Chicago Cubs

The endgame for the Cubs and Marmol

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The endgame for the Cubs and Marmol

Brian Wilson has the big black beard, the tattoos, the Taco Bell commercials and more than 600,000 followers on Twitter. The San Francisco Giants won another World Series without him.

Losing an elite closer is nothing like the Bulls trying to replace Derrick Rose this season. While Wilson recovered from Tommy John surgery, the Giants leaned on a 28th-round pick, a good setup guy with his own sweet beard and fist-pumping routine.

Sergio Romo had saved only three games in his entire big-league career until this year. He closed out the Detroit Tigers three times during a four-game sweep, ending it when he froze Miguel Cabrera with an 89 mph fastball.

Ideally, thats how the Cubs would like to build their bullpen. Their next closer wont be a cult of personality. Theyd prefer to grow one organically, or buy one at a discount, rather than pay top dollar.

Carlos Marmol will earn 9.8 million in the final year of his contract, which makes him an expensive, short-term asset in an organization with a long-range vision. So from next weeks general manager meetings in Indian Wells, Calif., all the way to next summers deadline, his name could be all over MLBTradeRumors.com.

When asked, Theo Epstein said hes comfortable with Marmol as his 2013 Opening Day closer. But the team presidents answer to a hypothetical question Philosophically, how would you go about finding a closer if your roster didnt have one? sounded more revealing.

I would look at it as an opportunity to try to give someone an opportunity, Epstein said recently. Either internally a pitcher that we believed in and liked and exposed them to that role (so he) could maybe develop into that type of asset.

Or go outside the organization and try to buy low on a pitcher that we really liked and then build value by putting him in that role. (Thats) value for the Cubs, and then if our season doesnt turn out the way we want it to potential value in a trade.

It didnt quite work, but Epstein went with the bullpen-by-committee when he took over the Boston Red Sox. He also went year-to-year with Jonathan Papelbon in arbitration at a time when they were locking up other young core players with extensions.

The Cubs are trying to stockpile power arms through the draft and build their bullpen from within. In the future, its hard to see them matching the kind of four-year, 50 million contract the Philadelphia Phillies gave Papelbon almost 12 months ago. They arent going to buy a brand name.

Marmol briefly lost his job and spent time on the disabled list with a hamstring strain in May. By the time he got back on track, no one was really paying attention to the Cubs as they marched toward 101 losses.

When theres something extreme early in the season, it dictates the narrative for the whole season, Epstein said. I think it kind of went unnoticed nationally, just the extent to which this guy turned his year around and was really effective.

Marmol converted 19 straight save chances during one stretch and posted a 1.52 ERA after the All-Star break. Whether or not that will lower heart rates among Cubs fans, or suppress that feeling of "here we go again" after the next leadoff walk at Wrigley Field, or convince a rival executive, his final numbers wound up being pretty good: 3-3 with a 3.42 ERA, 20 saves and 72 strikeouts in 55.1 innings.

Marmol also bought into what the coaching staff kept preaching: Trust your fastball. He threw it 51 percent of the time, seeing his average velocity rise back up to 94 mph, according to the online database at FanGraphs.

Big punch-out rate, more strikes and then really significantly he did it in a completely different way, Epstein said. His fastball was really useable and really effective and that hasnt been seen around here from him, maybe ever. That was a great sign, because I think its more likely to be repeated next year.

Hes got two really viable pitches now. If he had just been a straight-out slider monster and happened to lock in his slider for a couple months and faced some aggressive hitters, I wouldnt be as optimistic about him as I am now, because hes got two weapons to go at hitters with again.

After 13 seasons in the organization, Marmol celebrated his 30th birthday this month. He planned to spend his offseason riding horses, working on his farm in the Dominican Republic and ignoring all the speculation about what the Cubs might do next.

Marmol also considers Chicago to be a second home. He has become acclimated to the pressures of pitching the ninth inning here. Win or lose, he always stands in front of his locker postgame.

The statheads arent going to want to hear about a closers mentality, or being able to do it on a big stage in front of 40,000 fans. But even manager Dale Sveum who uses all the data analysis to guide his decisions thinks theres something different about getting the last three outs. Sooner or later, the Cubs are going to find out if someone else has what it takes.

Get off my lawn: Jon Lester breaks down big Cubs win

Get off my lawn: Jon Lester breaks down big Cubs win

ST. LOUIS – Jon Lester went into get-off-my-lawn-mode, tired of math nerds and people being famous for no reason and the questions about whether or not he will be ready for the playoffs.   

Lester is actually a great talker when he gets going, introspective, self-deprecating and a voice of authority after winning three World Series rings with the Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

But Lester didn’t exactly sound ready to pop champagne bottles after Monday night’s 10-2 win at Busch Stadium eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals from the National League Central race and guaranteed at least a tie with the Milwaukee Brewers for the division title.  

Whether it was Lester’s brutal honesty, simmering frustration or high expectations for himself, he downplayed a quality start against a team still battling for a wild-card spot. He also took a subtle jab at the team’s sophisticated game-planning system and ripped the culture that brought us “Nacho Man.”

“I got to get back to being me,” said Lester, who had given up 27 hits and 12 walks in his previous four September starts since coming off the disabled list with what the Cubs termed left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue. “I got to get back to putting the hitters on a defensive mode, as opposed to trying to pitch to a scouting report from pitch 1.

“That was a conscious effort going into tonight, and I felt a lot better with everything, based off of that.”

Lester attacked the Cardinals with fastballs, working with 4-0, 5-0 and 8-1 leads across six innings. Once again, he found his rhythm later, giving up two walks in the fourth, getting his only 1-2-3 innings in the fifth and sixth and maxing out at 103 pitches.

The Cardinals scored their only run off Lester in the second inning when Jedd Gyorko launched a ball 410 feet out toward left field and “Big Mac Land” – in the same at-bat where shortstop Addison Russell almost made a Derek Jeter catch and turned “Nacho Man” into an instant celebrity.   

“I’m laughing more at the fact that the guy’s taking pictures and signing autographs,” Lester said. “I really don’t know what he did. A guy fell into him and got nacho cheese on his arm and now he’s taking pictures and signing autographs. I guess that shows you where our society is at right now with all that stuff.

“I really didn’t think it was that far foul. I thought it was a pretty routine play that just kept going. And I think it surprised Addie as well. So great effort, but I don’t understand the other stuff.”

Classic Lester, who changed the clubhouse vibe and fundamental nature of this rivalry when he decided to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season and will be 3-for-3 in playoff seasons as a Cub.

“I don’t know,” Lester said three times when asked if those command issues are rooted in taking more than two weeks off in the middle of the season. “I haven’t had stuff like this before, so figure it out as we go.”

How close are you to where you want to be?

“I don’t know,” Lester said. “I was good tonight, so let’s go with that.”

The Cubs trusted Lester enough to give him $155 million guaranteed and make him their Game 1 starter in all three playoff rounds last year. But the team’s inner circle of decision-makers had to be breathing a sign of relief, knowing that plans will take shape before Lester’s final regular-season start, what should be a meaningless Game 161 against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.  

“He’s just been searching, command-wise, (and) I can’t give you an exact reason why,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We just need to get him out of the gate a little bit more on top of his game. Again, I can’t give you a solid reason. He’s well. The numbers on the gun are good. It’s just a matter of executing his pitches and finishing them.”   

Lester always seems to be so hard on himself on the mound, and that competitive fire has made him one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation. The Cubs expect to see that guy show up in October against the Washington Nationals.   

“Everything was just a little bit sharper today than it has been in a little while, so that’s good, moving in the right direction,” Lester said. “There’s a few things in there that I need to clean up. But as far as overall, it’s definitely a positive."

With no more drama left in division race, Cubs-Cardinals turns into Addison Russell vs. Nacho Man

With no more drama left in division race, Cubs-Cardinals turns into Addison Russell vs. Nacho Man

ST. LOUIS – The Cubs played with an all-out intensity that drove Addison Russell to sprint over from shortstop and dive headfirst into the front-row seats beyond the left-field line, kicking a tray of nachos out of some dude’s left hand.

The St. Louis Cardinals have sunk to the point where Nacho Man became their biggest star on Monday night, going viral on social media and getting interviewed by the Chicago Tribune and both CSN Chicago and Fox Sports Midwest during the in-game broadcasts.

Russell didn’t catch that foul ball in the second inning with a Derek Jeter leap that left his right hand covered in cheese. He got booed when the Busch Stadium video board showed the replay of the nachos hitting the ground. He made amends by bringing out another order of nachos and taking a selfie with the Cardinal fan.

“He had a great night at the ballgame,” Russell said. “Initially off the bat, I was thinking that I could make the play. I didn’t see the fence and collided with it and got all nacho-d up.”

No, this didn’t feel like a playoff atmosphere at all, beginning with the 85-degree heat and ending with entire sections of empty seats. Jedd Gyorko actually homered during that at-bat, but it didn’t matter because the Cubs had already given Jon Lester a four-run lead before he threw his first pitch in what was supposed to be a dress rehearsal for October.

The Cubs will be there as the National League Central champions, eliminating the Cardinals from the division race with a low-stress 10-2 victory that sets up the chance for a blowout party late Tuesday night in the visiting clubhouse with another win or a Milwaukee Brewers’ loss.

“Woof,” catcher Willson Contreras said when asked what it would mean to clinch in St. Louis. “It always means a lot.”

Sensing the opportunity to bury the Cardinals, the Cubs jumped St. Louis right-hander Luke Weaver, a talented rookie who came in with a 7-1 record and a 2.05 ERA and lasted only three innings. Russell – who had been such a clutch performer late in last year’s playoff run – started it by driving a two-out, bases-loaded double into the right-field corner in the first inning.

Kris Bryant, the reigning NL MVP, drove Weaver’s 93-mph fastball beyond the left-field wall and into the visiting bullpen for his 29th homer and a 5-0 lead in the second inning. Javier Baez, the No. 8 hitter, launched a three-run homer that traveled 422 feet and slammed off an advertisement overhang above the bullpen in the third inning.

This is like a dream for Cubs fans enjoying this road trip to St. Louis and trolling Cardinal fans this week (with or without taking their nachos).

“I just want to win, honestly,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I understand all that. But I’m so contrary to coming to try to force those kind of thoughts in my methods. It’s about tonight’s game. And whenever we have this first chance to get there, let’s get there. You never want it to drag out. You want to be able to set things up, so it doesn’t matter to me.

“Believe me, man, I just want to win tonight.”

Or, as 2016 World Series MVP Ben Zobrist said: “The testosterone probably raises a little bit this time of year.”

Get your goggles and trash bags ready. The Cubs are the type of team that designed a Party Room into their state-of-the-art clubhouse as part of the $600 million Wrigleyville development and stretched out their World Series victory lap across Disney World, “Saturday Night Live,” and countless talk shows, commercials and ring ceremonies.

Anthony Rizzo – the only player left from the 2012 team that lost 101 games and a consultant on that Party Room project – insisted that celebrating in front of their rivals at a stadium that used to give the Cubs nightmares wouldn’t make a difference.       

“I really would love to be able to do it at Wrigley and use our new facilities even more,” Rizzo said. “But St. Louis is a good baseball city. They appreciate good baseball.

“If it was there, if it was in Arizona, it doesn’t matter where we clinch. Our goal was to win the division.”  

Even if it took until Sept. 26.

“It’s starting to smell like playoff baseball,” Russell said. “I know that these guys are amped up. It’s definitely feeling like playoff baseball."