Mooney: What to make of the September bounce

277260.jpg

Mooney: What to make of the September bounce

Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010
6:12 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Dusty Baker is a thoughtful, honest man, and at this time last year he had to be wondering about his job security and legacy. Baker had celebrated his 60th birthday that summer and would be entering the final season of a three-year contract.

During that time, the Cincinnati Reds had shown minimal improvement, going from 74 to 78 victories and rising from fifth to fourth in the National League Central. By Opening Day 2010, their 71.7 million payroll was less than half what the Cubs were prepared to spend.

But to generate optimism the Reds could point to the 20-11 run that ended last season. One Baseball Prospectus preseason projection had them continuing that gradual growth and finishing at 82-80.

On Wednesday Baker will be chewing a toothpick at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, where the Phillies have sold out 123 straight games and are looking to hang their third consecutive pennant, and second World Series banner in three years.

For the 91-win Reds, Game 1 of this best-of-five series will mark their first playoff appearance since 1995, and it helped the ex-Cubs manager earn a two-year extension.

The Cubs closed out 2010 with a similar 24-13 push under Mike Quade, and you will be hearing about that statistic nonstop if he is named manager for next season.

Its not how you start, Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster said. When you finish like this it does carry over into next year (because) it makes it that much more exciting to get to spring training. Its unfortunate were going home right now, but well enjoy some time off and some relaxation and then get ready to get back at it.

It would have been the same story with the Padres if the Cubs hadnt won three-of-four games last week in San Diego. In 2009 the Padres went on a 37-25 run to finish at 75-87 and the momentum continued into a 90-win season, in a year and a league where 91 and 92 victories won the wild card and the division.

Anybody that discounts (this) and says it doesnt matter in September they couldnt be more wrong, general manager Jim Hendry said. I think youd ask the San Diego Padres if September mattered from a Cubs point of view.

The Pittsburgh Pirates also had a bump near the end of this season, going 13-17 from Sept. 1 on and 44-88 before that point. Does anyone honestly think they will experience the carryover effect?

Its difficult to assess all these performances, when the rosters are bloated with September call-ups and managers are making decisions while taking the long view and not trying to squeeze the most out of every matchup.

But in a game that is increasingly ruled by numbers, theres also something to be said for the feel of a clubhouse, the energy in the room. Near the end, all that changed around the Cubs. You could hear Bob Marley bouncing from the speakers after most wins.

(We) relaxed, outfielder Marlon Byrd said. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves at the beginning of the season, pressed when we werent winning. (Its) one of those things where we turned it on at the wrong time. Were just showing that we are a good team. Its just a little too late.

Theres also a difference between getting outs when the bleachers are empty and when 41,000-plus are packed into Wrigley Field. A young, inexperienced bullpen that began the season as a weakness ended it with 28 consecutive scoreless innings and a 1.19 ERA in its last 25 games.

When he managed at Triple-A Iowa, Quade was a September call-up to the Cubs, and Baker kept him around for the postseason. Quade will always be grateful for that opportunity. Again it could take years to really see what the exposure meant.

To say we want to build on this? Absolutely, but talk doesnt get it done, Quade said. Saying it and doing it are two different things. (But) much the way I said I think I found out a lot about myself these last six weeks, (those kids) better have found out a lot about themselves.

It doesnt mean they have it figured out. The minute you think you (do), youre in trouble. But theyve come a long way and I think theyre ready to take the next step to be better.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Joe Maddon's T-shirt slogans can get a little old at times, but the Cubs manager found a new audience in Brett Anderson, who liked the idea of "Be Uncomfortable" after signing a one-year, prove-it deal with the defending champs.

"It's been awesome so far," Anderson said. "That's my running joke – we're a month into it now or whatever it is – and I don't hate anybody yet.

"That's a testament to the group as a whole – and maybe me evolving as a person."

Yes, Anderson's sarcasm, social-media presence and groundball style fits in with a team built around short-term pitching and Gold Glove defense. The if-healthy lefty finished his Cactus League tour on Saturday afternoon by throwing four innings (one unearned run) during a 7-4 loss to the Colorado Rockies in front of 13,565 at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.

Anderson will open the season as the No. 4 starter after a camp that has been remarkably low-key and drama-free.

"I'm kind of cynical by nature, but it's a fun group to be a part of," Anderson said, "(with) young guys that are exciting and happy to be here. And then obviously the mix of veterans, too, that are here with intentions of winning another World Series."

To make that happen, the pitching staff will have to again stay unbelievably healthy. Anderson rolled with a general question about how he physically feels now compared to where he's usually at by this time of year.

"Obviously better than last year, because I was walking with a gimp and all that stuff," said Anderson, who underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a bulging disk in his lower back last March. "No, my body feels good, my arm feels good and you're getting into the dog days of spring training where you're itching to get to the real thing."

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

That's assuming good health – manager Joe Maddon sounded unconcerned about Ben Zobrist (stiff neck), Addison Russell (stiff back) and Albert Almora Jr. (stiff neck) – and the Cubs carrying an eight-man bullpen.

Maddon appeared to eliminate one variable, confirming that La Stella has signaled a willingness to go to Triple-A Iowa if necessary, which would normally be an obvious statement, except for last summer's "Where's Tommy?" episode.

"I haven't even thought about it," Maddon said during Saturday's media session at the Sloan Park complex. "It's not an issue. I thought we handled it pretty openly last year and there's been no blowback whatsoever from the players."

Beyond this – La Stella initially refused to report to the minors last July, moved back home to New Jersey and talked briefly about retirement – an American League scout and a National League scout tracking the Cubs in Arizona both agreed that Szczur looks like the superior player.

Plus Szczur – and not La Stella – is out of minor-league options now.

"When you get this kind of a talent, depth-wise, it's a wonderful problem to have," Maddon said. "And then, of course, the rules start creeping in. The rules in this situation would benefit Matt, which is a good thing, because he's a big-league guy that's been riding the shuttle. He's done it in a very stoic manner, and he's been great for us."

La Stella has allies in the clubhouse – Jake Arrieta got a Coastal Carolina tattoo on his right butt cheek after losing a College World Series bet – and goes about his routine in a quiet, diligent manner.

La Stella is not a distraction at all and can hit left-handed and play the infield – two attributes that Szczur can't bring to Maddon's bench.

"Matt Szczur, to me, is a Major League Baseball player," Maddon said. "You're seeing what Tommy can do from the left side of the plate right now. And then it's just a matter of balancing things out. We've already mentioned that some guys on the infield can play the outfield within this group, thus it presents differently regarding what you need."

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’]

Szczur is hitting .361 with a .994 OPS through 14 Cactus League games and can play all over the outfield. But that skill is diminished when the Cubs already have four established outfielders plus Zobrist and Kris Bryant able to shift from the infield.

Then again, defensive wizard Javier Baez should have the Cubs covered all across the infield in case of an emergency. With the defending World Series champs a week out from facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, we're about to find out if Maddon made his recommendation or had a possible trade scenario or disabled-list situation in mind.

"I love Matt Szczur," Maddon said. "This guy as a teammate – you're not going to get a better one. Nobody's going to get a better one on any team for any reason.

"We haven't decided everything or anything yet. Stuff happens in a very short period of time. He is a major-league baseball player. So we'll just wait a couple more days, see how it plays out. But he's a benefit to any group that has him."