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.

Kris Bryant blasts Cubs to win over Dodgers

Kris Bryant blasts Cubs to win over Dodgers

LOS ANGELES – The “MVP! MVP! MVP!” chants started at Dodger Stadium late Friday night, Cubs fans celebrating Kris Bryant’s two-run homer in the 10th inning of a wild comeback win.

Until Clayton Kershaw returns to full strength and stares down hitters from 60 feet, six inches and unleashes his entire arsenal, it’s impossible to know how the Cubs would stack up against Los Angeles in October. But it’s still safe to say this would be an epic playoff matchup between two big-market, star-studded franchises, with two iconic ballparks becoming the backdrop, celebrity row after celebrity row.

As a quiet, humble homebody who sometimes sounds boring on purpose, Bryant doesn’t have a Hollywood personality. But this is also someone who loves the big stage and wants to be the best. The Cubs won this round with Bryant, who launched his 34th and 35th home runs in a 6-4 victory, an MVP-worthy season becoming the sequel to his Rookie of the Year campaign.

When a crowd of 48,609 got loud in the seventh after Dodgers cleanup hitter Adrian Gonzalez drove Justin Grimm’s 94-mph fastball over the right-center field wall for a 4-2 lead, Bryant responded the next inning with a home run off Joe Blanton that landed in the center-field seats blacked out for the batter’s eye. 

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Here’s how Bryant could win it in the 10th inning, and why manager Joe Maddon will want Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward in a playoff lineup:

In the middle of a frustrating offensive season where he’s felt the weight of a $184 million contract, Heyward led off the ninth inning by ripping a double into the right-field corner off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. Heyward hustled to third base when new Dodgers catcher Carlos Ruiz couldn’t handle strike three against Jorge Soler. Heyward ran home to score the game-tying run when a Jansen wild pitch sailed toward the backstop.

But a $250 million team is extremely resourceful, even with Kershaw (back) not pitching for two months, one of 27 players the Dodgers have stashed on the disabled list, tying a major-league record. The Dodgers have cycled through 14 different starting pitchers, relying on depth and a strong lineup and an imposing back end of the bullpen to surge into first place in the National League West. 

“How about last year?” Maddon said. “We beat up on the Mets during the season, we go (into the playoffs) and we can’t even touch them. It’s such a different animal. People get hot or people get cold and actually the weather gets cold and everything does change.

“I know what we’re talking about. I’m not going to diminish the fact I’m going to be paying attention. But things change. Trends can be so trendy, to quote Yogi. So I don’t get too far ahead, because things can change very quickly.”   

How Mike Montgomery fits into big-picture plans for Cubs

How Mike Montgomery fits into big-picture plans for Cubs

LOS ANGELES – In their never-ending search for young pitching, the Cubs discussed a Matt Moore deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, but wouldn’t consider trading Kyle Schwarber. To get Moore at the Aug. 1 deadline, the San Francisco Giants had to surrender the runner-up to Kris Bryant in last season’s National League Rookie of the Year race (Matt Duffy), plus two more prospects.

Moore finished one out short of a no-hitter on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, throwing 133 pitches against a deep Los Angeles lineup, two-plus years after having Tommy John surgery on his left elbow. Whether or not Moore helps shift the balance of power in the National League West, the Cubs should still have enough pitching.

To get through October. As long as John Lackey (shoulder) comes off the disabled list in early September and the rest of the rotation stays healthy. Surviving next season and beyond could be a different story, if Jake Arrieta becomes another team’s 2018 Opening Day starter, if Jon Lester breaks down in the middle of that $155 million megadeal and assuming Lackey finally retires around the 3,000-inning mark.

All that makes Mike Montgomery an interesting lefty swingman if the Cubs are going to maintain The Foundation for Sustained Success.

“I think he is a major-league starter, regardless of what happens tonight,” manager Joe Maddon said before Friday’s wild 6-4 comeback win that took 10 innings at Dodger Stadium. “This guy has the ability to be a solid major-league starter based on his strength level, his delivery, the variety of pitches that he throws. The strike-throwing ability is exceptional. He’s got all those different things going on.

“Just be a little bit patient with (him) and let him get his feet on the ground somewhere, because he’s the kind of guy that can take off if he gets comfortable in his environment.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

If Montgomery didn’t ace this audition, he also didn’t bomb against a first-place team in front of a big crowd (48,609), either, showing the potential the Cubs saw in making last month’s trade with the Seattle Mariners.

Montgomery kept the Cubs in the game before Bryant’s clutch performance, allowing three runs in five innings and minimizing the damage on a night where he didn’t have pinpoint control (four walks, hit batter, wild pitch, 49 strikes across 91 pitches).

The Cubs are in trouble if Montgomery somehow winds up in this year’s playoff rotation, but he checks a lot of boxes for the future as someone with youth (27), size (6-foot-5), first-round/top-prospect pedigree, a high groundball rate and a service-time clock that won’t make him a free agent until after the 2021 season.

Cubs pay their respects to Vin Scully at Dodger Stadium

Cubs pay their respects to Vin Scully at Dodger Stadium

LOS ANGELES – There will never be another Vin Scully, who joined the Dodgers in Brooklyn as a kid out of Fordham University, moved to Los Angeles and became a face of the franchise, doing the one-man show that still connects and entertains generations of baseball fans.

The Cubs paid their respects to the legendary broadcaster before Friday night’s game at Dodger Stadium, with manager Joe Maddon and catcher David Ross visiting the Vin Scully Press Box for another photo op before the lyrical voice retires at the end of this season, at the age of 88.

“You’re ascending into the clouds to meet Mr. Scully,” Maddon said. “That’s like the window to the world up there when you sit in his booth and he talks about the purple mountain majesties on a clear day beyond the outfield fences here.”

The Cubs presented Scully with a green “67” scoreboard panel – to mark the number of seasons he’s worked Dodger games – as well as a Dodger banner from Wrigley Field. Maddon also gave Scully, who rocks the conservative coat-and-tie look on TV, several T-shirts from his collection, including “Try Not to Suck.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Maddon said he told Scully: “Maybe at the end of the year, sitting by your pool with the sandals on, you can put a T-shirt on where no one can see you and just be Vin.”

As the tributes pour in from around baseball, CSN Chicago will carry Scully’s third-inning call live during Sunday’s broadcast from Chavez Ravine.

“He makes you feel like he’s known you for the last 50 years,” Maddon said. “Just really kind and gracious. And you have to be all of that to survive that many years. Besides being good, it’s his authenticity and how he interacts with people that really (keeps) you on that stage that long.”