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.

Adam Eaton a Gold Glove finalist, and other assorted White Sox news

Adam Eaton
Catching up on a few White Sox notes from the past few days:

1. Right fielder Adam Eaton has been named a finalist for the American League Gold Glove Award. Eaton led major-league outfielders with 18 assists and was second to Boston's Mookie Betts with 22 defensive runs saved.

Eaton is trying to become the first Sox player to win a Gold Glove since pitcher Jake Peavy won the honor in 2012. The last Sox position player to win a Gold Glove was third baseman Robin Ventura in 1998.

Eaton was a finalist for the award as a center fielder in 2014. The other finalists among right fielders this year are Betts and Houston's George Springer.

Consider Betts the favorite, since he also had a big offensive season (yeah, I know it shouldn't matter, but it does) and plays in Boston.

2. No surprise: Pitcher James Shields will opt in for the final two years of his contract, according to reports.

Shields, who will turn 35 in December, is coming off a terrible season in which he posted a 6-19 record with a 5.85 ERA. After being traded to the American League, his ERA swelled to 6.77 in 22 starts with the Sox, during which he went 4-12.

The right-hander is owed $21 million for each of the next two seasons, although the San Diego Padres are on the hook for $11 million in both 2017 and 2018. That means the Sox will play Shields $10 million next year and the year after that.

There is a $16 million club option for 2019 on Shields, with a $2 million buyout, if he somehow manages to hold his roster spot for that long. The Sox would be on the hook for the buyout.

Great trade, huh?

3. The Sox claimed outfielder Rymer Liriano off waivers from the Milwaukee Brewers.

Liriano, 25, was once a top-100 prospect in the San Diego system, but his skills have never translated to the big-league level.

He made it to the bigs with the Padres in 2014, but couldn't stick, hitting .220 with a .555 OPS in 121 plate appearances in 38 games.

Liriano missed the entire 2016 season after being struck in the face by pitched ball in spring training. The move brings the Sox's 40-man roster back up to 40 players, but this acquisition is for nothing more than organizational depth.

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.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Memo to the national media: The World Series was played in Chicago 11 years ago -- and Chicago won (for real)

Sox fans line up outside ESPN's headquarters.
With the Cubs capturing their first NL pennant in 71 years, I've heard several comments criticizing White Sox fans for being "salty" about the North Siders' success.

As a matter of fact, some Cubs fans seem to be getting "salty"about Sox fans refusing to join their bandwagon, and it is true that a majority of Sox fans have declared their support for the AL Central rival Cleveland Indians in the upcoming World Series -- a declaration that would have been previously unthinkable until this week.

I know from experience a Sox fan can never win a public relations war with the Cubs and their fans. They are the majority party around here, and that's just how it is. But it's always been somewhat baffling to me that nobody other than Sox fans understands why we don't cheer for the Cubs. It's really plainly obvious to anyone who is paying attention.

The reason is this: When the Cubs are successful, people go out of their way to chastise White Sox fans and denigrate or willfully ignore the history of the White Sox organization and its accomplishments. They also make sure Sox fans are positioned as "other." Turn on the local news, and you'll see alleged "journalists" dressed in Cubs jerseys and Cubs hats. They'll refer to "our Cubbies" or call the Cubs "we."

What they fail to understand is that about 43 percent of the baseball-consuming public in Chicago is made up of Sox fans, and for us, the Cubs are not a "we" but a "them." Cubs fans will complain and moan to the all ends of the earth about Ken Harrelson referring to the Sox as "we," but they don't even notice the folks in town who refer to the Cubs as "we." Somewhat hysterically, Ken Williams' wife, Zoraida Sambolin of NBC 5, is among the media members who have been guilty of this. Not sure what to make of that. 

And it's not only the local press. It's the national media too. This awesome article from SBNation scolds the national press for its willful ignorance of the White Sox. On Monday, three different national media outlets -- ESPN, CBS This Morning and The Washington Post -- somehow managed to gloss over the Sox's 2005 World Series victory over the Houston Astros. 

CBS This Morning claimed this year's World Series will be the first in Chicago in 71 years, which, of course, is false. Sox fans assailed them on Twitter, forcing them to tweet a correction, which also was incorrect. They failed to note the White Sox made the World Series in 1959, as well. 

This national baseball writer from The Washington Post foolishly tweeted that the 2004 Boston Red Sox would be the only group of people to know what the Cubs or Indians will mean to their city. Sox fans responded by tweeting pictures of our World Series parade (intentional use of the word "our") in 2005. Hey, why don't you read a book for a change? The White Sox broke a championship drought that was two years longer than Boston's.

And then, there was this from ESPN, a graphic comparing sports championships of Chicago to those of Cleveland since 1965. The graphic includes the six Bulls championships from the 1990s, the three recent Blackhawks Stanley Cups, and the 1985 Bears. Noticeably absent? Oh, yeah, the White Sox won the World Series in 2005. That was after 1965, right?

I guess the guys at ESPN are still pissed off about the White Sox destroying their beloved Red Sox in three straight games in the 2005 ALDS. ESPN thinks its the worldwide leader in sports? LOL.

Salty? Yeah, I'm salty. And I'll make no apology for it. I'm tired of being told that a sports team that I love dearly and a 2005 World Series championship that meant everything to me, my family and my friends is irrelevant and meaningless. And I'm certainly not going to cheer for a team whose fans seem to delight in telling me how irrelevant and meaningless they think it is. 

Some might be interested to know that I'm already well aware that the 2005 World Series meant nothing to Cubs fans. And that's fine. I never expected it to mean anything to them. Likewise, if the Cubs win this year, it will mean nothing to me. White Sox-Cubs is a rivarly. The two sides don't like each other. They don't cheer for each other. I don't know why this is so hard to figure out.