Showing posts with label Chicago Cubs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chicago Cubs. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Yoenis Cespedes returning to Mets; Edinson Volquez to Marlins; Jon Jay to Cubs

Yoenis Cespedes
Finally, a few free-agent signings to talk about.

The biggest bat on the market is no longer available. Yoenis Cespedes on Tuesday agreed to return to the New York Mets on a four-year, $110 million contract, pending a physical.

This is a good move for both player and team. The contract is worth $27.5 million a year on average, which is the highest ever for an outfielder in MLB history. Cespedes has to be happy with that, and he also has to be pleased by the full no-trade clause included in the deal.

It's a good move for the Mets because the commitment is four years to a 31-year-old player, not five or six years. That's palatable, especially since New York is 106-74 with Cespedes in the lineup and 18-23 without him since the Cuban slugger joined the team in a midseason trade in 2015.

Cespedes finished eighth in the NL MVP balloting in 2016. He hit .280/.354/.530 with 31 home runs, 86 RBIs and 25 doubles.

Volquez to Marlins

The Miami Marlins signed veteran right-hander Edinson Volquez to a two-year deal worth $22 million.

Volquez, 33, had a good season in 2015 for the Kansas City Royals, recording a 3.55 ERA over 200.1 innings and helping the team to its first World Series title in 30 years. But he regressed in 2016, posting a 5.37 ERA while allowing a league-high 113 earned runs.

You can't blame the Royals for moving on. Kansas City has Jason Vargas coming back from arm surgery, and he'll be their No. 4 starter behind Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura and Ian Kennedy. The Royals still have one spot open in their rotation, and I'm sure they believe they can do better than the declining Volquez.

The Marlins? They need pitching help of any sort after the shocking death of Jose Fernandez in late September. They'll be hoping Volquez can return to his 2015 form with a return to the National League.

Jay to Cubs

I'll call it right now: If the Cubs want to repeat as World Series champions in 2017, they need to re-sign center fielder Dexter Fowler, who ignited their offense in 2016 with a .393 on-base percentage, 84 runs scored and 45 extra-base hits in 125 games.

Apparently, the Cubs are thinking of moving on, however, since they signed veteran Jon Jay to a one-year, $8 million deal. Perhaps the Cubs consider Jay a stopgap measure until prospect Albert Almora is ready for a full-time role.

Jay is capable of playing all three outfield spots, and as a left-handed hitter, he hangs in there nicely against left-handed pitching - .288 lifetime vs. righties, .284 vs. lefties. In 2016, Jay hit .311 against lefties and .282 against righties, so the Cubs don't need to platoon him.

This is a player who will do a decent job for the Cubs, but if Fowler leaves as expected, the North Siders will almost certainly have a lesser offensive player batting leadoff next season.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Cubs rough up Indians starter Josh Tomlin, force Game 7 in World Series

Addison Russell
Well, Game 6 of the World Series sure was boring, wasn't it? The Cubs trounced the Cleveland Indians, 9-3, on Tuesday to even the series at 3.

This one was lopsided from the outset. So lopsided that I don't have anything nuanced to say about it. (Not that I ever do.) It was a strong performance by the Cubs, and a poor performance by the Indians. How's that for analysis?

Game 7 is Wednesday night in Cleveland.

You could tell that Cleveland starter Josh Tomlin just did not have it pitching on short rest from the very start of this game. Sure, he retired the first two hitters, but he hung a sloppy 0-2 curve to Kris Bryant, who deposited it in the left-field seats for a 1-0 Chicago lead.

Tomlin then hung a curve to Anthony Rizzo and left a changeup high in the zone to Ben Zobrist. Those two at-bats resulted in singles for the Cubs, and placed runners on first and third. The Indians' defense then failed Tomlin as center fielder Tyler Naquin and right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall stood and looked at each other as a lazy fly off the bat of Addison Russell fell in for a "two-run double."

Just like that, it was 3-0 Cubs. The game was essentially over there, but for good measure, the Cubs blew it open with four runs in the third inning

A walk and two singles to load the bases ended Tomlin's night, and Russell cleared 'em off with a grand slam off Cleveland reliever Dan Otero. 7-0. No drama on this night. Jake Arrieta worked 5.2 innings of two-run ball to get the win.

I did think it was interesting that Cubs manager Joe Maddon used Aroldis Chapman in the seventh inning. The Chicago closer entered with two on and two out in a 7-2 game, and finished that inning by inducing a groundout by Francisco Lindor.

Chapman also pitched a scoreless eighth. After the Cubs got two in the ninth on a Rizzo home run, Chapman returned to the mound in the bottom of the ninth and walked the leadoff man before departing. He threw 20 pitches and was charged with Cleveland's third and final run, which came across after he left the game in the ninth.

I'm certain Chapman will be available for Game 7. It's all hands on deck in these situations. But it's worth noting that Chapman threw 42 pitches in an eight-out save in Game 5, plus the 20 pitches in Game 6. That's a greater workload for him than usual. Will it matter? We'll see.

You can't really blame Maddon, because you can't win Game 7 if you don't get to Game 7, and I've never faulted a manager for going to his best reliever in a must-win situation. I do think there is some chance fatigue will catch up to Chapman, if he pitches Wednesday -- and I assume he will.

Momentum is on the side of the Cubs at this point. They've won the past two games. This victory in Game 6 was an overwhelming one. The Indians will now be forced to go to their ace, Corey Kluber, on short rest for Game 7. Kluber won Games 1 and 4 for Cleveland in this series, and like Chapman, we also have to wonder how much he has left in the tank. His mound opponent will be Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks.

Two things that could help the Indians: 1) They are playing at home. Cheering fans don't win games, but all things being equal, you'd rather be at home than on the road in Game 7. And 2) Cleveland's top three relievers -- Andrew Miller, Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw -- did not appear in Game 6. They will be rested and ready to go. Indians manager Terry Francona could turn the game over to them as early as the fifth inning, if necessary.

So far this series has featured two epic games -- Games 3 and 5. Each team won one. The other four games have been lopsided, with each club taking two one-sided victories. Here's to hoping Game 7 is a close one, and not another snoozer.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Cubs get away with two egregious mental mistakes, stave off elimination in Game 5

Anthony Rizzo
The 2016 Major League Baseball season will continue for at least another day, after the Cubs defeated the Cleveland Indians, 3-2, on Sunday night at Wrigley Field in Game 5 of the World Series.

Cleveland's lead in the series is cut to 3-2. Game 6 is Tuesday night in Cleveland.

The Cubs got this win with quality pitching. Jon Lester did what he is paid to do -- pitch well in big games. He limited the Tribe to two runs on four hits over six innings. He struck out five and didn't walk anybody. After a brief relief appearance by Carl Edwards in the seventh, Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman recorded eight outs to pick up the save.

It was not easy for Chapman. The Indians got the tying run to second base in the seventh inning, and they got the tying run to third in the eighth. Both times, Chapman turned them away. The hard-throwing lefty then worked a 1-2-3 ninth inning, striking out Jose Ramirez to close out the game.

The Cubs got three runs in the fourth inning off Cleveland starter Trevor Bauer, highlighted by a solo home run from Kris Bryant. Addison Russell had an RBI on an infield single, and David Ross added a sacrifice fly.

That said, I thought the Cubs were fortunate to get away with two egregious mental mistakes that just can't happen at this time of the season. One miscue was made by Anthony Rizzo in the fourth, the other by Chapman in the eighth.

After Bryant's home run tied the score at 1-1 in the bottom of the fourth, Rizzo was the next hitter. He put a good swing on a pitch from Bauer and drove it to deep right field. He stood there, watched the ball, admired it, then slowly started to jog toward first base. Too bad the ball wasn't gone. It hit the wall, and Rizzo suddenly had to hustle to get into second base for a double.

The Cubs are fortunate Cleveland right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall made a poor throw back into the infield. Any kind of decent throw to second base and Rizzo would have made an embarrassing out. Rizzo later scored the go-ahead run in that inning on the Russell single, so if he's out at second base two plays earlier, that three-run inning doesn't happen, and it's anybody's guess whether the Cubs are still in the hunt today.

This isn't an isolated incident, either. Throughout these playoffs, we've seen Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, Jorge Soler and now Rizzo not hustle out of the box after making contact. That's embarrassing for your team, even if you don't get thrown out, when you're competing for a championship. It's also a poor reflection on manager Joe Maddon. If one guy pulls that crap, it's the player's fault. But when it's a team-wide thing, the manager better do something. The Cubs can't afford that sort of mistake if they hope to win two games in Cleveland. Next time, Chisenhall might make an accurate throw.

Chapman nearly cost himself the lead, too, when he failed to cover first base on a grounder to the right side of the infield by Rajai Davis. Rizzo made a terrific stop on the play, preventing the ball from getting down the right-field line for extra bases. But when he got up to make a feed to first base, Chapman was nowhere to be found and Davis was easily safe.

Davis led the American League with 43 stolen bases this season, and he predictably swiped second and third base after Chapman gifted him the infield single. From Day 1 of spring training, pitchers work on getting over to first base on grounders to the right side. For Chapman to fail to get a good break off the mound in that spot is inexcusable. It's inexcusable in any situation, let alone in the eighth inning of Game 5 of the World Series, with a one-run lead, in an elimination game with everything at stake. That miscue cost the Cubs three bases. It could have cost the game.

Fortunately for Chapman, he did have his best stuff on the mound, and he got Jason Kipnis to pop out weakly and struck out Francisco Lindor looking to strand Davis at third.

Again, though, that's a mistake the Cubs better not make once they get to Cleveland. I think the Cubs need to play not one but two clean games Tuesday and Wednesday in order to win this series.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Indians push Cubs to the brink with dominant Game 4 win

Corey Kluber
First things first: Can we please stop with the narrative about Cubs pitcher John Lackey being great in the postseason?

Yes, Lackey has had some good playoff moments, such as this game, but he's also gotten his butt kicked in some playoff games, such as this one that is fondly remembered by all White Sox fans.

I keep hearing from both local and national media that Lackey is an awesome playoff pitcher, but frankly, at age 38, it looks like his best days are past. The right-hander has been nothing but mediocre for the Cubs in the postseason. He hasn't worked past the fifth inning in any of his three starts, and he's posted a pedestrian 4.85 ERA in only 13 innings.

Lackey was once again so-so Saturday night, allowing three runs (two earned) on four hits over five innings in the Cubs' 7-2 loss to Cleveland in Game 4 of the World Series.

The Indians now enjoy a 3-1 series lead and have three chances to close out the Cubs. Game 5 is Sunday night at Wrigley Field.

Lackey was outpitched by Cleveland ace Corey Kluber, who allowed one run on five hits in six innings. He struck out six and walked one, while improving to 4-1 with 0.89 ERA in five postseason starts. Kluber pitched on three days' rest, and will be prepared to pitch again in Game 7 if the Cubs somehow extend this series that far.

Kluber left the mound after the sixth inning with a 4-1 lead, and the Tribe broke the game open moments later in the top of the seventh on a three-run homer by second baseman Jason Kipnis. Cleveland got Lackey out of there after five, then capitalized for four runs off Chicago middle relievers Mike Montgomery, Justin Grimm and Travis Wood.

The Cubs had somewhat of a moral victory in the eighth when Dexter Fowler homered off Andrew Miller, thus proving the Cleveland relief ace is mortal. Miller already has set a record for playoff strikeouts in a single season with 29, and that Fowler homer was the first run he has allowed in 17 postseason innings.

Having a 7-2 lead allowed the Indians to rest closer Cody Allen for a night. Dan Otero closed out the ninth inning with no difficulty.

We can't count the Cubs out of this yet, as they have the edge in the pitching matchup in Game 5. Ace Jon Lester is going for the North Siders, and he'll be opposed by the one Cleveland pitcher who has not been doing his job in these playoffs, right-hander Trevor Bauer.

We'll see if the season ends Sunday, or if there will be a Game 6 on Tuesday in Cleveland.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Cody Allen closes out dramatic ninth inning for Cleveland in Game 3

Cody Allen
Saw an interesting stat today: The Cleveland Indians are 23-0 when relief pitchers Cody Allen and Andrew Miller pitch in the same game.

I always say the longer a streak goes in baseball, the more likely it is to end. The Cubs had a chance to end that streak Friday night, but Allen slammed the door on them, striking out Javier Baez with two outs and two runners in scoring position to preserve a 1-0 Cleveland victory in Game 3 of the World Series.

With the win, the Indians hold a 2-1 series lead. Game 4 is Saturday night at Wrigley Field.

Even if you don't care about either of these two teams, the ninth inning of Game 3 was as dramatic as it gets in a non-elimination game.

Cleveland scored the lone run on an RBI single by pinch-hitter Coco Crisp. The combination of Josh Tomlin, Miller, Bryan Shaw and Allen had combined to keep the Cubs off the board through eight innings.

Allen, the Cleveland closer, struck out Kris Bryant on a nasty curve to end the bottom of the eighth inning, but he found himself in immediate peril after giving up a leadoff single to Anthony Rizzo in the ninth.

With Chris Coghlan running for Rizzo, Allen bounced back to get the first out on another good curve that caused Ben Zobrist to swing and miss. Coghlan advanced to second on a weak groundout by Willson Contreras, which set up the drama of having the tying run in scoring position with two outs in the ninth.

Jason Heyward came to the plate for the Cubs with the game hanging in the balance, causing audible groans throughout the Chicago area. The $184 million man is 2 for 31 this postseason, and he's probably the last player the Cubs wanted up in that situation. Heck, they've got some pitchers who have been swinging the bat better than Heyward.

This time, the Cubs lucked out when Cleveland first baseman Mike Napoli booted what should have been a routine grounder off Heyward's bat. Suddenly, the Cubs had first and third and the much more dangerous Baez at the plate.

Heyward stole second and got into scoring position representing the winning run, and Baez jumped ahead in the count, 2-1. It was set up for the Cubs to possibly steal this game, but that's when Allen got tough.

The Cleveland reliever went back to his curve on 2-1. It broke hard and down in the dirt, and Baez could not check his swing. Strike two.

Gutsy pitch, because remember the tying run is on third base. If Indians catcher Yan Gomes doesn't block the ball, the game is tied. Gomes made the block. Cleveland got the strike, and Allen had succeeded in changing Baez's eye level.

With two strikes, Baez had to be thinking about that curve ball. After all, Allen had recorded three outs to that point -- all on curve balls. So what did Allen do? He pitched Baez backward. He went away from his preferred out pitch. He probably figured Baez would be protecting against the low breaking ball, so he threw a high fastball, above the hands. And he blew it right past Baez. Swinging strike three. Game over.

Brilliant pitching and a dramatic end to a great baseball game between the two top teams in the sport this year. Who says a 1-0 game is boring? Not me.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Cubs don't look as if they are going to choke

Kyle Schwarber
One of the main questions I had about the Cubs coming into the playoffs was whether they'd be able to deal with adversity.

Most of their fans would probably never admit to this, but the Cubs faced no adversity whatsoever all season. They played a soft schedule -- 106 of their 162 games were against losing teams -- and dominated a weak NL Central. St. Louis had a down season by its standards. Pittsburgh's pitching staff fell apart. Milwaukee and Cincinnati weren't even trying to win.

The Cubs won their division by 17.5 games, and it was every bit the cakewalk that figure represents. So, I wondered how the Cubs would respond when they were placed in a situation where they had to win a game, because there wasn't a single time during the whole regular season when they were seriously challenged.

So far in these playoffs, the Cubs have been seriously challenged twice. Give them credit, because they've responded both times. Once, on the road in Game 4 of the NLCS, where they were trailing 2 games to 1 against the Los Angeles Dodgers after having been shut out in Games 2 and 3. They trounced the Dodgers, 10-2, in that game and went on to win the next two to claim the NL pennant.

The other challenge was Wednesday night. After the Cubs were clobbered, 6-0, in Game 1 of the World Series by the Cleveland Indians, how would they respond in Game 2? Quite well, as a matter of fact, as they collected a decisive 5-1 victory to even the series.

Previous Cubs teams have always choked when they get in these tight situations where they need to win in the playoffs, but this group shows no sign of that. They got a good performance from Jake Arrieta, who is basically a five- or six-inning pitcher these days, but he gave the Cubs an effective 5.2 innings Wednesday. He didn't allow a hit until the sixth inning, when the Indians scored a run off him and manager Joe Maddon went to the bullpen.

Arrieta doesn't have the same command of the strike zone he had during his 2015 Cy Young campaign. His walk rate has nearly doubled. His ERA and home run rates are up, his strikeout rate is down. He needs more pitches to get through innings, and he can't get as deep into games as he might like, but he doesn't give up a lot of hits -- only 6.3 per 9 IP this season -- and that's been his saving grace.

Wednesday night, Mike Montgomery and Aroldis Chapman provided 3.1 innings of scoreless relief, and that made a winner out of Arrieta, whose performance was far superior to that of Cleveland's Trevor Bauer.

Bauer needed 87 pitches to record only 11 outs. The Cubs scored two runs on six hits against him in 3.2 innings. The North Siders then added on with three in the fifth off Cleveland relievers Zach McAllister and Bryan Shaw, although the run charged to Shaw was unearned.

Kyle Schwarber, just back from a major knee injury, is becoming the story of the series for the Cubs. He went 2 for 4 with a pair of RBI singles in Wednesday's win. He became the first non-pitcher in the history of baseball to record a hit in the World Series after not getting a hit in the regular season. He has shown that he is healthy enough to be an effective DH in an American League park. That can only help the Cubs, if the series heads back to Cleveland for Games 6 and 7.

Big question for Maddon for Games 3, 4 and 5 at Wrigley Field: Can he put Schwarber in left field?

There's no getting around the fact that Schwarber was a butcher in the outfield even before he got hurt. Putting him out there would significantly weaken the Cubs defensively, but there's also no getting around the fact that he's a difference maker with a bat in his hands.

Schwarber is the kind of player who can hit a three-run homer off a good pitcher and win a ballgame for his team. He's also the kind of player who can misplay a routine fly ball, cost his team runs and lose a ballgame. 

Will Maddon choose to use his best offensive lineup? Or will he opt to put the best defense on the field?

Personally, I subscribe to the philosophy of putting the best defense out there. Of course, I'm not the one being paid millions to make these decisions, so what do I know?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The World Series Game 1 hero is ... Roberto Perez?

There are three players in Cleveland Indians franchise history to have a multi-homer game during the playoffs: Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and, of course, Roberto Perez.

Cue Cookie Monster and his famous song, "One of These Things Is Not Like the Other Things":




Indeed, Thome has 612 career home runs. Ramirez has 555 career home runs. Perez has, well, 11 career home runs. But the career .220-hitting catcher managed to go deep twice Tuesday in Game 1 of the World Series, becoming the unlikely hero in Cleveland's 6-0 victory over the Cubs.

Perez also became the first player in World Series history to have a multi-homer game while batting in the No. 9 spot in the order. Not bad for a guy who is "Plan C" for the Indians behind the plate. Perez is only playing because Yan Gomes has been a combination of injured and bad all season, and because Jonathan Lucroy rejected a trade to Cleveland at the deadline and went to play for Texas instead.

In the biggest game of his life so far, Perez clubbed a solo home run off Cubs ace Jon Lester in the fourth inning to increase Cleveland's lead to 3-0. The home run had an exit velocity of 112.9 mph, making it the hardest-hit ball off Lester all season, according to Statcast.

Perez capped his night by hitting a three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning on a hanging slider from Cubs reliever Hector Rondon. That made the score 6-0 and took all the drama out of the ninth inning.

Cleveland pitching was good again in this game, with Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen combining to strike out 15 Cubs hitters. Kluber had eight strikeouts through three innings and finished with nine Ks in six innings. Miller pitched out of a bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the seventh, striking out Addison Russell and David Ross to close the inning. He also struck out Kyle Schwarber with two on and two out to end the eighth and snuff out the Cubs' last legitimate chance to get back in the game.

Game 2 is Wednesday night, and the start time has been moved up an hour to try to avoid a weather delay. Rain is in the forecast for Cleveland. The Cubs will try to even the series behind right-hander Jake Arrieta. The Indians will counter with right-hander Trevor Bauer.

The best news for the Cubs right now is the fact that Kluber won't pitch in Game 2. And, Miller might be limited, as well, after throwing 46 pitches over two innings of work in Game 1.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Indians clinch AL pennant; Cubs get even with Dodgers

Andrew Miller
Down is up and up is down in the MLB playoffs, so I was snickering to myself Wednesday afternoon when I heard expert after expert assure me the Toronto Blue Jays were going to win Game 5 of the ALCS.

The Cleveland Indians were starting rookie left-hander Ryan Merritt, who had thrown all of 11 major-league innings in his career, while the Blue Jays were throwing Marco Estrada, who has been their best pitcher in these playoffs.

No way Merritt could hold up against the hard-hitting, right-hand-dominate Toronto lineup, right?

Wrong.

Merritt gave Cleveland exactly what it needed, tossing 4.1 innings of shutout, two-hit ball. The Indians' seemingly omnipotent bullpen took it from there, securing a 3-0 victory and sending Cleveland to its first World Series since 1997.

Once again, the Blue Jays had no answers for Cleveland relievers Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. The trio combined to pitch 4.2 innings, allowing no runs on four hits with five strikeouts.

Miller was named ALCS MVP, and why not? He appeared in each of the Tribe's four victories, tossed 7.2 shutout innings, allowed just three hits and struck out 14.

The Indians won this series, 4-1, despite scoring only 12 runs total in the five games. The MVP needed to go to a pitcher, and certainly Miller was the best guy on a Cleveland staff that limited Toronto to just seven runs in this series.

One other key: I think it really helped Merritt that he got an early lead. The Indians scored single runs in three of the first four innings. Mike Napoli had a two-out RBI double in the first. Carlos Santana homered in the third. Coco Crisp homered in the fourth. An inexperienced pitcher is more likely to relax and execute if he has some margin for error. Merritt had the lead before he set foot on the mound, and he did what he needed to do to protect it.

The Indians will now have five days off before the World Series begins Oct. 25, and they'll have at least two more NLCS games to watch and scout their next opponent.

Cubs 10, Dodgers 2

Speaking of the NLCS, the Cubs are even with the Dodgers at 2-2 in the series after their bats finally woke up Wednesday in Game 4.

The North Siders were held without a hit by Julio Urias for the first three innings, but they exploded for four runs in the fourth inning, then roughed up the Los Angeles bullpen with another run in the fifth and five more in the sixth.

Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell -- two hitters who had previously done nothing in the playoffs -- came up big for the Cubs. Both were 3 for 5 with a home run. Rizzo had three RBIs, and Russell knocked in two runs with his homer to cap the four-run fourth. Chicago also got two-hit games from two other struggling hitters, Ben Zobrist and Dexter Fowler. We'll find out in Game 5 whether this was the breakout night those four guys were looking for.

Jason Heyward? Well, he was 0 for 5 again. For those scoring at home, Heyward is scheduled to make $28 million in each of the next two seasons. The Cubs are fortunate they have enough good players that they can probably overcome the fact that Heyward is a colossal waste of money.

The stage is set for a pivotal Game 5 on Thursday night, and the Cubs have the advantage in the pitching matchup with ace left-hander Jon Lester on the mound. He'll be opposed by Dodgers right-hander Kenta Maeda.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Cubs' offensive woes: Is it the pressure or the Dodgers' pitching?

Anthony Rizzo -- 2 for 26 in the playoffs
Panic might be too strong a word, but there is definitely consternation and concern on the streets of Chicago after the Cubs lost, 6-0, to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday in Game 3 of the NLCS.

The Dodgers have taken a 2-1 series lead, and they have limited the Cubs to zero runs on six hits over the past two games combined. Until this week, Los Angeles had never posted back-to-back shutouts in its 200-game playoff history.

The Cubs hadn't been shut out in back-to-back games since May 2014. But in these playoffs, they've scored just 25 runs in seven games and have posted an ugly team slash line of .185/.242/.335.

Some of the individual statistics are even worse:

Addison Russell: 1 for 24, .042 avg.
Anthony Rizzo: 2 for 26, .077 avg.
Jason Heyward: 2 for 19, .105 avg.
Ben Zobrist: 4 for 26, .154 avg.
Dexter Fowler: 5 for 28, .179 avg.

So, five of the Cubs' eight everyday players are a combined 14 for 123. That pencils out to a .114 average. With production like this, the Cubs are lucky they won the NLDS. They were fortunate to play a San Francisco Giants team that had no bullpen whatsoever.

Here's the question with the Cubs (and it's a rhetorical one -- I don't have a definitive answer): Are they struggling because they are facing good pitching, or are they struggling because they are feeling the pressure of trying to end a 108-year World Series drought?

After the Cubs lost, 1-0, to the Dodgers in Game 2, I would have said the Cubs were simply beat by good pitching. They saw Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of this generation, for seven innings. Then, the next two innings they saw Kenley Jansen, who is one of the top five closers in the game today.

There is no shame in getting shut down by the combination of Kershaw and Jansen.

But then came Game 3, when the Cubs managed only two hits in six innings against Rich Hill, a journeyman who has played for eight teams and was pitching for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League as recently as last year. The Dodgers also used journeyman right-hander Joe Blanton and rookie left-hander Grant Dayton in relief Tuesday, before going to Jansen to close out the game.

Am I wrong for thinking the Cubs, who scored 808 runs this season, should have been able to get something done against the trio of Hill, Blanton and Dayton? I don't believe so.

The Cubs' Game 2 loss struck me as good pitching by the Dodgers. The Cubs' Game 3 loss struck me as bad offense, and a sign that the Cubs might be feeling the pressure.

I can't be sure; I certainly don't have any insight into what the Cubs hitters are thinking at the plate. But I do know this: The Dodgers are starting 20-year-old Julio Urias in Game 4. He's a talented kid, but he's a rookie, and he hasn't thrown as many as 90 pitches in any game since August.

The Cubs should beat this guy, and they better if they want to end their World Series drought this year. If the Cubs lose this game, they are one loss away from elimination, and you already know they are going to see Kershaw one more time before this series is over.

If you're the Cubs -- and, of course, I am not -- you don't want to put yourself in a situation where the best pitcher in baseball can close you out.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Giants don't have anybody who can close games; Cubs capitalize

Bruce Bochy
Seventy-five percent of MLB's final four is now complete after the Cubs scored four runs in the top of the ninth inning Tuesday to defeat the San Francisco Giants, 6-5. With the victory, the Cubs win the NLDS, three games to one.

For all the talk of the Giants' success in even-numbered years, no amount of hocus pocus was going to allow them to overcome their weaknesses against the Cubs. The most glaring San Francisco weakness? There isn't a single relief pitcher on that roster that can be counted upon to close games.

The Giants bullpen couldn't close out regular-season games against losing clubs such as Colorado and San Diego. Why should we believe they could close out playoff games against the 103-win Cubs? San Francisco took the lead into the ninth inning in both Games 3 and 4. The Cubs rallied to tie in Game 3 before losing in extra innings, and they rallied to win and close out the series in Game 4.

Clearly, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy knew he didn't have any reliable options Tuesday, as he used five different relievers -- none of whom had any success -- to navigate a disastrous ninth inning.

I have some sympathy for Bochy, because there's a distinct possibility that nothing he could have tried would have worked, but I definitely think he was one step behind Cubs manager Joe Maddon tactically in this inning.

The Giants started the inning with a 5-2 lead. But Derek Law gave up a single to Kris Bryant. Javier Lopez walked Anthony Rizzo, and Sergio Romo gave up an RBI double to Ben Zobrist.

5-3 game, three pitchers used, runners at second and third, still nobody out.

At that point, San Francisco's margin for error was gone, and the chess match was on. Maddon fired the first shot with a curious move: He sent journeyman outfielder Chris Coghlan out to pinch hit for everyday shortstop Addison Russell.

I found it odd, because Russell is a more dangerous hitter than the left-handed hitting Coghlan. I sensed Maddon was trying to prod Bochy into replacing Romo with a left-handed pitcher, with the intent of sending Willson Contreras to the plate with the game on the line.

Bochy took the bait.

He brought in left-hander Will Smith to "face" Coghlan, only to see Maddon counter with Contreras, who is hitting .311 with an .854 OPS against left-handed pitchers this year. Bochy had to know Maddon was going to do that, right? He should have.

Contreras won the favorable matchup with Smith, delivering a two-run single to tie the game at 5. I couldn't figure out why Bochy was afraid to leave Romo in to face Coghlan. I even looked up the head-to-head numbers -- Coghlan is 0 for 2 lifetime with a walk in three lifetime plate appearances against Romo. Small sample size. No apparent reason for concern from a Giants perspective.

Who is the more dangerous hitter there? Coghlan or Contreras? In my book, it's Contreras. Bochy should have called Maddon's bluff and left Romo in the game. Make the journeyman Coghlan beat you.

In any case, Contreras ties the game, the inning continues, the Giants fail to turn a double play behind Smith, and the next critical decision arises. Man at second, one out, still tied at 5. Javier Baez due up.

Bochy brings in right-hander Hunter Strickland to pitch to Baez, who singles in the winning run. Hmmmm.....

The Giants had a base open. Did Bochy forget that David Ross was the on-deck hitter? Why not walk Baez and set up the double play? I realize that Ross had homered earlier in the game. I realize that Ross has become a folk hero on the North Side. But who cares? The guy is a .225-hitting career backup for a reason. You have to put Baez on first base and make Ross beat you in that situation.

If Maddon wants to send Miguel Montero or Tommy La Stella up to pinch hit for Ross there, he can be my guest. I would rather face any of Ross, Montero or La Stella in that spot as opposed to Baez. For the record, Ross grounded into an inning-ending double play after the hit by Baez.

Let's be clear: The Giants were overmatched, and they were probably going to lose this series to the Cubs one way or another. Heck, San Francisco's brilliant shortstop, Brandon Crawford, uncharacteristically made two throwing errors that cost his team two runs Tuesday night. That shows right there that it wasn't meant to be for the Giants. Even one of their strengths, up-the-middle defense, became a weakness in this series.

But ultimately, the lack of a real closer and some tactical mistakes that were the product of not having a reliable reliever sealed the Giants' fate in this series. They should have made Coghlan and Ross beat them. Instead, Contreras and Baez sent them home.

Friday, July 29, 2016

White Sox settle for split in crosstown series

Tyler Saladino
In a season full of missed opportunities, the White Sox blew another one Thursday night. The South Siders were forced to settle for a four-game split in the crosstown series after a 3-1 loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

We talked earlier in the week about the Sox stealing a couple games from the Cubs in which the pitching matchups didn't seem to favor them. Well, in this game, the Sox did have the advantage in the pitching matchup, and their weak offense failed to take advantage.

For his part, Sox ace Chris Sale wasn't particularly sharp in his return from a five-game suspension. The left-hander was making just his second start since July 8, and the rust showed. He did not have his good fastball command -- especially early -- and his velocity was not at peak levels. Sale did not record any strikeouts through the first three innings of the game. That's the first time that has happened in any of his 136 career starts.

That said, he went six innings and allowed only two runs on six hits. The Cubs have a power-laden lineup, and they are especially tough at home (32-16 record), but Sale kept them in the yard and generally held them down. It was not a poor performance given that his stuff was less than his best.

The loss is disappointing because the Sox hitters allowed struggling Cubs right-hander John Lackey to get back on track. Coming into Thursday, Lackey was 0-5 with a 5.06 ERA over his past seven starts. But against the Sox, he allowed only a run on four hits over six innings.

We're not tipping our caps here. This was an example of poor offense. Lackey retired 10 Sox hitters in a row at one point, and that string was broken on a single up the middle by Sale, of all people.

The Sox blew a golden chance to tie with the score at 2-1 in the top of the eighth. Tyler Saladino doubled off  Hector Rondon leading off the inning, but the Sox couldn't get him home. Apparently, the Cubs were serious about holding this lead. Saladino was at third with two outs when Cubs manager Joe Maddon summoned newly acquired closer Aroldis Chapman for a four-out save opportunity.

The hard-throwing lefty struck out Melky Cabrera to protect the lead, then retired the side in order in the ninth after the Cubs added an insurance run in the eighth off Sox reliever Nate Jones.

With the loss, the Sox are now 1-7 on the road since the All-Star break. That's ominous, given that these two games at Wrigley Field start a stretch of 17 out of 20 games away from U.S. Cellular Field.

The Sox drop to 50-52 entering Friday's play, and they are 8.5 games back of the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central -- six games back in the AL wild-card race.

The players say they do not want management to pull the plug and sell before Monday's trading deadline, but they are not making a compelling case for themselves when they fail to support their best pitcher in a game such as Thursday's.

Time is running out on the 2016 Sox.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Anthony Ranaudo's White Sox debut memorable, but unfortunate

Anthony Ranaudo
With Carlos Rodon still stuck on the disabled list, the White Sox turned to Anthony Ranaudo to make a spot start Wednesday against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

Ranaudo held up his end of the bargain. He carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning and even became the first Sox pitcher to hit a home run since Mark Buehrle in 2009.

But from the sixth inning on, it all unraveled, and the Sox lost 8-1 -- although very little of that damage was Ranaudo's fault.

The Sox led 1-0 into the sixth inning before Kris Bryant ended Ranaudo's no-hit bid and shutout with a solo home run on a 3-1 hanging curve ball. To Ranaudo's credit, he did not get rattled. He retired the next two hitters and got the game into the seventh inning with score tied at 1.

After the first two Sox hitters made outs in the seventh, manager Robin Ventura allowed Ranaudo to hit for himself. I thought that might have been a spot to give Justin Morneau an opportunity to pinch hit against Cubs starter Jason Hammel, but given the Sox's thin bullpen, Ventura decided to try to get another inning out of Ranaudo. A questionable decision, but not indefensible by any means.

It looked like it would work out, initially, as Ranaudo retired Miguel Montero and Addison Russell on groundouts to start the bottom of the inning. That's where things got dicey, and frankly, what occurred the rest of the seventh was not Ranaudo's fault.

The Sox right-hander snapped off beautiful curve ball to Jason Heyward on a 2-2 pitch. It was right at the bottom of the zone and over the plate. It fooled Heyward, and he took it for what should have been strike three, inning over. But catcher Dioner Navarro's lousy framing skills once against cost the Sox. As Navarro caught the pitch, he snapped his glove downward, making it seem like the ball was in the dirt. The Sox didn't get the call, the inning continued, and Heyward walked on the next pitch.

Ranaudo was at 101 pitches at that point, and that should have been the end of his night. Javier Baez was the next Cubs hitter, and Ventura should have gone with one of the power right-handed arms in his bullpen. It would have been nice to see Carson Fulmer, or even Tommy Kahnle, in that spot to give Baez a different look.

Instead, Ranaudo remained, and he hung a 3-2 curve to Baez, who hit one out to give the Cubs the lead for good at 3-1. Then, Ventura emerges from the dugout to make a pitching change.

A day later and a dollar short there, Robin.

Fulmer and Jacob Turner struggled in the bottom of the eighth inning, allowing the Cubs to blow it open with five more runs, but the game was lost with the lousy receiving of Navarro and the questionable decision-making of Ventura in the seventh inning.

Ranaudo deserved a better fate, and to add insult to injury, he was the one who was sent to the minors after the game to make room on the roster for Chris Sale, who is returning from his five-game suspension.

Between the home run and limiting the Cubs to two hits over 6.2 innings, I'd say Ranaudo's debut was a memorable one, but he unfortunately became a victim of the usual White Sox nonsense.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

James Shields leads White Sox to shutout of Cubs

James Shields
I didn't care for the move when the White Sox acquired James Shields from the San Diego Padres in early June.

I didn't think he was the "missing piece" the Sox needed to push themselves into contention in the American League, and I still don't think that. As I type here today, the Sox (50-50) still are the same mediocre team they were the day Shields was acquired.

That said, let's give Shields his credit for pulling it together after a historically bad beginning to his tenure with the Sox. He's made 10 starts since joining the South Siders, and there's a clear line of demarcation between the first four starts and the last six. None of his first four starts were quality, but all of his last six have been.

Shields' first four starts with Sox: 13.2 IP, 29 H, 25 R, 24 ER, 8 Ks, 13 BBs, 5 HRs, 15.80 ERA
Shields' last six starts with Sox: 42 IP, 32 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 20 Ks, 12 BBs, 5 HRs, 1.71 ERA

Tuesday's outing was Shields' best since the trade. He fired 7.2 innings of four-hit, shutout ball to lead the Sox to a 3-0 victory over the Cubs. He struck out five and walked four, which is a few too many walks, but it almost seemed to be by design. Shields has been hurt by the home run ball a lot this season, and it appeared he just decided he wasn't going to give in to the Cubs hitters on the rare occasions he was behind in the count. He was sooner going to walk somebody than just lay one in and risk giving up a home run.

The strategy paid off, as the Cubs were limited to just four singles and couldn't come through on the occasions when they did get a runner in scoring position.

The recent stretch of good pitching has rebuilt Shields' trade value, and there are rumors now that the Sox might flip him for prospects sometime this week. If indeed the Sox have decided they are not in the race for this year, moving Shields now would be the correct call.

The Sox hitters on Tuesday were facing the Cubs' hottest pitcher, Kyle Hendricks, who entered the game with a streak of 22.1 innings without allowing an earned run. That ended quickly, as the Sox got on the board in the first inning. Jose Abreu's single scored Adam Eaton, who had drawn a leadoff walk.

Eaton added to the lead in the fifth with a solo home run -- his seventh of the season. The Sox completed the scoring with a run in the sixth. Hendricks departed after giving up a soft single to Todd Frazier. Cubs reliever Travis Wood gifted the Sox a run by walking three consecutive batters. Tyler Saladino's bases-loaded walk forced home a run to make it 3-0.

This time, the Sox had their two best relievers available to protect a late lead. Nate Jones recorded the final out of the eighth, and David Robertson worked a 1-2-3 ninth for his 24th save of the season.

The win keeps the Crosstown Cup on the South Side for the third consecutive season. The Cubs still have a chance to even the season series if they can win both games at Wrigley Field this week, but in the event of a tie, the team that won the Crosstown Cup the previous season keeps it. For that reason, the Sox were awarded the trophy Tuesday night after the game.

I don't often say much about the Cubs on this blog, because I prefer not to attract trolls. But I was noticing their record is 59-40 entering Wednesday's play, and I remember them starting the season 25-6. A little quick math tells me the Cubs are a .500 team over their last 68 games (34-34).

The narrative around Chicago has been that the Cubs are an elite team, that they are enjoying a magical season, and that they are on the brink of history. For those first 31 games, they sure looked pretty damn good. But in these first two games against the Sox, they have been ordinary, and based on their .500 record over a 68-game period, they've been ordinary for a while.

The Sox are starting a Triple-A pitcher (Anthony Ranaudo) Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, and I won't be surprised if the Cubs light him up. That said, I have been surprised at how well the mediocre Sox have done so far against the highly regarded Cubs. A lot of folks seemed to believe the Sox would be overmatched in this series. That has not been the case to this point.

Miguel Gonzalez and Shields were better than Jake Arrieta and Hendricks, and that's been the difference so far.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Miguel Gonzalez outpitches Jake Arrieta in crosstown series opener

Jake Arrieta -- not sharp lately
Based on pitching matchups, just about everyone was expecting the Cubs to prevail in Monday's opener of the 2016 crosstown series.

The North Siders had their ace, defending NL Cy Young award winner Jake Arrieta, on the mound, while the White Sox were countering with their No. 5 starter, Miguel Gonzalez.

However, games are not played on paper -- and surprise, surprise -- Gonzalez outpitched Arrieta in a 5-4 Sox victory:

Gonzalez: 6.2 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BBs, 8 Ks, 1 HR
Arrieta: 6 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BBs, 6 Ks, 1 HR

Neither man figured in the decision, but taking a longer view, maybe we should have known this was not a mismatch.

Arrieta has not been pitching well. The Cubs have lost seven of the last 10 games he has started, including the last four. Arrieta has allowed 20 earned runs in 29.1 innings pitched over his last five outings, only one of which has been a quality start. That will pencil out to a 6.14 ERA.

In contrast, Gonzalez has churned out five consecutive quality starts for the Sox. He has allowed 11 earned runs over 32.2 innings during that span, good for a rock-solid 3.03 ERA.

The Sox right-hander is only 1-2 during that stretch, but it's through no fault of his own. He should have gotten the win Monday night, as he walked off the mound with a two outs in the seventh inning and a 4-2 lead.

But as we discussed in yesterday's blog entry, the Sox are woefully thin in the bullpen right now. Jacob Turner had a short start Friday against the Detroit Tigers. And Chris Sale did not make his start Saturday after the whole jersey-slashing incident, so the Sox bullpen has had to cover an absurd amount of innings over the past few days.

Both closer David Robertson and top set-up reliever Nate Jones were unavailable Monday, leaving Matt Albers and Dan Jennings to try to protect the 4-2 lead in the ninth. They could not. The Cubs tied it, although we can credit Jennings for recording a key strikeout of Jason Heyward with two on and two out to preserve the 4-4 tie.

The Sox then recorded their third consecutive walk-off victory. J.B. Shuck singled to lead off the bottom of the ninth against newly acquired Cubs left-hander Mike Montgomery. Dioner Navarro advanced the runner to second with a sacrifice bunt, and Tyler Saladino delivered a game-winning base hit to center field.

In case you were wondering, this is the first time the Sox have had three straight walk-off winners since Aug. 4-6, 1962.

The Sox will send James Shields to the mound in the second game of the series Tuesday. He'll be opposed by Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks.

Technically, I guess Hendricks is the fifth starter for the Cubs, but much like Gonzalez, he's been pitching better than that moniker would suggest.

Hendricks hasn't given up an earned run since June 29, and has logged a 0.72 ERA over his last seven appearances (six starts).

Maybe as Sox fans, we should be more worried about Hendricks and less worried about Arrieta, media hype aside.