maybe in all of sports.”

Believe it