Cubs keep tearing it down to build it back up

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Cubs keep tearing it down to build it back up

LOS ANGELES Two weeks ago, Jeff Baker and Reed Johnson dressed up as Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer for the Superheroes-themed road trip from St. Louis to Pittsburgh.

No one knows if the Cubs executives are powerful enough to actually build a World Series winner here. But theres no denying that their fingerprints are now all over the organization.

Baker certainly recognized Hoyers outfit blue polo shirt with white horizontal stripes and khaki pants when he found out he was traded to the Detroit Tigers on Sunday for two players to be named later.

The costumes got us, Baker said with a smile in a corner of the tight visiting clubhouse at Dodger Stadium.

This followed the deadline dealing for prospects that saw Johnson and Paul Maholm shipped to the Atlanta Braves, and Ryan Dempster and Geovany Soto traded to the Texas Rangers.

Once the Tigers claimed the veteran utility guy on waivers, it accelerated the process of promoting third baseman Josh Vitters and outfielder Brett Jackson from Triple-A Iowa, where Tony Campana will now play.

Theyre doing it the right way, Baker said. You kind of got to tear it down to build it back up.

Its that tough blend. Its a major market (and) it generates a lot of revenue. You just hope that the fans are going to be patient with em and some of these guys that are coming up and getting an opportunity here are going to be able to blossom.

Hoyer laughed off the costumes, which featured Johnson wearing a wig to replicate the general managers head of hair.

No ones going to do that again, Hoyer said.

But it did show how Baker and Johnson had the perfect outlook for playing inside the Wrigley Field fishbowl. Growing up, Baker lived all around the world as the son of a former U.S. Army colonel and West Point professor, and he easily moved throughout the clubhouse.

Baker and Johnson showed younger players how its done and helped build the team chemistry for a distraction-free zone. There will now be a leadership void.

Theres a reason that two contenders went out and traded for those guys, Hoyer said. Theyre both leaders. Theyre both great in the clubhouse and they both fill a really nice role on a contending team and well miss their presence in a lot of ways.

But given where we are in the standings and what were trying to do, its important to let those young guys play.

Baker was acquired from the Colorado Rockies in July 2009, or just as the cracks in the foundation were really beginning to show.

Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Marmol and Jeff Samardzija are now the only players left who experienced what it was like in 2008, when the Cubs won 97 games. So Baker wasnt really surprised to be saying his goodbyes.

When you see the direction theyre going here now, you knew that it was a possibility, Baker said. We made moves with Maholm, Reed, Demp and everybody. To be honest, I dont blame em. They got to go young, see what they got for the future.

At the same time, for me, I just made 21 games up in the standings, so Im definitely excited about that.

While Epstein and Hoyer are running things behind the scenes, theres no doubt who will be front and center for the next decade. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are now the faces of the franchise.

Its going to be Rizzs team, Castros team, Baker said. For those two, the leadership qualities are going to have to step up, and hopefully they can take it and run with it.

Preview: White Sox, Red Sox duel Tuesday night on CSN

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Preview: White Sox, Red Sox duel Tuesday night on CSN

The White Sox take on the Red Sox on Tuesday night, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins live from the South Side at 7 p.m. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on White Sox Postgame Live.

Tuesday's starting pitching matchup: Jose Quintana (3-1, 1.47 ERA) vs. Steven Wright (2-2, 1.37 ERA)

Click here for a game preview to make sure you're ready for the action.

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— Latest on the White Sox: All of the most recent news and notes.

— See what fans are talking about before, during and after the game with White Sox Pulse.

Relentless Cubs offense knocks out Gerrit Cole in win over Pirates

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Relentless Cubs offense knocks out Gerrit Cole in win over Pirates

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.

Because the Cubs want nothing to do with the randomness of another one-game playoff and can’t take anything for granted with 85 percent of the schedule still remaining.

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 Kyle Schwarber’s two-run homer off Cole flew out of PNC Park last October. Even with Schwarber recovering from season-ending knee surgery, the Cubs still roughed up Cole for six runs.

“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 is making his own comeback. Hammel (4-0, 1.24 ERA) gave up two runs across five innings before four relievers combined to shut down the Pirates (15-11) the rest of the night.

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 Joe Maddon’s “Minimalist Zany” road trip to Pittsburgh and a four-game series 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.”