Dempster, Cubs can't pick up the slack


Dempster, Cubs can't pick up the slack

Wednesday, April 6, 2011Posted: 4:08 p.m. Updated: 6:15 p.m.
By Patrick Mooney
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.

Feeding off 'good karma,' Cubs believe everything happens for a reason

Feeding off 'good karma,' Cubs believe everything happens for a reason

LOS ANGELES - Ben Zobrist leaned to Matt Szczur and asked, "Hey, what do you got for me?"

Everybody wants a piece of Szczur's "good karma" right now.

And why not?

Anthony Rizzo breaks his bat in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series. Then he strikes out twice to begin Game 4 and decides to switch to Matt Szczur's bat.

Boom: Home run and just like that, Rizzo is out of his postseason funk.

Addison Russell forgets his leggings. No matter. Szczur has some Russell can wear.

Boom: Two big home runs and just like that, Russell came to life and lifted the Cubs to two key victories.

Just as importantly, Russell has his mojo back.

"Definitely. I feel like my at-bats haven't been that bad this whole postseason, but you stick to your work ethic and you believe in yourself and you stay confident," he said after Thursday's Game 5 victory. 

"There's a little frustration there, but it's a different type of frustration. It's a frustration where you know you have the stuff to get the job done, but you want to help produce for your team and for your offense. And that's where I was kind of struggling a little bit with that frustration."

Szczur's not even on the Cubs' playoff roster, yet spent a second straight night in the bright lights of Hollywood, giving his take to reporters crowded around his locker and delivering a live interview on national TV talking about his underwear.

The good-natured outfielder believes it's all good karma coming back to him and the Cubs.

Before Game 4 Wednesday, ESPN re-ran a feature on Szczur's heroic act - donating bone marrow to a young girl from the Ukraine, which helped save her life at a time in his life when he was trying to make the nearly-impossible leap from college athletics to the pros.

"I didn't expect to talk to the media at all," Szczur said with a grin. "A lot of things have been coming out - the bone marrow story. 

"The same day everything came out, they ended up breaking out of slumps. And it just so happened to be with my stuff. It's good karma. I feel like a lot of things happen for a reason."

And now the Cubs are positioned just one win away from history. 

It's about time this franchise had some good karma in the postseason, eh?

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

Szczur isn't just giving the interviews and absorbing the attention. 

Before Russell's offensive breakout in Game 4, the young shortstop asked Szczur - the ex-Villanova football star - to throw a football around in the outfield to loosen up and just get back to having fun on a baseball field. Now, the two plan to make it a part of their regular routine.

Szczur also wrapped another bat for Rizzo, just in case something happened to the one that helped the face of the franchise return to his typical self at the plate.

With a lineup now featuring confident, relaxed versions of Rizzo and Russell, the Cubs love their chances against Clayton Kershaw in a possible NLCS clincher in Game 6 Saturday at Wrigley Field.

So much so that they felt they could joke about the Cubs' World Series drought before boarding a plane back to Chicago.

A reporter asked Dexter Fowler how the Cubs get past the history of a team that hasn't made it to the World Series in 71 years.

"Well, for starters, I don't think any of us are 71 years old," Fowler deadpanned.

Jason Heyward interjected.

"I didn't know that," he said, poking some fun at the franchise drought.

"We weren't alive then," Fowler continued. "We've heard the history, but at the same time, we're trying to make history.

Anthony Rizzo/Javier Baez antics show how this Cubs team doesn’t feel the same weight of history

Anthony Rizzo/Javier Baez antics show how this Cubs team doesn’t feel the same weight of history

LOS ANGELES – Within minutes of the last out on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, ESPN’s @SportsCenter account sent out a photo of Moises Alou at the Wrigley Field wall to more than 30 million Twitter followers: “The last time the Cubs were up 3-2 in an NLCS was Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS vs. the Marlins. Most remember it as ‘the Bartman Game.’”

As Kerry Wood once said: “Irrelevant, dude.”
Look, the Cubs still need to find a way to beat either Clayton Kershaw or Rich Hill this weekend, with Kenley Jansen resting and waiting for the multiple-inning saves. The obligatory description for Kershaw is “the best pitcher on the planet.” Hill’s lefty curveball – and “the perceptual velocity” of his fastball – freezes hitters. Jansen has a mystical cutter reminiscent of the great Mariano Rivera. The top-heavy part of this Los Angeles playoff pitching staff has held the Cubs to zero runs in 16.1 innings.

But until proven otherwise, forget about this idea of a Cubs team weighed down by the history of a franchise that hasn’t played in the World Series since 1945.

Just look at Javier Baez getting in Anthony Rizzo’s airspace during Game 5, the human-highlight-film second baseman standing right next to the All-Star first baseman as he caught a Kike Hernandez pop-up for the second out of the third inning.

It didn’t matter that this was a 1-0 game and MVP-ballot players Justin Turner and Corey Seager were coming up. This is what the 2016 Cubs do. Rizzo caught the ball, quickly flipped it underhand and it bounced off Baez’s chest – in front of a sellout crowd of 54,449 and a national Fox Sports 1 audience.

“We always mess around,” Rizzo said at his locker inside a tight clubhouse jammed with media after an 8-4 win. “So I’m screaming: ‘Javy! Javy! I got it! I got it, Javy, I got it!’

“And usually he’ll yell at me: ‘Don’t miss it!’ Or I’ll yell at him: ‘Don’t miss it!’

“We do that a lot. If it’s a pop-up to him, I’ll go right behind him. It’s just little ways of slowing the game down and having fun, too.”

Rizzo is a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman for a team that led the majors in defensive efficiency this year. As a super-utility guy, Baez got credit for 11 defensive runs saved in 383 innings at second base, or one less than co-leaders Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler, who each did it in almost 1,300 innings.

“Sometimes when I call (Rizzo) off to get a fly ball, he starts talking to me,” Baez said. “I tell him: ‘Hey, you can do whatever you want. Just don’t move my head. You can touch me if you want. Just don’t move my head.’

“And I told him to be ready for it, because I was going to do the same thing. You just got to be focused on the fly ball. No matter what’s happening around you, you just got to catch it.”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

This isn’t about Bartman. It’s about a group of young, confident players who are growing up together and absolutely expect to be in this position. It’s manager Joe Maddon designing “Embrace The Target” T-shirts and telling them to show up to the ballpark whenever they want and then blow off batting practice.

“For sure, we’re relaxed,” said Baez, who’s gone viral during these playoffs, the rest of the country witnessing his amazing instincts and flashy personality. “I’m relaxed when I play defense.”

The thing is, Rizzo and Baez could be playing next to each other for the next five years, the same way Kris Bryant and Addison Russell will be anchoring the left side of the infield.

This is how Rizzo introduced Russell to The Show when a natural shortstop tried to learn second base on the fly last year and track pop-ups in front of 40,000 people: “Hey, watch out for that skateboard behind you! Don’t trip!”

“Oh yeah, we yell at each other all the time,” Rizzo said. “It’s just one of those things where you got to stay loose.”