Cubs familiar with late bloomers

744208.png

Cubs familiar with late bloomers

The Cubs have completed 19 games thus far; a decent chunk of the season...and Bryan LaHair has 57.1 percent of the team's home runs.

LaHair, 29, has all of a half of a season's worth of a game under his Major League belt. The feeling around Wrigleyville is that he's just a placeholder until highly-touted prospect Anthony Rizzo is ready to take the next step. Rizzo's tearing up the minors; with 7 HR and 21 RBI in 20 games at Iowa.

LaHair knows Iowa. Curiously, the Iowa Cubs play in the Pacific Coast League; and LaHair took home 2011 PCL MVP honors with a stunning season of 38 HR, 109 RBI and a .331 BA. But he's 29.

Is it inconceivable for a late bloomer to burst onto the scene and have a productive career?

Ask Hank Sauer.

The man referred to as "The Mayor of Wrigley Field" was a fan favorite at the Friendly Confines for several years, and it took him a long time to get there.

Born in the Pittsburgh area in 1917, he finished high school in 1935 and went to work to help support his family, playing baseball on the weekends. Discovered on a sandlot by a Yankees scout, he spent 1937-38 at Butler of the Penn State Association. He also figured he was a bit old for his level, so he listed himself as two years younger than he really was...and played his entire career with this secret until after his retirement.

He was drafted by the Reds organization prior to the 1939 season, which he spent at Akron, then moved on to Birmingham for the next two seasons, earning a cup of coffee with the big-league team in Cincinnati in both 1941 and 1942. 1943 was spent entirely in Syracuse; Reds skipper Bill McKechnie doubting his defensive ability.

Next came World War II; 1944 and most of 1945 were spent serving in the Coast Guard. He finished September 1945 with the Reds and looked for a starting spot the next season, but was overlooked, and back to Syracuse he went for 1946 and 1947 as well.

After posting solid numbers in the minors from year-to-year, usually in the teens in home run output before hitting 21 in 1946, it was 1947 when Sauer broke out. Syracuse Chiefs manager Jewel Ens recommended a heavier bat, and the results turned heads. Sauer hit .336 with 50 homers and 141 RBI, earning him recognition as The Sporting News Minor League player of the year.

Sauer arrived in the Majors for good as a 31-year-old in 1948. He paced the Reds with 35 homers, finishing with more than any two teammates combined. A slow start in 1949, hitting .237 with only 4 homers through 41 games raised doubts, and the Reds decided to pull the trigger, dispatching the 6-foot-4 slugger to the Cubs with Frank Baumholtz in exchange for Peanuts Lowrey and Harry Walker. Lowrey and Walker gave the Reds a combined 4 HR in 266 games after the trade, while Sauer got back to business at Wrigley Field, cranking out 27 longballs in 96 games in 1949 alone.

It didn't stop. For an encore in 1950, Sauer slugged 32 homers, followed by 30 more in 1951. The Wrigley faithful showered left field with pouches of tobacco to show their appreciation.

In 1952, at age 35, he kicked it up a notch, leading the Majors with 121 runs knocked in and tying for the Major League lead (with Ralph Kiner) with 37 HR. The Cubs were a fifth place team at 77-77, but voters couldn't help but make Sauer the first player from a second division team (bottom half of the standings in the 8-team NL) to win MVP.

A succession of broken fingers and finally a broken hand limited Sauer to 108 games and 19 bombs in 1953, but once again he rebounded in a major way with a career-high 41 home runs in '54.

After a trade to the Cardinals and subsequent release, Sauer's last hurrah came in 1957, when the 40-year old slugger won the Comeback Player of the Year award with 26 homers and a .508 slugging percentage. He played his last game in 1959 before enjoying a long career as a scout.

In all, he hit 281 of his 288 career homers (97.6 percent) past the age of 30. At the time of his retirement, only Babe Ruth (430) had hit more homers beyond that age.

The story of Hank Sauer is encouraging to those of us who got a late start at something they love. It makes me think of getting back in the classroom at age 28...doing hard work for free at various internships just to get my name out there.

I didn't get my first job in the media until age 29, and nearly three years later, I'm still working as hard as I can, still feeling the thrill just to have the platform I do. It would be nice if the Cubs can provide the same opportunity to LaHair.

Sources:
Hank Sauer - (SABR BioProject) - by Jim Sargent
baseball-reference.com
We Played the Game - edited by Danny Peary
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

After locking up homefield advantage, Cubs flummoxed by Cardinals in blowout loss

After locking up homefield advantage, Cubs flummoxed by Cardinals in blowout loss

At the end of the day, a loss means essentially nothing for the Cubs right now.

But the Cubs also certainly don't want to hand games to their division rival as the St. Louis Cardinals make a run at the National League wild card spots.

After the Cubs clinched homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs with the Washington Nationals' loss Friday night, they had no answer for the Cardinals in a 10-4 loss in front of 40,785 fans at Wrigley Field Saturday afternoon on national TV.

A few disturbing trends popped their heads above ground for the Cubs again Saturday, including the offense's struggles at manufacturing runs, Jason Hammel getting shelled and some bullpen woes.

The Cubs had no trouble putting runners on base against Cardinals phenom Alex Reyes, but they had a tough time plating those guys, cashing in only once with a runner on third base in six tries over the first four innings.

In two of those spots, a Cubs hitter came up with only one out, but failed to bring the run home as Addison Russell struck out in the first inning and Kris Bryant popped out to shallow left in the second.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your NL Central champions gear right here]

Hammel recorded only seven outs and was tagged for six runs on six hits and a walk, watching his season ERA rise nearly 30 points to 3.83. The veteran right-hander fell to 15-10 as he attempts to make a push for one of the Cubs' final postseason roster spots.

"Honestly, I would love to be a part of [the playoff roster], as the rest of the guys on the team would love to," Hammel said. "I know there's only a certain amount of spots, so if I'm handed the ball, I'll be ready. That's the way I'm gonna view it.

"Obviously you wanna be a part of something special like that, but I think everybody here has already been a part of something special to get to this point. We're all very proud. We still got eight regular season ballgames left to build some momentum. Whether I'm on the roster or not, I'm still gonna enjoy it."

Hammel was also clearly on the wrong end of some bad luck Saturday, as the four runs he allowed in the first came via a check swing and a couple hits just out of the reach of his fielders. 

Joe Maddon won't put too much stock into one rough start in late September.

"I'm not too worried about a good or bad outing right now. I'm not," he said. "Pretty much, you know who the guy is. You know if the guy's go this stuff going on or if he doesn't. ... The greater body of work matters."

Setup man Hector Rondon struggled in his appearance, needing 26 pitches to notch just one out, giving up three runs on three hits and a walk before handing the ball off to Felix Pena.

Of course, it's also just one game and one loss for a team with 98 victories and hopes of the World Series.

Rondon had been nearly unhittable since returning from the disabled list two weeks ago and the Cubs offense had been efficient and relentless in the past four games after Maddon's meeting with the hitters earlier in the week.

Maddon also used the blowout to get regulars like Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Russell out of the lineup to help keep them fresh for October.

After the game, Maddon chose to look on the bright side.

"Our starter had a tough day today; that's it. Otherwise we did some nice things," he said, referencing the solid offensive days from Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist. "We had chances to score runs - runners on third, less than two outs - and we didn't fulfill that.

"We made their starter throw 115 pitches in five innings; I think that's a positive."

The Cubs will close out their season series with the Cardinals on another nationally-televised showdown Sunday night between Jon Lester and St. Louis ace Carlos Martinez.

Cubs: Miguel Montero plays 'psychologist' to get the most out of Jake Arrieta

Cubs: Miguel Montero plays 'psychologist' to get the most out of Jake Arrieta

Lost amid the craziness of Friday's game and David Ross' emotional sendoff was Miguel Montero locking up a spot on the Cubs' postseason roster.

It's not official, of course. 

The Cubs don't have to get their National League Division Series 25-man roster until the morning of Oct. 7, Game 1.

But Montero proved his value to the Cubs, even in an 0-for-3 effort offensively.

The veteran catcher has struggled to find consistency at the plate this season, but his work behind the plate has proven invaluable, especially with reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta.

Montero helped get Arrieta in rhythm Friday for a dominant performance - 10 strikeouts across seven shutout innings.

It was the first time the two had worked together in a battery since Aug. 12, with Willson Contreras catching Arrieta five times and Ross behind the dish once in that span.

"Quite frankly, I'm not gonna lie - I wanted to see that," Cubs manager Joe Maddon admitted after Friday's game. "Miggy did a great job with him. They were outstanding together."

The proof is in the numbers, too.

With Contreras over those five starts, Arrieta has posted a 4.50 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, averaging 6.4 innings per outing.

In the last six starts with Montero behind the plate, Arrieta has a 1.99 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and is averaging 6.78 innings per outing.

Of course, Montero was also Arrieta's primary catcher for the pitcher's other-worldly run to close out last season.

Maddon believes there's a comfort level there between the two and with the Cubs essentially just biding time until the postseason, now was the time to make a change and see how they worked together again instead of worrying about getting Contreras more experience.

If Arrieta can find consistency pitching at that level, it absolutely gives the Cubs a new look alongside 2016 Cy Young contenders Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks.

"We work well together," Arrieta said. "I work well with Willson and with Rossy, but Miggy and I have worked together for quite a bit of time now throughout the last couple years. He knows the way my stuff works. 

"He has little nuances, little mannerisms that he makes behind the plate that can help me get back on track from time to time and it's nice to have a guy like that who can really pick things out visually and relay a message to me by something small that helps me get back in line."

[SHOP CUBS: Get your NL Central champions gear right here]

Montero admitted he wasn't even focusing on his at-bats throughout Friday's game, instead putting his full attention on getting Arrieta back on track.

It may only be one outing, but it worked, and Montero deserves credit for getting Arrieta to settle down, stop trying to be too perfect and just unleash his ace stuff.

"We have to be a psychologist. That's our job as a catcher," Montero said. "People don't realize that. People think the catcher needs to throw and hit. No, we need to be a psychologist.

"We need to know who we got out on the mound, how to talk to him, how to go about the business, how to explain to him how to do things. I like psychology a lot and he's one of the guys who you need to push him a little bit harder, and that's me.

"I'm gonna push a guy to the limits, 'cause I know I can get a lot more from him. I know who I can get a lot more from."

Maddon didn't tip his hand about who will pair up with Arrieta next start, but the Cubs don't have to make that decision right now. 

However, with a veteran catcher like Montero around who knows how to call a game and has been heralded as one of the best pitch-framers in baseball during his prime, it'd be hard to leave him off the postseason roster.

In October, the Cubs will place a premium on guys who have been there before and can work in rhythm with a veteran-laden pitching staff and in those areas, Montero has a leg up on rookie Contreras.

Montero handled his reduction in playing time gracefully when Contreras was promoted to the big leagues over the summer, but now, the 33-year-old looks to be reemerging for the Cubs as the "big boy" games loom.

"I don't know if I'm gonna catch [Arrieta] again, but I hope he keeps that momentum going, which I think is a good confidence-builder right there," Montero said. "... My main goal [Friday] was just Jake and just to get him out there and get him to throw a good game and build his confidence again.

"I went 0-for-3, but I don't care. I accomplished my goal - which was to get him to throw a good game and he did."