Stewart will have to grind it out

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Stewart will have to grind it out

MESA, Ariz. Ian Stewart felt something last summer while taking batting practice at Dodger Stadium. He tried to play through it, but it got to the point where he couldnt really swing anymore. He went on the disabled list with what was termed a left wrist contusion.

Almost eight months later, Stewart walks around the clubhouse at HoHoKam Stadium with a wrap around his arm thats so big it almost looks like a cast. The new Cubs third baseman says this is just a precaution (and not a huge red flag).

It stinks to say, but Ive kind of got to the point where Ive got some nagging stuff thats probably going to linger for awhile, Stewart said. Thats why I always have heat or ice on my wrist. Thats just a thing thats going to be there. You guys will probably see it a lot. Its just going to be one of those it is what it is-type-things (where youre) just trying to maintain it. But it feels good.

Stewart who hadnt played in a Cactus League game for almost a week because of a quad injury returned to action on Tuesday in Phoenix during a split-squad game against the Oakland As.

To be clear, the Cubs did extensive background work on Stewart before making him the centerpiece of a four-player trade with the Colorado Rockies last December. Manager Dale Sveum downplayed the issue, saying its something you monitor, but dont notice because every batting practice he takes he swings at 100 percent.

But the admission seemed curious for a two-way player the Cubs believe has the power to hit 20-plus homers and play defense at a Gold Glove level. Stewart understands that hes going to have to manage the wrist. The nature of the game and the injury means that you cant expect it to just disappear.

Its a thing thats probably not going to heal during the season, but its not like its broke or anything, Stewart said. Its more like inflammation, just some general soreness. The best chance is in the offseason and even then (we) start working out right when the seasons over.

If I had probably whole year off, then it would be better, but (thats not an option). The wrist hasnt effected my play or being in the lineup at all in spring training, which Im very happy about.

The Cubs have shown a lot of faith in Stewart, believing that he can still be the player Baseball America fell in love with years ago. He will turn 27 on Opening Day and has been given the everyday job.

Stewart has shown flashes of the potential the Rockies saw when they made him the 10th overall pick in the 2003 draft. Combined he generated 43 homers and 131 RBI for Colorado in 2009 and 2010.

But knee, hamstring and wrist injuries conspired against Stewart last season. He hit .156 with zero home runs in 48 games with the Rockies and spent a significant amount of time at Triple-A Colorado Springs.

Stewart rejected the change of scenery narrative presented by the Cubs front office. The laid-back guy who grew up in Southern California has enough confidence to think that all he needs is an opportunity.

Stewarts not nearly as accomplished as ex-Cub Aramis Ramirez the Opening Day third baseman the past eight seasons but he uses the same calculus: If Im healthy, Ill put up numbers.

I dont think breakout year. I dont think I have to replace anybody, Stewart said. Im just focused on getting healthy. Thats all Im looking forward to just being as productive as I can (once) the season (starts) and maintaining that preparation throughout the year and getting 400 or 500 at-bats.

When I get those at-bats, the numbers have been there in the big leagues.

Cubs aren’t sweating loss to Mets or NLCS flashbacks: ‘Big-boy games are totally different'

Cubs aren’t sweating loss to Mets or NLCS flashbacks: ‘Big-boy games are totally different'

NEW YORK – The Cubs didn’t overreact to getting swept in last year’s National League Championship Series, but the New York Mets did expose some underlying issues while a deep playoff run created a sense of urgency in Wrigleyville.

The Cubs spent like crazy on the free-agent market (almost $290 million) and wore T-shirts around spring training that literally put targets on their chests, knowing the look would go viral on social media and spark love/hate responses.

Making a statement? Sending a message? That’s so last year, when the Cubs were a team still trying to find an identity and learn how to win. The Mets are now the ones feeling the season-on-the-brink anxiety, desperate for offense and crossing their fingers that all those talented young pitchers stay healthy.

Maybe this becomes a turning point for the defending NL champs, beating the Cubs 4-3 on Thursday night at Citi Field to kick off a marquee four-game series in front of 40,122 and a national TV audience. Not that John Lackey – the playoff-tested veteran the Cubs signed to lengthen their rotation for October – felt any added significance in facing the Mets.

“None,” Lackey said. “It’s June, who cares? Big-boy games are totally different.”

Yes, Lackey was “pretty surprised” and a little miffed that manager Joe Maddon pulled him with a runner on and one out in the seventh inning and the Cubs holding a 3-1 lead. Joel Peralta failed this bullpen audition, walking Alejandro De Aza (.158 average) and giving up an RBI single to just-promoted-from-Triple-A Las Vegas rookie Brandon Nimmo.

Neil Walker put the pressure on highlight-reel defender Javier Baez, who fielded a chopper at second base, didn’t have a play at home plate and made the split-second decision to throw toward backpedaling third baseman Kris Bryant. The Mets showed last October that little things matter in big-boy games, and the throwing error from a Gold Glove-caliber player suddenly gave them a 4-3 lead.  

“Getting beat’s one thing,” Lackey said. “But when you feel like you kind of gave one away – or let one go – that’s a different kind of loss.”

The Mets (41-37) might not have must-win games in July, but they needed some good news in “Panic City.” Steven Matz, who set off alarm bells this week with the disclosure he’s been pitching with a bone spur in his left elbow, managed to work into the sixth inning and throw 104 pitches, giving up homers to Bryant and Baez but limiting the damage to only three runs.

Yoenis Cespedes, who revived a lifeless lineup after last summer’s trade-deadline blockbuster, energized the Mets again with a big swing in the sixth inning, drilling a Lackey pitch 441 feet out to left field and onto the third deck, creating a 110-mph exit velocity with his 19th home run.

“New year, different team, different circumstances,” said Jake Arrieta, who lost Game 2 here last October, watching Daniel Murphy reach so far down for a curveball that his left knee almost scraped the dirt, driving it out for a momentum-shifting, first-inning, two-run homer. “We’ll probably relive some memories that weren’t very exciting.

“You never want to lose one step from a World Series. But, again, we had a team that was very young with a lot of rookies contributing. We gained a lot of valuable experience from those games, regardless of the outcome. And we’re obviously better for it this season with some new pieces. We look forward to ending in a little different fashion this year.”

The Cubs (51-27) still don’t have the answer for Mets closer Jeurys Familia, who finished off all four NLCS wins last October and is now 27-for-27 in save chances this season. Miguel Montero led off the ninth inning with a pinch-hit walk and Ben Zobrist followed with a double into right field before those all-or-nothing contact issues resurfaced.

Familia responded by striking out Bryant swinging – all six pitches were marked as sinkers clocked between 97 and 98 mph – and intentionally walking Anthony Rizzo to load the bases. Maybe this exposure will pay off in the playoffs, but Familia struck out Willson Contreras swinging and got Javier Baez to pop out to end the game. The Citi Field sound system started playing Ace Frehley’s “(I’m Back, Back in the) New York Groove.” Not that the Cubs were having flashbacks.

“We know the feeling of getting eliminated, getting swept, but I think we’re onto bigger and better things,” Bryant said. “We’re ready for it. Different year, different players here, different attitude.”

Could Cubs ace Jake Arrieta be in line to start All-Star Game?

Could Cubs ace Jake Arrieta be in line to start All-Star Game?

NEW YORK – After his long, winding journey to the Cubs – and stunning transformation into a Cy Young Award winner – Jake Arrieta won’t attach any special meaning to starting the All-Star Game: “I’m kind of over that.”

But the back injury that forced Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw onto the disabled list could create an opportunity for Arrieta. Beyond Kershaw and Arrieta, New York Mets manager Terry Collins listed three more “legitimate names” for the National League starting assignment on July 12 at Petco Park in San Diego. San Francisco Giants teammates Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto are in the mix along with Mets flamethrower Noah Syndergaard.

“Clayton was one of those names,” Collins told reporters before Thursday’s Cubs-Mets game at Citi Field. “And I can tell you Jake was right near the top of the list. I kind of like my guy a little bit, too.

“I kind of feel like I know who’s going to start the game.”

That’s how Collins ended his media session, without taking any more follow-up questions, but he will get an up-close look at Arrieta (12-2, 2.10 ERA) on Saturday night, which also marks the three-year anniversary of that franchise-altering trade with the Baltimore Orioles for a pitcher who spent parts of the 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013 seasons on the Triple-A level.    

“I’ve kind of addressed (how) I’ve come to this point,” Arrieta said. “It’s a long way from where I used to be. I do understand that. But at the same time, I’ve kind of put most of it behind me.

“(Starting the All-Star Game) would be great. It would be an honor, obviously. If it happens, it’s something special.

“But most important for me is my start Saturday.” 

Why Kyle Schwarber is untouchable and how Cubs plan to rebuild bullpen

Why Kyle Schwarber is untouchable and how Cubs plan to rebuild bullpen

NEW YORK – Let’s start with this boilerplate Theo Epstein quote and file it away for the next time Kyle Schwarber’s name appears on MLBTradeRumors.com or a fantasy-baseball proposal for the New York Yankees.

“I’m looking forward to Kyle Schwarber — who got hurt in a Cubs uniform and is working his ass off in a Cubs uniform — coming back and hitting a very big home run in a Cubs uniform sometime very early next season,” Epstein said.

The president of baseball operations clearly has a special bond with Schwarber, selecting the Indiana University catcher/outfielder with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft, back when the industry consensus made it sound like a reach. Schwarber helped ignite those champagne celebrations last year by setting a franchise record with five postseason home runs. Epstein felt sick watching Schwarber wreck his knee in an outfield collision during the first week of this season, allowing him to rehab in Chicago and hang out in the draft room, essentially viewing him as an untouchable player because of his left-handed power and leadership qualities.

The Mets are the defending National League champs — with all due respect, as Joe Maddon might say, quoting Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby character in “Talladega Nights.” But the Yankees might be the New York team the Cubs should focus on now.

While the Mets returned home to Citi Field on Thursday as a third-place team — six games behind Washington after getting swept at Nationals Park — the Yankees will be in no man’s land on July 1 at 39-39.

The Bronx Bombers now have another month to decide whether or not they will become trade-deadline sellers for the first time in a generation, how breaking up the Andrew Miller/Aroldis Chapman/Dellin Betances bullpen could set them up for the future. And what surrender would mean for a YES Network/Yankee Stadium/27 World Series titles business plan. 

Epstein viewed Thursday’s action – the San Diego Padres flipped closer Fernando Rodney to the Miami Marlins while the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired right-hander Bud Norris from the Atlanta Braves – as more of a reaction to the July 2 international signing period (and Clayton Kershaw’s back injury) than a sign that the market would start to move quickly.

“We’re talking to clubs, just trying to see who might be available and where we might have matches,” Epstein said. “But there’s nothing real imminent. There’s usually a flurry of activity around (this time). Despite the trades today, I think it might end up being more of a slow-developing market. We’ll see. We’re not close to anything.”

Remember, the Cubs rebuilt their bullpen on the fly last summer with Clayton Richard (acquired for a dollar from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate), Trevor Cahill (released by the Braves and Dodgers before signing a minor-league deal) and Rodney (a two-time All-Star the Seattle Mariners had designated for assignment).

While Schwarber-for-Miller buzz is great on talk radio and Twitter, for now the Cubs will go with the grab-bag approach, looking at internal options like Carl Edwards Jr. and Joel Peralta, hoping for good news on their Tommy John cases (Joe Nathan, Jack Leathersich) and waiting for Justin Grimm to get locked in again.

“It’s pretty rare that you rebuild a bullpen midseason through big-ticket items,” Epstein said. “Last year was actually more typical. They don’t all work out — that’s not what I’m saying. But if you have a plan and a process — and you’re willing to kind of cycle through guys (and) ride things out — you often get rewarded in the end.

“For a postseason bullpen, if you’re thinking that far in advance, you’re not talking about eight guys. You’re talking about three or four guys that you can lean on heavily. It’s being open-minded, being willing to let guys ride through their downturns and make adjustments, so that they can find it.”