Barney, Castro could be anchors for Cubs

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Barney, Castro could be anchors for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. Darwin Barney was talking about The Cubs Way long before Theo Epstein left Fenway Park.

Barney saw the big picture and listened to the plan outlined by the new Ricketts ownership group. He loved playing for Ryne Sandberg in the minors and thought a homegrown core could win big in Chicago.

They would bond by riding buses, playing cards and growing up together. Thats what Barney talked about with good friend Tyler Colvin, whos since been traded to the Colorado Rockies.

One part of this rebuilding phase will be seeing if Barney and Starlin Castro can anchor the middle infield for years to come. Ex-manager Mike Quade thought they could, which is why he seemed much harder on them and singled them out in the media, while usually giving a free pass to the veterans.

I dont look back on it that way, Barney said Thursday. You look back and you remember we had to get better. Someone telling you that is not a bad thing. So I dont look at it negatively at all.

On a July afternoon where the temperature hovered near 100 degrees, Quade sounded out of touch when he blasted Castro and Barney (play with some freaking intensity) for letting a pop-up drop between themin the first inningof a 9-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.

I look back at this whole game and look at that play, Quade said that day in the interview room. The suns been in the same damn spot for however long Wrigley Fields been here.

Its no surprise that Barney whos polished and self-aware and speaks in full paragraphs would take the high road. He has won titles everywhere hes been Little League, high school and Oregon State University, where future Boston Red Sox star Jacoby Ellsbury noticed his freshman teammate immediately emerge as a leader.

Barney is 26 years old and bulked up to around 190 pounds this winter, regaining the weight he lost during spring training and across a long, draining season in which he hit .306 before the All-Star break, and .238 after.

You got one shot, he said. You got one window in this game and my thought was: Why not now?

The extra 20 pounds or so made an impression on new manager Dale Sveum, who said Barneys a lot stronger and a lot quicker than I thought.

Hes one of those ultimate professionals thats going to try to make himself a better player every day, and thats what you want on a team, Sveum said.

Can Barney be an everyday second baseman for an entire season?

Hes put himself in (position), Sveum said. (With) the weight and muscle hes put on, I think he realized the grind of it last year, how to handle it a bit differently, especially (mentally) when everythings sped up because its the big leagues. It takes a lot more out of your body than a minor-league game (where) there are 5,000 people in the stands instead of 35,000.

Barney had played shortstop almost his entire life, but was blocked by Castro, so he essentially learned how to play second base at the major-league level. An All-Star shortstop and a steady second baseman both under club control and in their pre-prime years could be building blocks for Epsteins front office.

Starlin and I have good communication, Barney said. Were good buddies and we enjoy playing together. Hes one of the most talented guys Ive ever been around. (We) know how last year shaped up and it was a tough year all around. Were excited to have a clean slate.

Joe Maddon vents frustrations with tensions already rising in Cubs vs. Pirates

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Joe Maddon vents frustrations with tensions already rising in Cubs vs. Pirates

PITTSBURGH — “Still smells like champagne,” said one wise guy walking through the visiting clubhouse at PNC Park late Monday night.

The Cubs had just beaten the Pittsburgh Pirates, with some of the same raw emotions from last year’s wild-card win resurfacing during a 7-2 win in early May. There’s that much at stake in the National League Central that maybe we shouldn’t spend so much time fixating on the St. Louis Cardinals.

The eye-for-an-eye moment came in the seventh inning, with Pittsburgh reliever Kyle Lobstein drilling Ben Zobrist with his first pitch. Home plate umpire Laz Diaz had already watched Cubs starter Jason Hammel hit Starling Marte with a pitch in the sixth inning and issued a warning to both benches.

Manager Joe Maddon yelled at Lobstein and Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli screamed at the visiting dugout, and it felt like October all over again.

“I was able to vent a little bit,” Maddon said. “It’s always fun to vent, isn’t it? I mean, we’ve all been there. You have to vent on occasion. That’s the worst thing you could possibly do for your health long-term — to hold that stuff in. I want to get it out.”

Maddon spent part of his pregame media session talking up Cervelli, calling him a “good dude” who worked out at his wife’s boxing gym in Tampa, Fla., during the offseason: “He came to my Gasparilla party, dressed as a pirate of all things.”

“It’s just a matter of judging intentions,” said Zobrist, who’s new to this emerging rivalry after earning a World Series ring with the Kansas City Royals last year. “As a team, you’re trying to think: ‘Well, was that intentional? Was it not?’ But I think in that situation it was pretty clear.

“Our whole team’s going to stick up for each other. Obviously, Joe took exception to it. I think a lot of other guys did, too. I’ve been around long enough — I’ve been hit before. I took my base and scored a run. That’s the way I look at it.”

Maddon had even more fun with the Pirates and the replay system in the seventh inning after Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle erased a double play with a successful challenge at first base. Maddon responded by using Major League Baseball’s new takeout rule to challenge Jordy Mercer’s slide into second base.

“I had no clue what I was doing,” Maddon said. “I just knew I could challenge. At that particular juncture, why not? Give it a roll. Bottom of the seventh inning, who knows what they’re going to think?”

Maddon kept rolling and filibustering during his postgame news conference, saying how much he loved the Pirates’ uniforms as a kid growing up in Pennsylvania and comparing this rivalry to his high-school quarterback days and Hazleton vs. West Hazleton.

“People in Pittsburgh can enjoy that,” Maddon said. “They can identify with ‘Friday Night Lights,’ ‘All the Right Moves,’ all of the above. I’m being this way specifically so I don’t comment on the hit by batter.”

Cubs top Pirates to stay baseball's best, but Theo Epstein won't stop making moves

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Cubs top Pirates to stay baseball's best, but Theo Epstein won't stop making moves

PITTSBURGH — Relentless is the word the Cubs keep using to describe a lineup that knocked out Gerrit Cole on Monday night with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth inning and the Pittsburgh Pirates already trailing by two runs at PNC Park.

Relentless could also be a label for Theo Epstein’s front office, even after spending almost $290 million on free agents and even with an 18-6 record that’s the best in baseball following a 7-2 win over the Pirates.

The Cubs want nothing to do with the randomness of another elimination game and can’t take anything for granted with 85 percent of the schedule still remaining. They’ve already lost playoff hero Kyle Schwarber for the season, and the outfield picture is clouded with Jason Heyward dealing with a sore right wrist since early April and Matt Szczur scheduled to get an MRI on his right hamstring on Tuesday morning.

Not that Epstein needed a reminder, but the president of baseball operations flashed back to last year’s National League wild-card game when he flew into Pittsburgh, checked into the team’s downtown hotel across the Roberto Clemente Bridge and went running along the Allegheny River.

From his hotel room, Epstein could sort of see where Schwarber’s two-run homer off Cole flew out of PNC Park last October, giving this franchise a runaway sense of momentum.

“We’ve played really well,” Epstein said, “but I don’t think we’ve completely locked in yet or clicked in all facets of the game. Our pitching staff’s really been carrying us. It’s been the most consistent part of our team yet. As it warms up here, I think the bats will get going and they’ll probably carry us for a while.

“But as far as needs that we might have, or ways that we can get better, we’re always assessing that. I think there’s lots of different ways we could potentially improve the club before the end of the season.”

The Cubs will watch Tim Lincecum’s upcoming showcase in Arizona because they always check in on potential impact players at that level. Lincecum — a two-time Cy Young Award winner who helped the San Francisco Giants win three World Series titles — is making a comeback after hip surgery.

While the Cubs should have big-picture concerns about their rotation and a farm system that hasn’t developed the arms yet, Jason Hammel (4-0, 1.24 ERA) is making his own comeback.

Even if manager Joe Maddon doesn’t seem to completely trust Hammel, who gave up two runs across five innings and got pulled after throwing 89 pitches and accidentally hitting Starling Marte to lead off the sixth. Four different relievers combined to shut down the Pirates (15-11) the rest of the night.

Epstein — who is in the fifth and final year of his contract and used “status quo” to describe his extension talks with chairman Tom Ricketts — will have the position-player prospects to bundle if the Cubs do need a frontline pitcher this summer. A franchise-record payroll in the neighborhood of $150 million was also projected to have some room for in-season additions.

After beating up on the division’s have-nots and going 8-1 against the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers, the Cubs should have a better idea of where they stand after Maddon’s “Minimalist Zany” road trip to Pittsburgh and a four-game showdown against the Washington Nationals at Wrigley Field.

“There’s always the threat of somehow playing to the level of your competition in a negative way,” Maddon said. “I’m not denigrating any team that we’ve played to this point. That is not my point. But if you play teams with less-than (.500) records and maybe they’re not playing as well, you don’t turn that dimmer switch up to the full velocity. But when you’re playing really good teams, I think that naturally brings out the best in you.”

Jake Arrieta is a wild card in budding Cubs-Pirates rivalry

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Jake Arrieta is a wild card in budding Cubs-Pirates rivalry

PITTSBURGH — Jake Arrieta felt so locked in, so prepared for the biggest start of his life that he trolled the Pittsburgh Pirates on Twitter, telling their fans that the blackout atmosphere at PNC Park wouldn’t matter.

The Cubs will never forget that epic performance during last year’s National League wild-card game, how Arrieta walked the walk in a complete-game shutout. His young son, Cooper, even helped pour champagne into his mouth during that wild postgame celebration, creating another memorable snapshot for a team with attitude.

Judging by the F-bombs dropped during Monday’s 7-2 win over the Pirates, the Cubs could be in for more fireworks. Even during the first week of May while the Penguins are still alive in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Arrieta’s starts have already become must-see TV, and the Pirates will get another up-close look on Tuesday night at this beautiful waterfront ballpark.

“Their fans are good,” Arrieta said. “They’re passionate about their team and their guys, so it’s something that I enjoy. I don’t expect them to be my biggest fan — or a fan of me at all — but that’s the nature of fans and the fans that really support their team.

“That’s the whole point of social media — to interact. Sometimes it’s well received. Sometimes it’s not. But that was the intention there — to fire people up — and I think that’s exactly what I did.”

Within the pandemonium of that wild-card game, the Cubs and Pirates cleared their benches after reliever Tony Watson’s first pitch to Arrieta drilled him with two outs in the seventh inning. Pittsburgh’s Sean Rodriguez got ejected, flipped out and started boxing with a Gatorade cooler in the dugout. Arrieta responded coolly by stealing second base.

Arrieta looked a little drained during the next two rounds of the playoffs, beating the St. Louis Cardinals (while seeming to lose some of his air of invincibility) before the New York Mets swept the Cubs out of the NLCS.

There hasn’t been any sort of hangover for Arrieta, the first NL Pitcher of the Month for three consecutive months after a dominant April that saw him go 5-0 with a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds and only two runs allowed across 36 innings. As manager Joe Maddon likes to say, the reigning Cy Young Award winner is embracing the target.

“When you’re at the top of your game, when you’re one of the teams to beat, it’s just something that comes with the territory,” Arrieta said.

Arrieta’s meticulous routine and laser focus mean he doesn’t experience a flood of special memories as soon as he sees the bridges, the black and gold and the Pittsburgh skyline. Or at least he won’t admit that now.

“Well, when you bring it up, yeah,” Arrieta said. “That was a neat experience, something that was huge for us as a team and for the organization. But it was short-lived.

“We moved on and had to play the Cardinals and the Mets, and our season was cut a little bit short. But we’re in a better spot now this early in the season. We like where we are.”

That would be in first place in the Central, with a four-game lead over the Pirates and the best record in baseball (18-6) and no interest in dealing with the wild card’s short fuse.

“When you play 162, and then you have to fight it out in one game to move on or go home, it’s a situation that nobody really wants to be in,” Arrieta said. “The goal is obviously to win the division. And getting off to a hot start is the way you go about doing that. We’re where we intended to be at this point in the season.”