Cubs will see what theyre made of against Halladay, Phillies


Cubs will see what theyre made of against Halladay, Phillies

A Cubs team looking for any kind of offensive spark now gets the best pitcher on the planet.

The Cubs knew it was coming, a brutal early schedule filled with teams expecting to play deep into October.

It happens to be two-time Cy Young award winner Roy Halladay and the Phillies on Friday night, in front of what should be another sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park.

But it started Opening Day against Stephen Strasburg, a run of high-end pitching that helps explain why the Cubs are 6-13: Gio Gonzalez, Shaun Marcum, Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Mark Buehrle and Adam Wainwright (twice).

The Cubs will miss aces Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee whos on the disabled list with a strained left oblique during this four-game series. Franchise players Ryan Howard (torn Achilles) and Chase Utley (knee) are also on the DL.

Dale Sveum will crunch the numbers and try to manipulate the matchups. But the Cubs manager can only do so much against the Phillies (9-10 with a 2.88 team ERA).

Its going to be tough to score runs and put things together, Sveum said. Thats why theyve got one of the best pitching staffs over the last few years.

Hopefully, getting into more of a hitters park we can hit some home runs and you got to do that against those kind of pitchers, because its just hard to string hits together. They dont walk anybody either.

Over the winter, the Cubs consciously avoided adding a proven big bat to their lineup, and theyre paying for it now. Theyve scored more than four runs only four times this season and only once in their last 11 games.

The Cubs woke up on Thursday last in the National League with seven home runs (and four were hit by Bryan LaHair). They were next-to-last in slugging percentage (.333). They are hitting .211 with runners in scoring position.

We knew the schedule was going to be tough, Sveum said. But, hey, thats Major League Baseball. A lot of teams have really good starting pitching now. Thats part of the game and you got to find a way to scratch runs out and have good at-bats and get leads.

Yes, these are small sample sizes. But combined, Geovany Soto and Ian Stewart went 2-for-34 on the homestand that ended Wednesday. Sotos hitting .140 with one RBI so far this season, while Stewarts at .175.

Alfonso Soriano seems to have a better approach, and has driven in 10 runs, but hes stuck on one extra-base hit this month.

Thats the last thing on my mind losing confidence, Soriano said. I have 11 years in this game. Ive played this game consistently. I know what I can do. We play 162 games. Sometimes you have a bad week, two weeks, but its a six-month (deal). The season isnt over.

The seasons first six weeks will be telling for Cubs management, because 21 of their first 39 games are against the Phillies, Cardinals and Brewers, three playoffs teams in 2011.

This road trip continues to Cincinnati, where the Reds are a trendy pick to win the division. The Cubs will return to Wrigley Field on May 4 for a homestand against the Dodgers and Braves, who combined won 171 games last season.

You want that, utility man Jeff Baker said. If you can play well against those teams and you can do some damage, you can get the confidence going. You can get the city behind you.

If you go out there and youre playing some teams that didnt have a great year last year and you beat em, then everyone says youre supposed to beat em.

As players, you want to go out there and play against those tough teams. For us, if its early, so be it. Well take our chances and roll with it.

So this could be revealing. Tony Campana who has five hits and four stolen bases in five games will try to maximize his opportunity after the Marlon Byrd trade and give the Cubs a different dimension.

Randy Wells, who gets the ball on Saturday, will try to force the issue and grab a spot in the rotation. You can pretty much go up and down the roster, because new president Theo Epstein is taking this year to assess the entire organization.

Starting with Halladay (3-1, 1.50 ERA), the Cubs will begin to find out what theyre made of in South Philly.

The new Cubs are out to write their own history

The new Cubs are out to write their own history

The Cubs felt so nervous just before a 7:09 first pitch on Saturday night that Javier Baez found the camera looking into the home dugout, waved with a big smile and started pumping his fist, hamming it up for the video board as Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” blasted through the Wrigley Field sound system.

The Cubs then ran out onto the field and systematically destroyed the Los Angeles Dodgers, ending this National League Championship Series in six games with a 5-0 win that featured almost no tension or suspense, obliterating for now the narrative around this franchise.

The old stadium still kept shaking, from Kris Bryant’s RBI single in the first inning to the clapping to Anthony Rizzo’s “Intoxicated” walk-up music to a standing ovation for Kyle Hendricks, who outpitched the supposed best pitcher on the planet in Clayton Kershaw.

“We don’t care about history,” Bryant said. “This is a completely different team, different people all around. It doesn’t matter. This is a new Chicago Cubs team. And we are certainly a very confident group.”

Sure, 1908 will hover over the entire World Series, which begins Tuesday night against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. But this is the new normal for Bryant, who within two years has won 200 games, four playoff rounds, a Rookie of the Year award and probably MVP hardware.

This team isn’t going away, either. With a chance to win the pennant for the first time since the Truman administration, the Cubs started two rookies who began this season at Triple-A Iowa – catcher Willson Contreras and outfielder Albert Almora Jr. – in a lineup that featured Bryant (24), Rizzo (27), Baez (23), Addison Russell (22) and Hendricks (26).

Contreras caught a shutout and posed for a moment at home plate watching his line-drive homer off Kershaw fly into the left-field bleachers in the fourth inning. Rizzo – who had looked overmatched earlier in the playoffs – became the first left-handed hitter to homer off Kershaw during this calendar year.

And when Rizzo tried to wave off Baez for the ball Josh Reddick popped up to the right side of the infield in the fifth inning, Baez cut right in front of Rizzo to catch it, continuing a long-running gag among the Cubs infielders.

“I don’t think they’re oblivious, because that’s sort of insulting in some ways,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “They know the history. I just don’t think they care. They think they’re a good team and they love to play. And we have some guys that definitely shine on the big stage.”

Baez – a September call-up last year who couldn’t get an everyday spot during the regular season – showed off his bat speed and unbelievable defensive instincts and emerged as the NLCS co-MVP along with big-game pitcher Jon Lester. Sold on the idea of all this young talent someday coming together, Lester joined a last-place team after the 2014 season, taking a leap of faith, even at $155 million.

“I don’t feel like there’s pressure at all in our clubhouse,” said Almora, the first player Theo Epstein’s front office drafted here in 2012. “There’s just hunger and excitement and desire to win.

“None of us were around in 1945…so we just got to write our own history.”

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This is what the Cubs have been talking about since the New York Mets swept them out of last year’s NLCS, since the Ricketts family invested almost $290 million more in free agents, since unconventional manager Joe Maddon made “Embrace The Target” the theme of spring training.

Whatever your preconceived notions of the old Cubs are, know that this group has an amazing sense of balance. They are youthful and experienced. They play as a team and with individual flair. They have style and get dirty. They are analytical and sort of oblivious. They are loose and intense. And the ending hasn’t been written yet.

“We still got a long ways to go,” Lester said. “We’ll enjoy tonight – don’t get me wrong – we’ll have a celebration. We’ll have a good time. We’ll smile, we’ll hug each other, probably get drunk a little bit…but we got some work to do.”

Kyle Hendricks outduels Clayton Kershaw and delivers legendary performance that puts Cubs in World Series

Kyle Hendricks outduels Clayton Kershaw and delivers legendary performance that puts Cubs in World Series

John Hendricks sent a text message to his son at 11:24 a.m. on Saturday: “Good luck tonight!! Remember, great mechanics and preparation will prevail. Just let it go!!” It ended with three emoji: a smiley face with sunglasses, the thumbs-up sign and a flexed biceps.

The Cubs have bonded fathers and sons for generations, and Hendricks immediately understood what it meant for his boy when the Cubs traded Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers minutes before the deadline on July 31, 2012, telling Kyle: “You win in this city, you will be a legend. There is no doubt about it. This is the greatest sports town in the United States.”

This is the intoxicating lure of the Cubs. It didn’t matter that Kyle had been an eighth-round pick out of Dartmouth College, and hadn’t yet finished his first full season in professional baseball, and would be joining an organization enduring a 101-loss season, the third of five straight fifth-place finishes.

Kyle’s low-key personality will never get him confused with an ’85 Bear, but he delivered a legendary performance in Game 6, outpitching Clayton Kershaw at the end of this National League Championship Series and leading the Cubs to the World Series for the first time in 71 years.

Five outs away from the pennant, a raucous crowd of 42,386 at Wrigley Field actually booed star manager Joe Maddon when he walked out to the mound to take the ball from Kyle and bring in closer Aroldis Chapman. Kyle, the silent assassin, did briefly raise his hand to acknowledge the standing ovation before descending the dugout steps. 

After a 5-0 win, Kyle stood in roughly the same spot with Nike goggles on his head and finally looked a little rattled, his body shivering and teeth chattering in the cold, his Cubs gear soaked from the champagne-and-beer celebration.

“It’s always been an uphill climb for me, honestly,” Kyle said. “But that really has nothing to do with getting guys out. My focus from Day 1 – even when I was young, high school, college, all the way up until now – all it’s been is trying to make good pitches. 

“And as we moved up, you just saw that good pitches get good hitters out.” 

At a time when the game is obsessed with velocity and showing off for the radar gun, Kyle knows how to pitch, putting the ball where he wants when he wants, avoiding the hot zones that lead to trouble, mixing his changeups, fastballs and curveball in an unpredictable way that takes advantage of the team’s intricate scouting system and keeps hitters completely off-balance.

“Kyle didn’t even give them any air or any hope,” general manager Jed Hoyer said.

Amid the celebration, scouting/player-development chief Jason McLeod spotted Kyle’s dad and yelled at John: “You f------ called it!” John – who once worked in the Angels ticket office and as a golf pro in Southern California – had moved to Chicago two years ago to work for his good friend’s limo company and watch his son pitch at Wrigley Field. John had told McLeod that Kyle would one day help the Cubs win a championship.

“That was one of the best pitching performances I’ve ever seen,” McLeod said. “Ever.”

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The media framed Kyle as The Other Pitcher, even though he won the ERA title this season, with all the pregame buzz surrounding Kershaw, the three-time Cy Young Award winner and 2014 NL MVP. Except Kershaw gave up five runs and got knocked out after five innings, while Kyle only gave up two singles to the 23 batters he faced, finishing with six strikeouts against zero walks and looking like he had even more left in the tank at 88 pitches.

“It was incredible,” Ben Zobrist said. “That was the easiest postseason game we’ve had yet and it was the clincher to go to the World Series. 

“He’s just so good, so mature for his age. He just has a knack to put the ball where he needs to. He’s smart and he’s clutch. He deserves to win the Cy Young this year.”

Where Kershaw’s presence loomed over the entire playoffs, Kyle has always been underestimated, coming into this season as a fourth or fifth starter with something to prove, and even he didn’t see all this coming. But big-game pitchers can come in all shapes and sizes and don’t have to throw 97 mph. 

“He wants the ball,” John said. “Every big game – I don’t care if it was Little League or wherever – he wants the ball. Plain and simple, (he’ll) get the job done.”