Dempster, Cubs can't pick up the slack

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Dempster, Cubs can't pick up the slack

Wednesday, April 6, 2011Posted: 4:08 p.m. Updated: 6:15 p.m.
By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com
Andrew Cashner walked through the clubhouse late Wednesday afternoon with a T-shirt that had "NO EXCUSES" written across the back.

It was probably just a coincidence - ballplayers always wear those empty motivational slogans on their chest - but it said everything about a team that needs to regroup.

A few hours after the Cubs announced that Cashner and Randy Wells will be placed on the disabled list, they turned to their Opening Day starter, the rotation's anchor.

Ryan Dempster didn't blow away the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Cubs committed three errors and their offense still hasn't put together a monster game to give the pitching staff a breather.

The Cubs closed out their opening homestand with a 6-4 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks in front of an announced crowd - 32,272 - that again looked to be much smaller than that. Besides all the empty green seats at Wrigley Field, this will be remembered as a missed opportunity.

The 3-3 Cubs split with the Diamondbacks and Pittsburgh Pirates, two last-place teams in 2010, and it won't get any easier without Wells and Cashner.

"Leave the two kids that are hurt out of it," manager Mike Quade said. "Everybody understands that we're going to need contributions from all over the place. ... I don't think people are going to try to do too much or be so disappointed that they're not going to come play.

"We just didn't do enough things well today to win a ballgame. And I don't think it had anything to do with the news we got."

Suddenly that inventory of starters has been cleared out. The Cubs aren't quite as pitching rich anymore. If they're going to compensate by scoring more runs and tightening up defensively, it will have to wait until the weekend in Milwaukee, where Casey Coleman will arrive as reinforcement.

"This is when you find out the depth of your organization," Marlon Byrd. "This is why you have young guys in spring training, getting them ready. We're going to need guys to come up and step in and do their job."

This game pivoted with two outs in the third inning. Byrd charged in and dove at a ball Chris Young lined into center. It skipped past Byrd and slipped out of Alfonso Soriano's hand when he went to retrieve it. Young sprinted all the way home.

"An inch here, an inch there, I catch that ball," Byrd said. "It's zero-zero instead of 2-0 and gives Dempster a little comfort. (But) that's the game of baseball. I'm always going to be aggressive."

Home runs from Soriano and Aramis Ramirez weren't enough, and it seems like the Cubs will have to get used to playing close games. They'll deal with the stress that will put on their pitchers and the bullpen won't be working with wide margins - John Grabow gave up an insurance run in the eighth that looked much bigger than it should.

But when you run any best-case scenarios for the 2011 Cubs, it all comes back to the rotation.

"If you're shell-shocked by what happened," Quade said, "you're not going to be doing this very long. ... You put it behind you. (We) win games with healthy people."

Dempster is now 0-2 with a 6.59 ERA after allowing five runs - four earned - on 10 hits in seven innings.

The injuries reminded you that what Dempster has done across the past three seasons - 98 starts and 622 innings - is so impressive.

Dempster expressed hope that Cashner and Wells won't be out for a long time. But they won't begin a throwing program to build their arm strength back up until - at the absolute earliest - two weeks from now.

Dempster also viewed this is an opportunity for someone else, and he's right. Wells used a May 2009 call-up as the platform to establish himself as a major-league starter. It wouldn't be surprising if Coleman did the same.

But Dempster's first reaction to a question about where the Cubs go from here summed it up for everyone in the room.

"It sucks to lose both those guys," he said.

After locking up homefield advantage, Cubs flummoxed by Cardinals in blowout loss

After locking up homefield advantage, Cubs flummoxed by Cardinals in blowout loss

At the end of the day, a loss means essentially nothing for the Cubs right now.

But the Cubs also certainly don't want to hand games to their division rival as the St. Louis Cardinals make a run at the National League wild card spots.

After the Cubs clinched homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs with the Washington Nationals' loss Friday night, they had no answer for the Cardinals in a 10-4 loss in front of 40,785 fans at Wrigley Field Saturday afternoon on national TV.

A few disturbing trends popped their heads above ground for the Cubs again Saturday, including the offense's struggles at manufacturing runs, Jason Hammel getting shelled and some bullpen woes.

The Cubs had no trouble putting runners on base against Cardinals phenom Alex Reyes, but they had a tough time plating those guys, cashing in only once with a runner on third base in six tries over the first four innings.

In two of those spots, a Cubs hitter came up with only one out, but failed to bring the run home as Addison Russell struck out in the first inning and Kris Bryant popped out to shallow left in the second.

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Hammel recorded only seven outs and was tagged for six runs on six hits and a walk, watching his season ERA rise nearly 30 points to 3.83. The veteran right-hander fell to 15-10 as he attempts to make a push for one of the Cubs' final postseason roster spots.

"Honestly, I would love to be a part of [the playoff roster], as the rest of the guys on the team would love to," Hammel said. "I know there's only a certain amount of spots, so if I'm handed the ball, I'll be ready. That's the way I'm gonna view it.

"Obviously you wanna be a part of something special like that, but I think everybody here has already been a part of something special to get to this point. We're all very proud. We still got eight regular season ballgames left to build some momentum. Whether I'm on the roster or not, I'm still gonna enjoy it."

Hammel was also clearly on the wrong end of some bad luck Saturday, as the four runs he allowed in the first came via a check swing and a couple hits just out of the reach of his fielders. 

Joe Maddon won't put too much stock into one rough start in late September.

"I'm not too worried about a good or bad outing right now. I'm not," he said. "Pretty much, you know who the guy is. You know if the guy's go this stuff going on or if he doesn't. ... The greater body of work matters."

Setup man Hector Rondon struggled in his appearance, needing 26 pitches to notch just one out, giving up three runs on three hits and a walk before handing the ball off to Felix Pena.

Of course, it's also just one game and one loss for a team with 98 victories and hopes of the World Series.

Rondon had been nearly unhittable since returning from the disabled list two weeks ago and the Cubs offense had been efficient and relentless in the past four games after Maddon's meeting with the hitters earlier in the week.

Maddon also used the blowout to get regulars like Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Russell out of the lineup to help keep them fresh for October.

After the game, Maddon chose to look on the bright side.

"Our starter had a tough day today; that's it. Otherwise we did some nice things," he said, referencing the solid offensive days from Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist. "We had chances to score runs - runners on third, less than two outs - and we didn't fulfill that.

"We made their starter throw 115 pitches in five innings; I think that's a positive."

The Cubs will close out their season series with the Cardinals on another nationally-televised showdown Sunday night between Jon Lester and St. Louis ace Carlos Martinez.

Cubs: Miguel Montero plays 'psychologist' to get the most out of Jake Arrieta

Cubs: Miguel Montero plays 'psychologist' to get the most out of Jake Arrieta

Lost amid the craziness of Friday's game and David Ross' emotional sendoff was Miguel Montero locking up a spot on the Cubs' postseason roster.

It's not official, of course. 

The Cubs don't have to get their National League Division Series 25-man roster until the morning of Oct. 7, Game 1.

But Montero proved his value to the Cubs, even in an 0-for-3 effort offensively.

The veteran catcher has struggled to find consistency at the plate this season, but his work behind the plate has proven invaluable, especially with reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta.

Montero helped get Arrieta in rhythm Friday for a dominant performance - 10 strikeouts across seven shutout innings.

It was the first time the two had worked together in a battery since Aug. 12, with Willson Contreras catching Arrieta five times and Ross behind the dish once in that span.

"Quite frankly, I'm not gonna lie - I wanted to see that," Cubs manager Joe Maddon admitted after Friday's game. "Miggy did a great job with him. They were outstanding together."

The proof is in the numbers, too.

With Contreras over those five starts, Arrieta has posted a 4.50 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, averaging 6.4 innings per outing.

In the last six starts with Montero behind the plate, Arrieta has a 1.99 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and is averaging 6.78 innings per outing.

Of course, Montero was also Arrieta's primary catcher for the pitcher's other-worldly run to close out last season.

Maddon believes there's a comfort level there between the two and with the Cubs essentially just biding time until the postseason, now was the time to make a change and see how they worked together again instead of worrying about getting Contreras more experience.

If Arrieta can find consistency pitching at that level, it absolutely gives the Cubs a new look alongside 2016 Cy Young contenders Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks.

"We work well together," Arrieta said. "I work well with Willson and with Rossy, but Miggy and I have worked together for quite a bit of time now throughout the last couple years. He knows the way my stuff works. 

"He has little nuances, little mannerisms that he makes behind the plate that can help me get back on track from time to time and it's nice to have a guy like that who can really pick things out visually and relay a message to me by something small that helps me get back in line."

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Montero admitted he wasn't even focusing on his at-bats throughout Friday's game, instead putting his full attention on getting Arrieta back on track.

It may only be one outing, but it worked, and Montero deserves credit for getting Arrieta to settle down, stop trying to be too perfect and just unleash his ace stuff.

"We have to be a psychologist. That's our job as a catcher," Montero said. "People don't realize that. People think the catcher needs to throw and hit. No, we need to be a psychologist.

"We need to know who we got out on the mound, how to talk to him, how to go about the business, how to explain to him how to do things. I like psychology a lot and he's one of the guys who you need to push him a little bit harder, and that's me.

"I'm gonna push a guy to the limits, 'cause I know I can get a lot more from him. I know who I can get a lot more from."

Maddon didn't tip his hand about who will pair up with Arrieta next start, but the Cubs don't have to make that decision right now. 

However, with a veteran catcher like Montero around who knows how to call a game and has been heralded as one of the best pitch-framers in baseball during his prime, it'd be hard to leave him off the postseason roster.

In October, the Cubs will place a premium on guys who have been there before and can work in rhythm with a veteran-laden pitching staff and in those areas, Montero has a leg up on rookie Contreras.

Montero handled his reduction in playing time gracefully when Contreras was promoted to the big leagues over the summer, but now, the 33-year-old looks to be reemerging for the Cubs as the "big boy" games loom.

"I don't know if I'm gonna catch [Arrieta] again, but I hope he keeps that momentum going, which I think is a good confidence-builder right there," Montero said. "... My main goal [Friday] was just Jake and just to get him out there and get him to throw a good game and build his confidence again.

"I went 0-for-3, but I don't care. I accomplished my goal - which was to get him to throw a good game and he did."