Covering the Cubs: A crazy summer rollercoaster

Covering the Cubs: A crazy summer rollercoaster

Thursday, Aug. 26, 2010
6:58 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

WASHINGTON When the Cubs show up for work on Friday afternoon at Great American Ball Park, there will be 38 days remaining in the season, almost 21 percent of their paychecks still to be earned.

That doesnt sound like much time left for the pitchers and catchers who began reporting to the teams complex in Mesa, Ariz., about a week after the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV.

But then you flash back to all that has happened in the previous 38 days. It all started on July 20, when Lou Piniellas agent leaked the news that the Cubs manager would be retiring.

New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden a former Yankees beat writer who would be honored that weekend at the Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y. broke the story online.

It was published hours before the Cubs planned to make a relatively low-key announcement, without any advance warning to the media outlets that wouldnt normally rush to Wrigley Field for a Tuesday night game against the Houston Astros.

Piniella broadcast his intention to finish the season, but would be pulled back home twice within the next two weeks. He traveled to Tampa, Fla., for his uncles funeral, and to tend to his ailing mother, a family situation that ultimately led to his resignation and Sundays teary farewell.

As an emotional Piniella wrestled with this decision, Derrek Lee was making his own calculations. On July 28 the Cubs first baseman explained why he used his no-trade rights to block a deal to the Los Angeles Angels.

With a home in Southern California and good friends in the Angels clubhouse, that represented something close to an ideal situation. But Lee didnt want to move his family. The timing wasnt right, the Angels werent a sure thing and the expectation was that he would complete the final year of his contract in a Cub uniform.

After the Cubs landed at OHare International Airport on Aug. 15, general manager Jim Hendry approached Lee about a new opportunity. The Atlanta Braves scouted Lee during a three-game series in St. Louis, where he crushed four home runs in three games.

The next day Lee signaled his approval. Two days later the trade became official. And two days after that he drove his car into his normal parking space at Wrigley Field and walked into the visiting clubhouse, where he hadnt stepped inside since celebrating with the Florida Marlins after the 2003 National League Championship Series.

By then, the Cubs seemed almost numb to all the changes. Laid-back first basemanoutfielder Xavier Nady who has already been traded three times in his career and is playing for his fifth team essentially shrugged his shoulders.

Thats the nature of the game, Nady said. Guys are going to be departing here and there and there will be a lot of new faces. But from our standpoint, you got to come ready to play.

Lee socialized with every corner of the clubhouse, and his ex-teammates understood his change of heart. They had already said their goodbyes to Ted Lilly and Ryan Theriot at the July 31 non-waiver deadline the day after Carlos Zambrano apologized to the entire team but at least they had a flight to catch.

A television camera tracked Mike Fontenot on Aug. 11 as he walked from one AT&T Park clubhouse to the other after he was dealt to the San Francisco Giants.

More than one Cub has said that he hopes to get a chance to play with Lilly again at some point. Both parties left the door open to the veteran left-hander possibly re-signing as a free agent. But the organization is also trying to find in-house solutions and will continue to audition young pitchers.

Left-handed reliever Scott Maine is set to become the 16th rookie to appear for the Cubs this season and the 10th to make his major-league debut. Since July 20, the Cubs have brought up a player from Triple-A Iowa 11 times. Theyve optioned a player down to the minors eight times during that stretch.

Rookie reliever Andrew Cashner sort of shook his head and laughed.

Its been a crazy year, he said. Its definitely been kind of a whirlwind season, not really knowing what to expect.

There was Carlos Silva having trouble breathing on Aug. 1 and being taken to Denvers Saint Joseph Hospital in an ambulance. Eight days later, he underwent cardiac ablation at Northwestern Memorial Hospital to fix an irregular heartbeat.

Like Silva, Carlos Zambrano thought about his family during what might have been his best start of the season on Tuesday night in Washington.

Zambranos postgame news conference lasted about six minutes, and during that time he was confrontational, thoughtful, cocky and philosophical before leaving to see his nephew at a hospital in Venezuela.

Anything close to deathsometimes people shouldnt leave until theyre old, Zambrano said, but when God has something in mind, He calls us to Him. What can we do?

The Cubs will regroup with Thursdays off day in Cincinnati, not exactly a world-class city if you are a millionaire with time on your hands. But the timing couldnt be better after 20 games in 20 days and 17 against teams with legitimate hopes of being soaked in champagne at some point in September or October.

They are on their third manager in the past two weeks. Randy Wells played for Mike Quade in Iowa in 2006 and says hes the same high-strung, funny guy that gets along with everybody.

Quade loves horseracing, but the past 38 days have shown that its impossible to handicap how this all will end.

Its no secret he can say what he wants, and you guys can say what you want, Wells said, but youd be stupid not to try to take this opportunity and show what you can do for possibly a managers job down the road.

You never know whats going to happen.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Preview: Arrieta, Cubs return home to face Pirates Monday on CSN

Preview: Arrieta, Cubs return home to face Pirates Monday on CSN

Jake Arrieta and the Cubs return home to battle the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday, and you can catch all the action on CSN at 7:05 p.m. Then catch first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Starting pitching matchup: Steven Brault (0-1, 3.60 ERA) vs. Jake Arrieta (16-5, 2.62 ERA)

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Theme trip: Cubs break down at Dodger Stadium with miscommunication between Javier Baez and Ben Zobrist

Theme trip: Cubs break down at Dodger Stadium with miscommunication between Javier Baez and Ben Zobrist

LOS ANGELES – Joe Maddon watched John Lackey board the team bus on Sunday morning wearing a Team USA onesie. The Cubs manager later noticed Aroldis Chapman in pajamas in the clubhouse on his way out to the dugout for his pregame media session at Dodger Stadium.
 
“We’ve created our own little culture, our own little identity,” Maddon said. “I just love the fact that they buy into those moments. Your stars are buying into it.”
 
The Cubs are in their own world, followed like rock stars on the road, freed from baseball’s unwritten rules and checked out from the daily anxiety and scoreboard-watching stress during a normal pennant race. 

But the Cubs weren’t in a playful mood after a 1-0 loss, even as they changed into their onesies – Mr. Peanut, Yoda, Stars and Stripes, camouflage – for the flight home from the West Coast. Almost exactly a year after Jake Arrieta threw his no-hitter here, the Cubs had their in-house TV crew shooting the postgame scene inside the locker room – look at us! – while Dodger Stadium security kicked out the Chicago reporters waiting to take pictures outside the clubhouse.   

The Cubs got a reminder that the Dodgers are a team to be reckoned with, that every-pitch focus matters, that communication will be essential in tight playoff games. That’s what this felt like, a crowd of 44,745 erupting in the eighth inning after a replay review that lasted 96 seconds confirmed the call on the field.

The Cubs lost their composure, Trevor Cahill hitting Andrew Toles with a pitch and then jamming Howie Kendrick. Cahill fielded the groundball and threw it into right field. An intentional walk to Corey Seager loaded the bases, setting up a battle between Carl Edwards Jr. and the heart of the Los Angeles lineup.

The rookie unleashed a 97-mph fastball and struck out Justin Turner on a foul tip. Edwards then went right back at Adrian Gonzalez, inducing a chopper toward third baseman Javier Baez, who made the split-second decision to throw to second, where Seager’s right foot crashed into second just before Ben Zobrist’s left foot touched it.

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“We just didn’t communicate,” Baez said. “I completely forgot about who was running down the line. We weren’t holding at first with the bases loaded. Obviously, he had like a huge lead. But in the moment, I was going back with the groundball and I saw Zo going full speed to the bag.”

But Zobrist had been playing deeper in right field to defend Gonzalez, a left-handed slugger and a slow runner. The margin for error is razor-thin when the Cubs needed 10 innings to secure a comeback win on Friday night – and the Dodgers responded by winning one-run games on Saturday and Sunday afternoon.

“I feel like the responsibility falls on me being the veteran,” Zobrist said. “It’s a tough play. It’s a reaction play. It’s a feel play. But if we communicate ahead of time, then he knows right away when he catches the ball, you go to first base with it. 

“He can’t (put) the blame on himself. It’s everybody out there. It’s more my responsibility being the older guy out there. He’s still very young and playing all over the place. And sometimes we can all get, I guess, a little bit lackadaisical with our communication.”  

If anything, Maddon was more bothered by Baez not running out a pop-up in the fifth inning, part of an 0-for-4 day and a 3-for-27 road trip that to this point had highlighted his Gold Glove defense. 

“This kid has as much instinct for the game as anybody I’ve ever been around,” Maddon said. “He just misread the moment right there. I would like to believe they’re going to communicate in the future.”

The Cubs would still leave Los Angeles with a 14-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals, their magic number to clinch the division down to 20 after a 5-4 road trip. With such a huge cushion, the Cubs also got a chance to remember what it’s like to play in front of a huge crowd where every pitch has consequences.  

“I don’t think that really matters,” said Jon Lester, who got the no-decision after six scoreless innings and didn’t look thrilled to be wearing a onesie. “Everybody here has been in playoff situations now. It’s kind of like we don’t really have to prep for anything anymore. These are situations now that guys are used to. Just go play.”

With John Lackey ramping up for return, could Cubs go to six-man rotation?

With John Lackey ramping up for return, could Cubs go to six-man rotation?

LOS ANGELES – John Lackey is ramping up for a return to the rotation and all those “Big Boy Games” the Cubs are supposed to play in October.

The Cubs expect Lackey to test his strained right shoulder and throw two bullpen sessions this week, manager Joe Maddon said Sunday at Dodger Stadium. If everything goes smoothly for the two-time World Series champion, the Cubs will tentatively schedule Lackey’s next start for either the Labor Day weekend showdown against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field, or near the beginning of a three-city road trip in early September.     

Lackey (9-7, 3.41 ERA) has accounted for 158-plus innings, making 24 starts and stabilizing the rotation before going on the disabled list on Aug. 15. Jason Hammel should eventually cool off and will be “well-rested” after Maddon’s quick hook on Saturday afternoon at Dodger Stadium. The Cubs also like what they’ve seen from Mike Montgomery, believing the lefty can develop into a solid big-league starter.

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Could the Cubs go to a six-man rotation down the stretch?

“We haven’t planned that specifically yet,” Maddon said. “I’m not opposed, let me put it that way. We’ll see how it all plays out with Mikey the next time through. Again, to do anything we possibly can to conserve our arms for the end of the year is important. 

“It’s being proven throughout the industry right now. Moving forward, the biggest trick there is to get the sixth guy that you like. Most teams are clamoring to get (No.) 4 and 5. We got five that we like. Now we’re working on 6.”

It’s not like the Cubs are fighting for a wild-card spot or clinging to a one-game lead in the division. The best record in baseball allows them to look at the big picture and get creative in September. The counterargument to keeping starters fresh for October would be keeping creatures of habit like Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta in a rhythm. 

“Starting pitchers have always rallied to say that they need to stay on that particular plan,” Maddon said. “But I think it’s kind of been proven – just give them that extra day or two on occasion and it really benefits them. So I just think you’re fighting this old view of specifically how it needs to be done."