Culture shock: Epstein won't obsess over Yankees anymore

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Culture shock: Epstein won't obsess over Yankees anymore

There was a golf cart parked outside the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium. The years the Cardinals had won the World Series were painted onto the back 26, 31, 34, all the way to 06 and filled up the entire bumper.

The rumor was that the cart was positioned like that only when the Cubs were in town, so that the players would see it each time they showed up for work (as if theyd bother to take off their sunglasses, turn off their cell phones and notice). Thats St. Louis.

Theo Epstein grew up rooting for the Red Sox, and went to Brookline High School, which sits about two miles from Fenway Park. He was braced for the Boston media, and understood how much the fans there hated the Yankees.

Cubs-Cardinals wont generate as much heat as Yankees-Red Sox. Fighting George Steinbrenners Evil Empire is a bigger national story. But theres no doubt that Epstein will have to close the gap on the Cardinals.

Because while the Cubs just spent nine days haggling with the Red Sox over two prospects as compensation to get an executive with two championship rings the Cardinals were chasing their 11th World Series title.

Does Epstein really have an idea of what hes getting himself into? The answers will start coming Tuesday, when hes introduced as the new president of baseball operations at Clark and Addison.

The Red Sox viewed almost everything through the Yankees prism. The Cubs arent as obsessed with the Cardinals, but Epstein can learn something about this group by how they responded against their biggest rival.

Just ask Carlos Zambrano, minutes after Carlos Marmol blew the save on June 5 in St. Louis: We played like a Triple-A team. This is embarrassing. Embarrassing for the team, for the owners. Embarrassing for the fans. Embarrassing. Thats the word here for this team. We stinks.

Or Mike Quade, who sat in his Busch Stadium office on July 30 and was asked if he felt like he was managing for his job: I feel like that every day. When the blame game starts, you cant sit in this seat and not take some of it. I understand that. But me sitting here and cowering because of that is absurd.

Decisions should be coming soon on Quade and his coaching staff, and eventually Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano. Epstein whiffed big on several free agents in Boston Carl Crawford, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, to name a few and hes coming to an organization that has been crippled by the wrong long-term contracts.

When Albert Pujols hugged Jim Hendry behind the batting cage at Wrigley Field on May 10, the Cubs general manager at the time immediately knew it would become a runaway national story. (The Cardinals were also in town on Aug. 19 when chairman Tom Ricketts publicly announced Hendry was fired.)

Chicago reporters may not become as obsessed with Epsteins personal life, because he didnt grow up here, but its not like hell be getting a free pass. Just ask anyone who covered Dusty Baker or Lou Piniella how worn out they were by the end.

That Pujols ducked out of the clubhouse without speaking to the media after Thursday nights Game 2 loss to the Rangers probably shows that life inside the Wrigley Field fishbowl would get real old, real fast for the future Hall of Famer.

When Epstein became the youngest general manager in baseball history in late 2002, he inherited a 93-win team built around Cooperstown-level talents Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez, plus foundation pieces like Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe.

The Cubs have been a fifth-place team for the past two seasons, but Epstein will find that the game can be more forgiving outside the American League East. The Cardinals won 83 games in 2006 and the National League Central and another World Series title.

In Epsteins nine seasons on the job, the Red Sox won at least 90 games seven times, and never less than 86. Even if you are a tortured Cubs fan, you have to like those odds.

If its all about getting in the tournament and getting hot, then these Cardinals are the perfect example. They were 10 12 games back on Labor Day. They snuck into the playoffs by one game as a wild card.

It helped that the Cardinals won 10 of their 15 games against the Cubs, including two on the seasons final weekend in St. Louis. Immediately after that loss on Sept. 25, the Cubs had their rookie hazing. Young players dressed up in short skirts for the long flight to San Diego.

One coach couldnt hide the disgust on his face as he walked out of the dressing room, though it was hard to tell whether it was all the laughter, or another one-run loss to the Cardinals, or some combination of both. It remains to be seen how many will be back in that clubhouse next year.

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.

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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."

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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."