Cubs bullpen steps up for Dempster

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Cubs bullpen steps up for Dempster

Monday, April 11, 2011Posted: 10:50 PM Updated: 12:15 AM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

HOUSTON Ryan Dempster might be the last player on the roster Cubs staffers worry about. They figure that all the numbers 30-plus starts, 200 innings will be there by the end of September.

That confidence doesnt erase Dempsters line from his first two starts 0-2 with a 6.59 ERA. But with 40 percent of their rotation on the disabled list, the Cubs need their Opening Day starter to perform like one.

Dempster did up to a point on Monday night at Minute Maid Park. Then the Cubs bullpen hung on for a 5-4 victory over the Houston Astros in front of 20,175 fans.

Dempster estimated that he felt good through 95 percent of this start. It was the other five percent that caused the Cubs anxiety in another close game that was in doubt until the final out.

The games entire complexion changed in the seventh inning, in a span of three consecutive batters and eight pitches. Dempster had just rung up his ninth strikeout and appeared to be cruising.

Until pinch-hitter Bill Hall drilled a 91 mph fastball off the foul pole in right field to make it a 5-2 game. Michael Bourn then drove a slider that bounced off the top of the right-field wall and a replay review kept it as a double.

Angel Sanchez next launched a two-run homer into the left-field seats and there went a night off for the bullpen. The Cubs desperately needed Dempster to go deep into this game.
Watch: Quade praises his bullpen
James Russell will leave the bullpen on Tuesday to make the first big-league start of his career in front of his family and friends. The 25-year-old Texan will let it rip for three or four innings and the Cubs will patch it together from there.

Russells father, Jeff, made a nice career and two All-Star games out of swinging between starter and a reliever. The son predicted that his dad will be nervously pacing the concourse at Minute Maid Park.

Russell said he has no clue if this is a one-shot deal. The Cubs arent in a rush to announce what theyll do when the fifth starters turn comes up again April 18 at Wrigley Field against the San Diego Padres.

Well see, manager Mike Quade said. This is an ongoing evaluative process, both how Russ throws and what other options might be available, whether theyre here with us now or whether theres somebody somewhere else.

That made Dempster who gave up four runs on six hits in 6.1 innings working into the seventh so important. John Grabow got the ball to Sean Marshall, who handed it to Carlos Marmol. The bullpen isnt completely burned out for Tuesday night.

The Cubs (5-5) kept talking about getting some breaks and instead the eighth inning saw two hard-hit singles that bounced off infielders gloves Darwin Barney leaping through the air and Aramis Ramirez diving into the dirt.

But with runners on first and third, Marshall fooled Bourn, who whiffed on a 75 mph curveball. Marmol then came in for the four-out save and struck out Sanchez with a 79 mph slider.

It was typical Marmol in the ninth inning a single and a walk in between two strikeouts to finish off the Astros (2-8). At the end of his high-wire act, Marmol screamed and pumped his fist.
Watch: Dempster feeling good 95 of the time

Ive seen him do too many crazy things to ever really panic, Dempster said. I dont really get that nervous when hes pitching. He just seems to have a knack for striking guys out and getting out of big innings.

The Cubs feel the same way about Dempster, who earned the first of what they expect will be double-digit wins. They have no other choice.

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

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

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USA TODAY

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

This is slowly becoming more like Willson Contreras’ team, whether or not the Cubs add a veteran catcher like Alex Avila before the July 31 trade deadline. Yadier Molina took the in-game, All-Star photo of Nelson Cruz and Joe West, but Contreras is coming for moments like that, too.

In a Cubs clubhouse filled with calm, serious young players who were fast-tracked to Wrigleyville, Contreras is the one who got left exposed in the Rule 5 draft at the 2014 winter meetings and spent parts of eight seasons in the minors before making his big-league debut.

As much as the Cubs needed that ice-cold demeanor from guys like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to end the 108-year hex, they will use Contreras’ fire to try to win the World Series again.

“I feel like I’m in the heart of the team,” Contreras said. “I’m behind the plate. I just want to play with my energy, no matter if I hit or not. We need that energy for the second half. And it’s going to be there.”

The Cubs flipped a switch after the All-Star break, sweeping the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves and moving to within one game of the Milwaukee Brewers, their play screaming at Theo Epstein’s front office to keep buying. Contreras caught the first 45 innings of that six-game winning streak where the rotation finally clicked and hit .409 (9-for-22) with two homers, three doubles and seven RBIs on that road trip.

Contreras is a power source when a 49-45 team talks about going on a run and the defending World Series champs point to all this room to grow in the future. The model will be staring at Contreras this weekend at Wrigley Field when the Cubs try to keep the St. Louis Cardinals down (46-49) and give their front office something to think about (sell?) between now and July 31.

“We look at Yadier Molina,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said. “We know that he’s just an intelligent baseball player. I always try to remind Willson: 'That’s what we’re trying to accomplish, making you not only a threat offensively and defensively, but with your mind.'

“He’s always listening. He wants to learn. He plays with high intensity, high emotion. I always challenge him to be a smart player. That’s the best compliment you can get.”

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After a disappointing first half where it looked like the vaunted pitching infrastructure might collapse — and veteran catcher Miguel Montero went on an epic rant that could have foretold a divided clubhouse in the second half — Contreras seemed to be in the middle of everything.

With Contreras behind the plate, Jake Arrieta began his salary drive toward a megadeal, Jose Quintana dazzled in his Cubs debut, Jon Lester recovered from the worst start of his career and John Lackey pitched well enough to delay any awkward conversations about going home to Texas instead of going to the bullpen.

“It was never tough,” said Arrieta, who has chopped his ERA from 5.44 to 4.17 since the middle of May. “It was just a matter of him getting to understand what we like to do as starters.

“He’s learned really quickly. He’s a tremendous athlete back there. I’m very confident that I can bury a curveball, or I can throw a changeup in the dirt, and I know that guy’s going to block it, even with a guy on first or second base. There’s not a ton of guys around the league that you can feel that much confidence in.

“Willson’s been great, and he’s only going to get better.”

Quintana, who breezed through seven scoreless innings against the Orioles (12 strikeouts, zero walks) after that blockbuster trade with the White Sox, gave this review of Contreras: “We were on the same page really quick, believe me. We talked before the game about how we want to go, how we want to call our pitches. He called a really good game, and I appreciate that.”

The Cubs will still be looking for a more-PC version of Montero, whether it’s someone like Avila, who works for his dad, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila, or circling back to an old target like Texas Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy (essentially off-limits to a division rival when the Brewers shopped him last summer). Dropping Montero in late June forced Victor Caratini up from Triple-A Iowa, making Contreras the senior catcher with a World Series ring at the age of 25.

“It’s almost like a quarterback in the NFL — there’s so much for them to absorb,” manager Joe Maddon said. “When you come from the minors to the major leagues as a catcher, most of the time in the minor leagues, you’re just developing physical abilities, physical tools, blocking, footwork, throwing, maybe pitcher/catcher relationship.

“But understanding the calling of a game — it’s hard to really develop that on the minor-league level. You have the manager, then maybe a pitching coach and there’s a lot going on. You don’t have that time to put into the game plan or to sit down and talk to this guy. It’s a little bit more superficial. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way — it’s just the way it is.”

Whatever the Cubs do next, it will be with the idea of preserving Contreras in mind. Of the six big-league catchers qualified for the batting title, only two other catchers — World Series winners Buster Posey (.917) and Salvador Perez (.824) — have a higher OPS than Contreras (.822) so far this season. Among National League catchers, Contreras also has the most errors (13) and runners thrown out (19). Outside of Bryzzo, Contreras has the highest WAR (2.6) on the team.

If you think Contreras is emotional, energetic and entertaining now, just imagine what he will be like when he really knows what he’s doing.

“He asks all the right questions,” said Borzello, who won four World Series rings as a New York Yankees staffer. “We go over every game, and between every inning, we talk. We’re working in the right direction. I think he wants it as much as anyone I’ve ever been around.”

That escalated quickly: Cubs just a game back of Brewers, could be in first place as soon as this weekend

That escalated quickly: Cubs just a game back of Brewers, could be in first place as soon as this weekend

To quote the great Ron Burgundy: That escalated quickly.

Don't look now, but the Cubs are just a game out of first place in the National League Central standings and could take over first place sometime this weekend.

While the Cubs have been on their post All-Star break tear, winners of all six of their games since the Midsummer Classic, the first-place Milwaukee Brewers have been on a simultaneous skid, losers of their last five games.

Because of all that, the standings have tightened dramatically. What was a five and a half game difference between the Cubs and Brewers at the break is now just a one-game gap.

It goes up and down the standings, too, as the Pittsburgh Pirates — who completed a four-game sweep of the Brewers on Thursday afternoon — are just three games back. The St. Louis Cardinals, who start a weekend series with the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Friday, are just four and a half games back of the Brewers.

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Given how hot the Cubs are right now, a move into first place sometime in the next couple days wouldn't be surprising in the least.

The Cubs have scored a whopping 44 runs during their six-game win streak, an average of more than seven runs a game. That stretch has also seen 16 home runs off Cubs bats.

The Cardinals roll into Wrigley losers of back-to-back games and four of their last seven since the All-Star break. Meanwhile, the Brewers travel for a three-game weekend set against the Philadelphia Phillies, the team with the worst record in baseball, and the Pirates pay a visit to the Colorado Rockies, a 56-win team that scored 18 runs in a Wednesday win over the San Diego Padres.

If you were hoping for a fun race in the Central in the second half of the season, it seems your wish has come true. As for those fans waiting around for the Cubs to finally move into first place, where they haven't been since June 6, you might soon get your wish, too.