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.

Joe Maddon has not seen anything like these recent implosions from Cubs pitching staff

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AP

Joe Maddon has not seen anything like these recent implosions from Cubs pitching staff

Joe Maddon has not seen anything like these single-inning implosions lately.

At least not at the major-league level.

For the third time in the last five Wrigley Field contest, the Cubs pitching staff has allowed at least seven runs in an inning.

This time, it was nine runs before the first out was recorded in the eighth inning of Friday's 11-4 Cardinals victory.

The Cubs actually entered the inning clinging to a 3-2 lead and had their best setup guy — Carl Edwards Jr. — slated to pitch against the top of the Cardinals order.

But after taking out his teammate with a foul ball, Matt Carpenter began the wacky inning with a double off Edwards and the rout was on.

"We had a bad inning pitching," Maddon said after the game. "That's the third time in a week here at this ballpark, if you go back prior to the break. It's a seven, a nine and a 10 in an inning. 

"I've not seen that since rookie ball. That's crazy stuff. I'm saying it straight up: We played good baseball today. We just pitched badly for one inning. Some really good pitchers had a tough time.

"...That's kind of a strange day. We played well and lost because we gave up nine runs in an inning, which is really awkward to watch from the dugout."

Thirty-eight minutes after Edwards threw the first pitch of the inning, the Cubs finally retired the Cardinals and were looking up at an 11-3 score. 

Neither Edwards nor Hector Rondon recorded an out and they combined with Justin Grimm to allow six hits, six walks and nine runs.

Here's how it all went down:

That's the second straight Wrigley Field game that has featured at least nine runs in an inning but a Cubs opponent. Ace Jon Lester surrendered 10 runs in the first inning to the Pittsburgh Pirates on the day before the All-Star Break began.

And the day before that series began, Mike Montgomery and the Cubs gave up seven runs to the Milwaukee Brewers in a rain make-up game at the "Friendly Confines."

"You see it every now and again. Not often," said Jake Arrieta, Friday's starting pitcher who was in line for a win before that wild eighth inning. "You stick around this game long enough and you see some crazy things happen. And really, that was the turning point in the game. 

"A couple guys had a pretty rare outing in the 8th there. You won't see that rarely ever or ever again from those two guys. Just a tough one."

Rondon, who had entered the game having allowed just two runs in his last 13 innings, could do nothing but shake his head in trying to explain it after the game.

"That was a weird, weird inning," Rondon said. "First time I've seen something like that — nine runs with no outs. But it is what it is. They got us today and we'll see tomorrow."

Maddon has seen control issues with his bullpen all year, but still has confidence in the unit as a whole. He knows not to overreact to one game.

However, Maddon did point to the first game coming out of the All-Star Break where Montgomery and the Cubs bullpen squandered an 8-0 lead before Addison Russell's heroics to break the tie for good late in that contest.

"The bullpen has been fabulous," Maddon said. "Twice since the break, they just had tough games."

Rondon and the Cubs relievers won't overreact, either.

A year ago at this time, Rondon was the Cubs' closer and they hadn't yet traded for Aroldis Chapman. So no, one outing won't get him down. 

"Right now, I'm pissed and whatever," he said, "but tomorrow, I'll come in with a different mentality and try to win the game."

With NL Central suddenly bunched up, a reminder it won't all be sunshine, lollipops and rainbows for Cubs in second half

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AP

With NL Central suddenly bunched up, a reminder it won't all be sunshine, lollipops and rainbows for Cubs in second half

So that six-game winning streak was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it?

The Cubs’ perfect second half came to a crashing halt Friday in the series opener with the visiting St. Louis Cardinals, an 11-4 drubbing low-lighted by a never-ending eighth inning in which the Cards torched the Cubs’ bullpen for nine runs.

It was a screaming reminder that the second half, even with its 6-0 start, won’t be all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows for the defending champs.

One nasty result after a six-game stretch of hot bats and hot pitching shouldn’t send Cubs fans panicking about a falling sky — even though the heavens opened up and poured a gigantic, watery metaphor down on the Friendly Confines after Friday’s bullpen implosion.

But it also looked like an indication that the troubles of a sub-.500 first half might not be totally exorcized from Wrigley Field’s home clubhouse. Not that that’s denting the team’s confidence in any way.

“I don’t think we’ve gotten too high or too low, even throughout some slumps where we weren’t very happy about the way we were playing,” starting pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “I feel like we’ve been able to maintain an even keel and stay focused. While there has been some frustration, that’s just kind of the nature of not playing up to your potential and knowing you’re better than you’re playing. But having said that, we are positive and will remain to be so throughout the near future and stretch of games we have coming up. We look forward to playing some good baseball.”

Most importantly, perhaps, Friday’s result showed that it’s not just the first-place Milwaukee Brewers that the Cubs have to be concerned with in what is suddenly a tight and crowded race in the National League Central.

The Cubs might have gotten within a game of the Brewers, but the Cardinals and the surging Pittsburgh Pirates are right there, too. After Friday’s game on the North Side went final, the four teams were within four games of each other. A Brewers loss Friday night in Philadelphia could make things even closer.

“Baseball’s crazy,” outfielder Kyle Schwarber said. “You’ve seen a lot of races, I’m sure, and this is just the way that this division’s playing out. It’s really competitive between all of us.”

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Not dissimilarly from that up-and-down first half, Friday’s contest had signs both positive and negative for the team still on a quest to repeat as World Series champions.

Arrieta might’ve been relatively unremarkable, but he only gave up two runs in six innings, bettering numbers that were downright ugly earlier this season and perhaps signaling that his second half will be far more consistent than his first. In four July starts, he’s got a 2.13 ERA after posting ERAs above 4.50 in each of the first three months of the season.

Willson Contreras continued his torrid July with a first-inning home run. He’s batting .363 on the month with five homers and 12 RBIs in 14 games.

But the negatives were gaudier and more directly involved in the result. In addition to the offense going 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position and stranding nine base runners, a bullpen that had been incredibly reliable fell apart in can’t-look-away fashion. Carl Edwards Jr., Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm combined to allow the first 11 batters of the eighth inning to reach. The first nine of them scored. Five of them walked.

Theo Epstein’s front office likely won’t answer the call of fans on Twitter howling for the team to trade for relief help. There’s no need to do that. Only the seemingly unbeatable Los Angeles Dodgers have a better bullpen ERA in the NL than the Cubs’ 3.51 mark.

“I trust our guys,” Maddon said, reacting to Friday’s nightmarish eighth. “The right guys are out there. C.J. was the right guy for the moment, it didn't play out. Rondon’s been throwing the ball great, but I really put him in a no-win situation. That’s my fault. And finally, Grimmer just had to suck it up.”

Maddon’s not wrong in singing the season-long praises of the three guys who got lit up Friday. But undoubtedly those three relievers provided some evidence that the final two and a half months of the regular season might not feature the Cubs sprinting away from their division-mates.

No, this could be a knock-down, drag-out fight to the finish. And the Cubs have 26 games remaining against the Brewers, Pirates and Cardinals.

So buckle up.

“That’s what you get when you play these kinds of teams that have a shot to reach the postseason,” Arrieta said. “We’re all within a few games of each other, so in our minds it’s up for grabs, it’s ours to take and we look forward to the opportunity to do so.”