Chicago Cubs

Brett Jackson, 'Linsanity' and going to the next level

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Brett Jackson, 'Linsanity' and going to the next level

MESA, Ariz. Brett Jackson looked him over and wondered: Who is this dude? Does he play soccer?

This was last fall at SPARTA Performance Science near San Francisco, before Jeremy Lin made the cover of Sports Illustrated two weeks in a row. The SportsCenter highlights didnt run every night and Linsanity hadnt yet taken over Twitter.

All of a sudden, hes like (the) hottest ticket in town, Jackson said Wednesday. Its unbelievable.

The Cubs think Jackson could be the next big thing, but it wont happen overnight. Baseball America just named him the No. 32 overall prospect in the game, and the projection is that the 23-year-old outfielder will be in Chicago sometime this season.

The new front office will have an Ivy League influence and be driven by data. Jackson went to Cal-Berkeley and trained in Silicon Valley, hoping to fit into Theo Epsteins vision.

You want to take yourself as far as you can, Jackson said. You want to be the best player you can be. If Im a special player in the big leagues, then Ive worked hard enough and Ill continue working. You dont want to settle for anything. You dont want to settle for average.

Lin was searching for an edge during the NBA lockout, which brought him to the high-tech gym that counts Philadelphia Phillies All-Star second baseman Chase Utley among its clients, and helps train players for the NFL combine.

Using proprietary software, SPARTA tracks and monitors the athletes body, and designs workout plans around that. A recent Bloomberg television report said it helped Lin add almost 15 pounds to his frame and 3.5 inches onto his vertical.

Then again, Lin bounced around from the Golden State Warriors to the Houston Rockets to the New York Knicks last December before exploding into a global star. There is an element of timing or luck involved, even for a Harvard graduate.

Jackson only saw Lin a few times at the gym, and can only hope hell also be in the right place at the right time.

Since taking over baseball operations, Epstein has traded away recent first-round picks Andrew Cashner and Tyler Colvin, and everyone in the organization has been looked at in a different light.

It didnt faze Jackson, the 31st overall pick in the 2009 draft, and untouchable from the start of the Epstein compensation negotiations. Jackson was actually roommates with Boston prospect Lars Anderson this offseason and learned all about the Red Sox Way.

Jackson may never hit 30 bombs a year in the big leagues, but he can run, hit and field, and has a .393 career on-base percentage in the minors. That is the type of across-the-board player Epstein likes to target. As manager Dale Sveum said: That guy just bounces around with athleticism.

After Wednesdays workout, Jackson sat in a corner of the clubhouse joking around with Anthony Rizzo, Matt Szczur and Josh Vitters. You wondered if it was a glimpse into the future.

Rizzo (No. 47) and Szczur (No. 64) also made Baseball Americas top 100 list, while Vitters is still only 22 years old, waiting to fulfill his potential as the third overall pick in the 2007 draft. Instead of making a late push for Prince Fielder, the Cubs traded for Rizzo to be their first baseman.

Great dude, Jackson said of Rizzo. Hes texted me the last couple weeks before we got here, saying, We got to make this team.

That probably wont happen out of camp. More likely, theyll be ticketed for Triple-A Iowa. But if all goes according to plan, pretty soon theyll both have to find a way to handle the insanity of playing for the Cubs, and all that goes with it.

Figure it out as you go along, Jackson said. But when it comes down to it, its just about playing baseball. Its about being a good teammate, having fun and thats why I play. Theres a lot in it here with this club and the history and everything. So its easy to work hard when theres a cause, something to believe in.

Stop asking if the Cubs are back, they need to make their own momentum — like they did Sunday

Stop asking if the Cubs are back, they need to make their own momentum — like they did Sunday

Stop asking if the Cubs are back.

That’s been a season-long talking point every time something that seems big at the time happens, constant wonder over what can snap the Cubs out of it and get them back to their expected place of dominating the division and looking like a World Series contender.

But it’s been pretty plain up to this point that one game hasn’t made that drastic difference fans are looking for.

All those “Cubs back?” inquiries have only been met with the same kind of play that’s kept the team middling all season. Flashes of brilliance have come and gone, and still the Cubs turned in a sub-.500 first half and remain just a few games ahead of their division rivals from Milwaukee and St. Louis.

So it’s time to stop wondering if every big win will lead to the Cubs turning on the jets and blasting away from the Brewers and Cardinals.

If the Cubs are going to get the kind of momentum required to do that, they’re going to need to make it themselves. Just like they did Sunday.

The Cubs beat the visiting Toronto Blue Jays and completed their first three-game series sweep in a month, their first since that six-game win streak out of the All-Star break with back-to-back broom breakouts in Baltimore and Atlanta. (For those appreciative of technicalities, yes, the Cubs won both games in the road half of the Crosstown matchup with the White Sox.)

But it was the way they did it Sunday, coughing up a 3-0 lead, coughing up two runs in the top of 10th, only to score three times in the bottom of that extra inning, winning on a walk-off base hit by one of the new guys, Alex Avila.

Did it mean that the Cubs are back? Did it mean this is the start of something great? What did it mean?

“That we’re a good team, I guess,” Avila said. “There are certain times over the course of the year when you’re a team that’s trying to get to the playoffs, you’ve got to win crazy games like that, games you should win.

“For me, momentum depends on the next guy that’s pitching, to be honest with you. If (John Lackey) goes out Tuesday and throws a good game and gives us an opportunity, then you can say that. But for me, once the game’s over it’s over, and the next game is something completely different.”

Sunday’s game was far from pretty. The Cubs benefitted from a pair of dropped third strikes in that 10th inning, including one where Blue Jays catcher Raffy Lopez plum forgot to throw to first, allowing Javy Baez to reach. Baez scored the game-winning run two batters later, sliding in ahead of the throw on Avila’s hit.

This time last year, the Cubs had a double-digit lead in the National League Central standings. After this sweep, you still need just one hand’s worth of fingers to add up their current division lead. This clearly isn’t last year. But Sunday’s win did have a little bit of that 2016 feel to it.

“The way the boys grinded at the end was awesome, definitely reminiscent of last year somewhat” starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “That’s where we’ve got to get to, we’ve just got to be who we are right now. And hopefully that’s the team we can be now, maybe even progress beyond that. But yeah that was huge. Kept on fighting, even late in that game, and found a way to win that one.”

That’s not to say, though, that 2017’s problems didn’t pop up. The Cubs were just 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position. They gathered just four hits the remainder of the game after Albert Almora Jr.’s bases-clearing double with nobody out in the third inning. The bullpen could hardly be described as lock-down, with Justin Wilson adding two more walks to his struggle of a portfolio since joining the Cubs, Wade Davis also walking two batters and Koji Uehara charged with the two runs in the 10th that put the Blue Jays on top.

But listen to Joe Maddon and look elsewhere.

Those “little things” that everyone is always so fond of telling you make the difference in championship seasons? They were there Sunday, chiefly in the form of Baez’s 10th-inning hustle, which first got him to first base on that dropped third strike and later allowed him to score from second on the game-winning base knock.

“Javy runs hard,” Maddon said. “For those who ever want to criticize this guy, that’s a ball in the dirt, about 15 feet away from the catcher, the catcher just blanked out on it. If Javy does not run hard right there, it’s a different result. He ran hard, and that’s why he was safe because by the time Lopez figured it out, he had already beaten it to first base.

“All those little diminutae like that, that’s the difference between winning and losing. Everybody’s going to look at Alex’s hit. Great. It was a big moment. But Javy striking out and not just sulking, runs to first base.

“This is the nuance of the game,” Maddon continued, moving on to the lead Baez got at second base ahead of Avila’s hit. “Guys that get good (secondary leads). The way I’ve always described that in spring training when you have your base-running meeting is that you’re being a great teammates when you get a good secondary lead because it leads to moments like that. … You’re being a great teammate when you understand the importance of getting good secondary leads.”

Maybe the spark that’s been so intensely looked for all season isn’t one singular highlight-reel win but a collection of plays over the course of a few games. All three of these wins against the Blue Jays were one-run victories. Little things make the difference in such tight games. They make the difference in such tight division races, too.

One game and one sweep against a last-place team gets the Cubs nowhere close to out of the woods. A playoff spot is hardly a certainty in such a closely contested Central. And for as potentially momentum-building as this weekend series might have seemed, remember the Blue Jays are a last-place team. The Cincinnati Reds, both the team the Cubs played prior to the Blue Jays and the team they’ll play next, and the Philadelphia Phillies, the second stop on next week’s road trip, are also last-place teams.

The Cubs should be winning these games. You could just as easily argue that Sunday’s game was a troubling sign. Why should the Cubs need two dropped third strikes in the 10th inning to get them a win against a last-place team? Valid question.

But if you heard the racket coming out of the Cubs’ celebration room, you might be convinced otherwise.

Is momentum real? To this point, it hasn’t been for the 2017 Cubs. But with the schedule at an easy point, maybe it becomes real soon. They just have to make it.

“We want to get on a good roll,” Almora said. “This series is great, it’s a great start. We’ve been playing well since the All-Star break, so we feel really good as a team. Pitchers coming together, offense coming together. It’s great.”

“A really good team, once you’ve won the series with one left, c’mon. This is when you really want to make some hay at that point, you just don’t want to concede anything,” Maddon said. “Getting three out of three makes a difference moving forward.”

Watch: Cubs complete extra-inning comeback with walk-off hit to sweep Blue Jays

Watch: Cubs complete extra-inning comeback with walk-off hit to sweep Blue Jays

Sunday's Cubs-Blue Jays game had a little bit of everything.

There was Miguel Montero's home run against his former team to tie the game, a crazy catch against the wall by Kevin Pillar and that doesn't even include the 10th inning, which was on its own level of bizarre.

Pillar put the Blue Jays ahead with a single in the top of the 10th and then Justin Wilson walked the first two batters he faced to extend Toronto's lead to 5-3.

Then things got real weird.

Kyle Schwarber reached to lead off the inning despite striking out. He reached on a wild pitch third strike.

Later in the inning, after Schwarber had come around to score and cut the lead to 5-4, Javy Baez also reached on a dropped third strike. Catcher Raffy Lopez decided not to throw to first with the tying run, Ben Zobrist, at third base.

The Blue Jays' implosion continued when Jason Heyward was hit by a pitch after falling down 0-2 in the count. That loaded the bases and set the stage for Alex Avila to do this:

That wrapped up a series sweep for the Cubs.