Vinnie Duber

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

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USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

Jon Lester isn’t expected to be on the disabled list for long, which of course is great news for the Cubs.

But while he’s there, it’s once again time for Mike Montgomery to audition for a spot in the team’s 2018 starting rotation.

The Cubs are facing the possibility of losing two members of that starting staff this offseason, when both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey will be free agents. Montgomery seems like a logical replacement, but he’ll need to be better than he’s been as a starter this season. He’s put up a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.

He’ll get another opportunity to show his stuff over the next week or so, as he makes one or two spot starts with Lester on the shelf resting up his left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

“I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially our ace. But it’s a challenge. I’m looking forward to going out there and helping the team win,” Montgomery said over the weekend. “I’m going to go out there and prepare and be ready to help this team get to the playoffs.”

Montgomery doesn’t have to worry about instilling confidence in his bosses. Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein both lauded Montgomery’s efforts since he was acquired about a year ago, in the middle of the 2016 team’s march to that curse-smashing World Series win. It was Montgomery who earned the save in Game 7.

And again this season Montgomery has given plenty of reason for those guys to have confidence in him. He’s turned in a strong 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances, one of the more reliable arms out of what is becoming an increasingly shaky bullpen. This past Thursday, he relieved the early-to-depart Lester, pitching 4.1 shutout innings and allowing just three hits and a walk against the Cincinnati Reds.

Throw in the versatility of being able to effectively switch between starting and relieving, and that’s a recipe for sticking on a big league roster.

“He’s good about bouncing back and forth,” Maddon said. “He’s been invaluable to us the last couple years. He’s still learning his craft. Every time I talk to him it’s kind of like the little lightbulb constantly goes off for him regarding his stuff and how to utilize it. That’s what I’ve been talking about with him the last couple years. This guy’s got all kinds of tools in the toolbox but he doesn’t really know how to utilize them all, and I think he’s finally understanding the cutter, the curve, the changeup to go with the fastball. He’s one of those guys that he should never get wild with his fastball because his pitches are so good and he can throw them for a strike.”

Montgomery’s reliability has been enough that Epstein said there’s no plan for the Cubs to add another starting pitcher before this month’s waiver trade deadline. Of course, the fact that Lester’s injury isn’t as bad as initially feared and the July acquisition of Jose Quintana factors into that, as well.

“We’ve expended a lot of prospect capital trying to make this team better. We think it’s just a start or two (that Lester will miss), and Mike Montgomery is more than capable of filling in,” Epstein said. “He’s thrown the ball really well, like what we saw from him (Thursday). So we’re going to fill that vacancy internally with Mike and go from there.”

While every start made by any pitcher this season seems important — the Cubs entered Monday’s day off with just a two-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central standings, with a playoff spot hardly guaranteed — Montgomery’s efforts could have just as great an effect on next season. If Arrieta and Lackey both end up departing via free agency, the Cubs will need some replacements. Montgomery figures to be among the first options, especially if this midseason audition goes well.

Of course, Montgomery is happy to do whatever he needs to to help his team. He’s not complaining about a bullpen role or one that has him shuttling between the relief corps and the rotation. But he admitted that starting is his goal, meaning the importance of this moment likely hasn't been lost on him.

“Yeah, absolutely, I wanted to start. But also I wanted to be a guy who could fill another role and hopes that makes our team better,” he said. “If me starting makes us better in their mind, then that’s what I want ideally. But I’ve realized I can’t always control that, I can go out there and pitch well. If I pitch well, they’re probably going to give me more opportunities, which is probably going to lead to starting.

“I think it’s because I spent five years in Triple-A from the time I was 21 and I had a bigger ego. And then you realize that you just want to be in the big leagues and that Triple-A kind of stinks. I think it’s just how I’ve gotten to this point. And coming here last year from a team that was trying to get in the playoffs to a team that was clearly going to win the division, you realize that your role isn’t to come here and start making demands, it’s to come here and just do your job.”

Right now, the Cubs need Montgomery to fill the void while Lester rests up. And if he can make his starts look a little more like his bullpen outings, he’ll do just that. And if that’s what happens, maybe they’ll call on him next season to do a whole lot more.

Stop asking if the Cubs are back, they need to make their own momentum — like they did Sunday

Stop asking if the Cubs are back, they need to make their own momentum — like they did Sunday

Stop asking if the Cubs are back.

That’s been a season-long talking point every time something that seems big at the time happens, constant wonder over what can snap the Cubs out of it and get them back to their expected place of dominating the division and looking like a World Series contender.

But it’s been pretty plain up to this point that one game hasn’t made that drastic difference fans are looking for.

All those “Cubs back?” inquiries have only been met with the same kind of play that’s kept the team middling all season. Flashes of brilliance have come and gone, and still the Cubs turned in a sub-.500 first half and remain just a few games ahead of their division rivals from Milwaukee and St. Louis.

So it’s time to stop wondering if every big win will lead to the Cubs turning on the jets and blasting away from the Brewers and Cardinals.

If the Cubs are going to get the kind of momentum required to do that, they’re going to need to make it themselves. Just like they did Sunday.

The Cubs beat the visiting Toronto Blue Jays and completed their first three-game series sweep in a month, their first since that six-game win streak out of the All-Star break with back-to-back broom breakouts in Baltimore and Atlanta. (For those appreciative of technicalities, yes, the Cubs won both games in the road half of the Crosstown matchup with the White Sox.)

But it was the way they did it Sunday, coughing up a 3-0 lead, coughing up two runs in the top of 10th, only to score three times in the bottom of that extra inning, winning on a walk-off base hit by one of the new guys, Alex Avila.

Did it mean that the Cubs are back? Did it mean this is the start of something great? What did it mean?

“That we’re a good team, I guess,” Avila said. “There are certain times over the course of the year when you’re a team that’s trying to get to the playoffs, you’ve got to win crazy games like that, games you should win.

“For me, momentum depends on the next guy that’s pitching, to be honest with you. If (John Lackey) goes out Tuesday and throws a good game and gives us an opportunity, then you can say that. But for me, once the game’s over it’s over, and the next game is something completely different.”

Sunday’s game was far from pretty. The Cubs benefitted from a pair of dropped third strikes in that 10th inning, including one where Blue Jays catcher Raffy Lopez plum forgot to throw to first, allowing Javy Baez to reach. Baez scored the game-winning run two batters later, sliding in ahead of the throw on Avila’s hit.

This time last year, the Cubs had a double-digit lead in the National League Central standings. After this sweep, you still need just one hand’s worth of fingers to add up their current division lead. This clearly isn’t last year. But Sunday’s win did have a little bit of that 2016 feel to it.

“The way the boys grinded at the end was awesome, definitely reminiscent of last year somewhat” starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “That’s where we’ve got to get to, we’ve just got to be who we are right now. And hopefully that’s the team we can be now, maybe even progress beyond that. But yeah that was huge. Kept on fighting, even late in that game, and found a way to win that one.”

That’s not to say, though, that 2017’s problems didn’t pop up. The Cubs were just 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position. They gathered just four hits the remainder of the game after Albert Almora Jr.’s bases-clearing double with nobody out in the third inning. The bullpen could hardly be described as lock-down, with Justin Wilson adding two more walks to his struggle of a portfolio since joining the Cubs, Wade Davis also walking two batters and Koji Uehara charged with the two runs in the 10th that put the Blue Jays on top.

But listen to Joe Maddon and look elsewhere.

Those “little things” that everyone is always so fond of telling you make the difference in championship seasons? They were there Sunday, chiefly in the form of Baez’s 10th-inning hustle, which first got him to first base on that dropped third strike and later allowed him to score from second on the game-winning base knock.

“Javy runs hard,” Maddon said. “For those who ever want to criticize this guy, that’s a ball in the dirt, about 15 feet away from the catcher, the catcher just blanked out on it. If Javy does not run hard right there, it’s a different result. He ran hard, and that’s why he was safe because by the time Lopez figured it out, he had already beaten it to first base.

“All those little diminutae like that, that’s the difference between winning and losing. Everybody’s going to look at Alex’s hit. Great. It was a big moment. But Javy striking out and not just sulking, runs to first base.

“This is the nuance of the game,” Maddon continued, moving on to the lead Baez got at second base ahead of Avila’s hit. “Guys that get good (secondary leads). The way I’ve always described that in spring training when you have your base-running meeting is that you’re being a great teammates when you get a good secondary lead because it leads to moments like that. … You’re being a great teammate when you understand the importance of getting good secondary leads.”

Maybe the spark that’s been so intensely looked for all season isn’t one singular highlight-reel win but a collection of plays over the course of a few games. All three of these wins against the Blue Jays were one-run victories. Little things make the difference in such tight games. They make the difference in such tight division races, too.

One game and one sweep against a last-place team gets the Cubs nowhere close to out of the woods. A playoff spot is hardly a certainty in such a closely contested Central. And for as potentially momentum-building as this weekend series might have seemed, remember the Blue Jays are a last-place team. The Cincinnati Reds, both the team the Cubs played prior to the Blue Jays and the team they’ll play next, and the Philadelphia Phillies, the second stop on next week’s road trip, are also last-place teams.

The Cubs should be winning these games. You could just as easily argue that Sunday’s game was a troubling sign. Why should the Cubs need two dropped third strikes in the 10th inning to get them a win against a last-place team? Valid question.

But if you heard the racket coming out of the Cubs’ celebration room, you might be convinced otherwise.

Is momentum real? To this point, it hasn’t been for the 2017 Cubs. But with the schedule at an easy point, maybe it becomes real soon. They just have to make it.

“We want to get on a good roll,” Almora said. “This series is great, it’s a great start. We’ve been playing well since the All-Star break, so we feel really good as a team. Pitchers coming together, offense coming together. It’s great.”

“A really good team, once you’ve won the series with one left, c’mon. This is when you really want to make some hay at that point, you just don’t want to concede anything,” Maddon said. “Getting three out of three makes a difference moving forward.”

Welcome to Chicago: Rene Rivera thrown into the fire on his first day in Cubs' pennant race

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USA TODAY

Welcome to Chicago: Rene Rivera thrown into the fire on his first day in Cubs' pennant race

Welcome to Chicago, Rene. Now grab your catcher’s gear and get out there.

Rene Rivera arrived at Wrigley Field for the first time as a Cub on Sunday, instantly learning that he was in the starting lineup for the final game of this weekend’s series finale against the Toronto Blue Jays. He’ll be catching a guy that was a Cy Young finalist last season. He’s smack dab in the middle of a pennant race as the defending world champs try to beat out the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals for a playoff spot.

A far cry from when he woke up the day before as a New York Met.

“The Mets, we knew they were going to do some moves there. I wasn’t surprised,” Rivera said Sunday. “Maybe the timing was surprising a bit.

“I’m here. I’ll play whenever I’m in the lineup. If not, I will cheer for my time. I’m happy to do any job, like I’ve been doing the last couple years. I’ll be enjoying my time, hopefully helping the team win in any way I can.”

Rivera has been playing big league ball since 2009, and the Cubs are his sixth major league team. He’s known for his defense and his ability to help out his pitchers, and he’s got eight homers already this season. The Cubs are happy to have him — and his veteran experience — as the time of year becomes increasingly more important.

And Rivera is happy to be here, too. Of course going from the Mets, 19 games out of first place in the National League East, to the first-place Cubs is a nice improvement in situation. But this is also the team his grandfather loved to watch. Rivera shared memories of his grandfather turning on the Cubs, hearing Harry Caray and Steve Stone and cheering on Sammy Sosa back in Puerto Rico.

“I was a kid, I think I was in middle school, maybe later than that. He used to watch the Cubs games down in Puerto Rico. I used to live with him,” Rivera said. “He loved Harry Caray and Steve Stone. I grew up watching the Cubs, so it’s an honor for me to be here. A team he loved so much and now I play for them.”

Time will tell how big a role Rivera will play in this battle for the NL Central crown. He’s essentially a third-string catcher, though that could take a long time to become official, depending on how long Willson Contreras remains on the disabled list.

So with Contreras, who when he went down was the Cubs’ hottest hitter, on the shelf, the team’s catching tandem is Alex Avila and Rivera, both added to this roster within the last few weeks.

While much of the Cubs’ starting staff is rolling right now — Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and even John Lackey have been strong over the past month or more — how will having two new catchers calling games affect the results?

Manager Joe Maddon said the fact that Avila and Rivera have been around — they have a combined 1,281 major league games under their belts — makes the transition a lot easier for everyone involved.

“The veteran part of it really permits acceptance more easily. But still there’s that learning curve involved with it. The other day when (Mike) Montgomery came in, I went over to Alex and explained Montgomery to Alex in detail as much as I could: what his better pitches are, what he does well in different situations, counts, all that. There’s no way Alex could know all that. I know that (Mike Borzello) and everybody have prepped him going into the moment, but he still can’t know all of that.

“The little nuance is going to take a couple times out there, whether it’s in the actual games, catching them in bullpens or just talking to them. That’s the disconnect. But the cache built up being a veteran player, being a very good veteran player with great reputations, both Alex and Rene, that definitely helps their cause.

“I talked to Rene, and he was pretty confident that he’s going to be fine with this whole thing. He’s been around a bit, it’s not his first rodeo. He's very comfortable already, I can just tell that conversationally.”

Rivera said he’s going to work with the other catchers already here to help get the lay of the land.

“When you’re a catcher, the biggest challenge is knowing your pitching staff,” he said. “And that’s one thing that I’m going to work hard at, getting to know everybody, getting the trust of everybody and go from there.

“Willson’s been here, he knows the pitching staff. And Alex has been here for a little bit. We’ll talk about it, try to find the comfort zone, try to call a good game.”

Well, his first crack at it couldn’t have come any quicker.