Cubs waiting to put Fujikawa in the ninth-inning spotlight

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Cubs waiting to put Fujikawa in the ninth-inning spotlight

Kyuji Fujikawa finished lunch with Cubs officials and began touring Wrigley Field. The sense of history reminded him of Koshien Stadium, which also made ivy part of its design and became known as a kind of birthplace for baseball in his country.

This was just before Thanksgiving, and after 12 seasons with the Hanshin Tigers, Fujikawa believed he was ready for a new challenge and wanted to test himself against the best hitters in the world.

As a teenager, Fujikawa watched Hideo Nomo become a star with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He saw Daisuke Matsuzaka whos the same age (32) flame out with the Boston Red Sox. That motivated him to prove he could pitch in the United States.

Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer made an aggressive pitch, and they found Fujikawa to be an interesting guy, someone whos curious and asks good questions.

They could sell a cosmopolitan city. Remember that even if it didnt work out here for Kosuke Fukudome, the ex-Cub still appreciated Chicagos strong Japanese community, so much that he once bought a condo on Lake Shore Drive.

All those factors brought Fujikawa back to Wrigley Field on Friday, holding up a pinstriped No. 11 jersey with Hoyer as flashbulbs popped inside the clubhouse.

From that day on in my head, it was: Cubs, Cubs, Cubs, Fujikawa said.

Don Nomura, Fujikawas agent in Japan, served as the interpreter in front of at least 10 television cameras. Arn Tellem, his American representative, stood off to the side next to Epstein. Fujikawa speaks enough broken English to be able to communicate with his teammates, but he didnt want to make a mistake during his press conference.

Fujikawa said all the right things, that he will follow orders from the manager, that it doesnt matter when he pitches. Hes been described as a good guy, someone who will get along and wont have a huge entourage (other than the translator and trainer the Cubs plan to hire). He just wants to get outs.

The Cubs already have a closer in Carlos Marmol, and they met with his agent, Paul Kinzer, this week at the Opryland Hotel during the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn. Epstein, Hoyer and manager Dale Sveum have repeatedly said: Marmol is our closer.

Obviously, that could change at some point during the final year of Marmols contract. But right now the plan is for Marmol to earn his 9.8 million in the ninth inning.

The Cubs would like Fujikawa to get acclimated to a new team and a new country by working as a setup guy and not pitching in the World Baseball Classic, like he did in 2006 and 2009, helping Japan win the title each time.

Even if Fujikawa isnt the closer on Opening Day 2013, the opportunity figures to be there over the life of his two-year, 9.5 million contract, which contains a vestingclub option for 2015. For what its worth, per club policy, he didnt get a no-trade clause.

The primary goal (is) to have him here as part of the solution, Epstein said. Were a big believer in his talent, as well as his character, so we think hell be a positive influence on our younger pitchers and hell be a real stabilizer for our bullpen. Were not signing him at all with the intent to trade him. Obviously, well see what happens. Hopefully, the team performs well and hes pitching very important games for us.

It cost Epstein, Hoyer and the rest of Bostons front office more than 100 million to import Matsuzaka, who helped the Red Sox win the 2007 World Series but otherwise turned out to be a bust.

This clearly is a low-risk investment. Hoyer mentioned Red Sox reliever Hideki Okajima, who gave up a home run to the first batter he faced on Opening Day 2007, didnt allow another run until May 22 and went to the All-Star Game that summer.

Fujikawa notched 220 saves in the Central League, with 914 strikeouts against only 207 walks. If his career 0.96 WHIP translates, it should make for some smoother late innings, and it wasnt hard to draw the contrast with Marmol.

Hes been known in Japan as a guy that can really pitch with his fastball, Hoyer said. Hes not a guy that tricks you. He comes right after guys and thats really important. Guys that rely too much on trickery can often be guys the league figures out quickly.

Our hope (is) that hell be able to pitch to a game plan and be able to establish himself and have a nice run.

A black suit, white dress shirt and a royal blue tie plus a new Cubs hat and jersey covered Fujikawas 6-foot, 190-pound frame as he posed for photos outside the dugout. He didnt seem to mind playing along with the cameras.

Wrigley Field felt cold, gray and empty. Even with all that experience, the Cubs arent looking to throw Fujikawa into the heat of the ninth inning right away.

I know that the team is very young, he said. I will try to lead the young players and compete to win for the Cubs. I know what they did last season, but hopefully we can do better next year. I would like to be part of the building process for the Cubs future.

Honda Road Ahead: Can Cubs slow down Nationals bats?

Honda Road Ahead: Can Cubs slow down Nationals bats?

CSN's David Kaplan and David DeJesus discuss the upcoming matchups in this edition of the Cubs Road Ahead, presented by Chicagoland & NW Indiana Honda Dealers.

Maybe a four-game series with the N.L. East-leading Washington Nationals will help the Cubs take off. 

It did last year. 

The Cubs swept the Nats early last season, boosting themselves into first place in the National League - a position they wouldn't relinquish. More than a sweep, though, a positive series is vital for a team that continues to hover around .500. 

To do so, Joe Maddon's pitchers must somehow slow the Nationals offense, which has managed to push across more runs than any team in the majors. 

After D.C., the Cubs are off to Cincy for a three-game set with the Reds. 

Watch David Kaplan and David DeJesus preview the upcoming matchups in the video above. 

Cubs in sink-or-swim mode with Nationals looming: ‘Keep the floaties on’

Cubs in sink-or-swim mode with Nationals looming: ‘Keep the floaties on’

MIAMI – Jon Jay walked into a quiet clubhouse late Sunday morning, turned right and headed directly toward the sound system in one corner of the room, plugging his phone into the sound system and playing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.”

The Cubs outfielder whistled as he changed into his work clothes at Marlins Park, singing along to the lyrics with Anthony Rizzo a few lockers over: “Don’t worry, about a thing, ‘cause every little thing gonna be all right.” 

That’s what the Cubs keep telling themselves, because most of them have World Series rings and the National League Central is such a bad division.

“The biggest thing is to keep the floaties on until we get this thing right,” manager Joe Maddon said before a 4-2 loss left the Cubs treading water again at 38-37. “We’re solvent. We’re right there. We’re right next to first place.”

In leaving this relaxed tropical environment after a 4-2 loss, the Cubs will jump into the deep end on Monday night for the start of a four-game showdown at Nationals Park, where Dusty Baker will stack his rotation with Gio Gonzalez, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and hope Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman can outslug a bad bullpen.

Maddon already sounded doubtful about All-Star shortstop Addison Russell, who mishandled the spin on a routine Ichiro Suzuki groundball in the first inning and later exited the game with a “sharp, pinching pain” at the front of his right shoulder.

Miami sunk the Cubs with three unearned runs after Russell’s error, part of season-long trend where the defending champs can’t seem to put it all together in every phase of the game. Martin Prado drilled Mike Montgomery’s first-pitch, 93-mph fastball off the left-center field wall for a two-out, two-run double and the Cubs will have to play sharper against the first-place Nationals (45-30).

“It could be a great test,” reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant said. “It will be nice to see where we’re at against them.”

The Cubs had enough trouble against Edinson Volquez and the Miami bullpen, translating eight hits and seven walks into only two runs while leaving 11 runners on base. That wasted a quality start from Montgomery (1-4, 2.03 ERA), who lasted six innings and retired the last 10 batters he faced. More than anything, Maddon sounded disappointed in Willson Contreras missing a hit-and-run sign in the seventh inning and Ian Happ getting thrown out at second base.

“Keep The Floaties On” sounds like an idea for Maddon’s next T-shirt. The 2017 Cubs haven’t been more than four games over .500 or two games under .500 at any point this season. The 2016 Cubs didn’t lose their 37th game until July 19 and spent 180 days in first place.

“That’s what was so special about it,” Rizzo said. “We boat-raced from Game 1 to Game 7 with a couple bumps in the road, but this is baseball. It’s not going to be all smooth-sailing every day. You got to work through things.”

The Cubs might be working without the safety net of a wild card when the Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies are all on pace for close to 100 victories in the brutal NL West. For all their inconsistencies, the Cubs are still only 1.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in a division where the other three teams could become trade-deadline sellers.

“I know that, but I also know that we have not had that run yet, which I believe we have (in us),” Maddon said. “I’m waiting on us to get well. I want our young guys to (use) the whole field, hitting-wise, and see where that can take us. Right now, our starters are pitching like we thought that they could.

“I’ve always wanted to win the division, obviously. We’ll just play that out. It’s too early for me to really be concerned about that yet. We’re pitching better. We’re catching the ball better. And now all of a sudden, they’re starting to use the whole field. So let’s see where this takes us right now.”

Sink or swim, the Cubs are going into the nation’s capital, less than six months after their White House visit. The big idea will be survival more than dynasty in what could still be a playoff preview.

“We’re looking forward to play them,” Montgomery said. “We know where they’re at. We know we could see them down the line.”