Szczur plans to get on the fast track with Cubs

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Szczur plans to get on the fast track with Cubs

MESA, Ariz. Thirteen months ago, Matt Szczur was training for the NFL combine at a facility in Boca Raton, Fla. Jim Hendry flew down from Chicago to watch him work out and the two went to dinner at a nearby Mortons steakhouse.

The Cubs had selected Szczur in the fifth round of the 2010 draft, and he got a taste that summer, playing 25 games of Class-A ball that began with a 21-game hitting streak.

It was fun, but Szczur (pronounced Caesar) had already won a national championship at Villanova University in 2009, and some NFL team figured to draft him as a wide receiver who could line up at running back and return punts and kickoffs.

I didnt think I was playing baseball at all, Szczur said Saturday, sitting in front of his locker at Fitch Park. I had no thought in my mind I was playing baseball.

Szczur got high marks for his character. He had donated his bone marrow to an infant with leukemia in the spring of 2010. She only had a 1-in-80,000 chance of finding a match, but still survived.

The Cubs general manager at the time had to own some bad contracts. That overshadowed how creative Hendry could be as a dealmaker, the loyalty and trust that he could build up across the table.

Greg Maddux could have any job he wanted in baseball, but he once decided to be a special assistant to Hendry. Kerry Wood had just given Hendry a hometown discount.

Several players Hendry closed on last August when he already knew he was fired were scheduled to begin a minicamp on Saturday at HoHoKam Stadium, among them: Shawon Dunston Jr.; Javier Baez; Daniel Vogelbach; and Dillon Maples, all part of a 12 million draft class.

He was very easy to talk to, Szczur said. I just felt like I had a lot of injuries my senior year (in football). We talked about that a little bit and it got me thinking.

Szczur went back to his parents and his agent and took a new deal, which was believed to include a 1.5 million payment for the 2011 season. The outfielder landed in the All-Star Futures Game and finished with a .293 average, 10 homers and 24 stolen bases in 109 games split between Class-A Peoria and Daytona.

Szczur played last season on top of a football schedule, and by the middle of July he was so sore that hed jump into an ice bath after each game.

Hendry used to joke that Szczurs offseason baseball activities were the equivalent of taking hacks in a beer league. Szczur freely admits that fundamentally, Im not that sound.

Szczur also missed 10 games during Villanovas 2010 baseball season because of the medication he had to take to donate those peripheral blood cells, which saved the young girls life.

Really, the 22-year-old Szczur is just scratching the surface. Hes been at the Cubs complex in Arizona since last November, losing the bulk he used to carry for football, redistributing the weight and becoming more flexible.

Szczur is listed at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds and has explosive speed. He can chase down balls in the outfield, but he might not take the right path. He can sprint to second and steal a base, but he might not get the best jump. Hes always been aggressive, able to just get by on his athleticism.

Thats why Baseball America is bullish on Szczur, putting him at No. 64 on its just-released top 100 prospect list and giving this scouting report: Exciting high-risk, high-reward talent who should take off with football in his rearview mirror.

Theo Epstein collected those types of players when he ran the Boston Red Sox. Szczur has spoken with the president of baseball operations, and will have to make the new boss take notice.

Maybe a dinner at Mortons last January got the Cubs a core player for the future. The fans in the bleachers would love a guy whos not afraid of crashing into the bricks and ivy.

Im just here to play and make a team, Szczur said. I dont care whos in the front office. Not that its a bad thing, but I have to worry about myself. I have to perform, because no matter whos in the front office, if Im not playing well, theyre not going to do anything for me. Once I start playing well, they see that.

Kris Bryant’s MVP performance leads Cubs to comeback win at Dodger Stadium

Kris Bryant’s MVP performance leads Cubs to comeback win at Dodger Stadium

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 and cheering on this entertaining comeback win.

Until Clayton Kershaw returns to full strength, 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 homebody who happens to have his own billboards and marketing deals – but doesn’t do bulletin-board quotes or brag about his game – Bryant is not exactly a Hollywood personality. But this is also a goal-oriented individual who doesn’t shy away from the pressure and the expectations and absolutely wants to be the best at his craft.

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.

“It’s humbling,” Bryant said. “You grow up hearing that kind of stuff on TV. To experience it in real life is pretty cool.”

It became hard to hear Bryant inside the visiting clubhouse, because teammates chanted “MVP!” and sung along with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre as “Nuthin But a G Thang” played on the sound system. But for most of the night, it looked like it would be a silent room postgame as the resilient Dodgers took 3-1 and 4-2 leads.

Until the eighth inning, when Bryant launched a home run off Joe Blanton that landed in the center-field seats blocked off for the batter’s eye. And then the ninth inning showed 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 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.

That set the stage for Bryant, who brought up the fielding error he made in the fifth inning during his postgame interview on Channel 7 after hitting the game-winning homer off lefty Adam Liberatore. All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo may set the tone in the clubhouse, but Bryant already brings tunnel vision and a high degree of professionalism to an 82-45 team, even at the age of 24. 

“He just doesn’t quit,” Heyward said. “He wants to be in every spot. He goes up there and has his at-bat – and that’s it.

“You can talk about why he’s been hitting the ball well, this and that, but he has a good approach. It’s that simple. Other than that, he works his tail off every day to try and go out there and help us win.

“When you have that gift – and you have that work ethic – the bottom line is a lot of good things can happen.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

A resourceful $250 million team won’t fade away, 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. Los Angeles has cycled through 14 different starting pitchers, relying on depth, a powerful lineup and a strong bullpen to surge into first place and hold onto a one-game lead over the San Francisco Giants 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.

“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.”

Like Bryant going from a promising player with a few holes in his swing who looked worn down at times last season – to an MVP frontrunner with a .303 average, 89 RBI, 107 runs scored, a .982 OPS and the versatility to play third base, defensively shift across the infield and move to the outfield.

Kershaw vs. Bryant would be must-see TV in October.

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.”