Theo Epstein riding the wave, preparing for when Cubs might crash: ‘Baseball karma is real’

Theo Epstein riding the wave, preparing for when Cubs might crash: ‘Baseball karma is real’

Sports Illustrated splashed the Cubs across another regional cover, this time calling them “The Last Great American Sports Story.” There’s Javier Baez, arms raised in triumph, about to jump onto home plate and into the awaiting mosh pit after a walk-off win on Mother’s Day at Wrigley Field.       

Sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals – two battle-tested, playoff-caliber teams the Cubs might face in October – heightened the delirious feelings out in the bleachers, on social media and within certain segments of the media.

But Theo Epstein’s job is to ignore the hype and prepare for the crash, especially when the president of baseball operations watches a 25-6 team exceed even the sky-high preseason expectations.

“This is not baseball reality,” Epstein said before Tuesday’s 8-7 victory over the San Diego Padres. “Baseball reality is it’s really hard to win a single major-league game. That’s why we celebrate it so much.” 

The Cubs are handling all phases of the game right now and must be wearing out the new Celebration Room in their tricked-out clubhouse, getting to the middle of May without back-to-back losses and pushing their run differential to plus-103.

The National League’s deepest, most patient lineup knocked out a rookie starter (Cesar Vargas) after four innings and 92 pitches, generating 12 hits and five walks against an overmatched last-place team. Jon Lester (4-1, 1.96 ERA) didn’t have his best stuff and had to grind through six innings, but he pieced together another quality start for a rotation that began the day leading the majors with a 2.26 ERA. 

The night before a doubleheader, star manager Joe Maddon pulled the bullpen levers, using six different relievers, including Pedro Strop (who got Matt Kemp to fly out to right field with the bases loaded to end the seventh inning) and Hector Rondon (now 7-for-7 in save chances with 20 strikeouts against 41 batters faced). It looked like a much closer game than it actually felt after pinch-hitter Alex Dickerson hit a grand slam off Adam Warren with two outs in the eighth inning. 

“We know we’re in a stretch right now where winning seems far easier than it actually is,” Epstein said. “We know there’s going to be a stretch – probably a long stretch this year – where winning even one game seems virtually impossible. That’s just the nature of baseball. We’re not blinded by it. 

“We’ve been saying in the office: ‘We’re in a tree right now.’ We want to stay up there as long as we can, but we’re going to get down at some point.”

The Cubs didn’t stop after shocking the baseball world last year, winning 97 games and two playoff rounds and then doubling down by spending almost $290 million on free agents. The trade deadline won’t be a time to be cautious and worry too much about the future when this team has a chance to make history. 

“We still have vulnerabilities,” Epstein said. “We still have areas where we need to get better. We still have challenges and more adversity to come. We’re going to suffer injuries. We’re going to suffer downturns in performance. We’re going to be stretched thin. We’re going to go through stretches of bad luck. We’re going to go through stretches of bad performance. We’re going to run into really hot teams. 

“We want to stay as locked in as we are right now. But the game is very humbling and we’re aware that time is coming when there are going to be great challenges. And we almost look forward to it, because I think that’s when you find out what you’re made of.”

Where last season felt like a joyride for a front office that projected around 85 wins if everything broke right, a group of rookies that didn’t know any better and a $155 million pitcher who expected 2016 to be the year where the Cubs went all-in, only a World Series title will satisfy them now.            

“Baseball karma is real,” Epstein said. “When you see some of the stuff written about us in the winter, and you see some of the World Series odds and things like that for a team that is a defending third-place team and hasn’t done anything yet, and there are some individuals who haven’t proven they can accomplish certain things back-to-back seasons, and we’re still a losing team during my tenure overall in Chicago (322-357), you get uncomfortable. 

“Hopefully, at the end of the year, we’ll look up and say: ‘Hey, we earned what people are saying about us.’”

Jake Arrieta not at his sharpest in Cubs shutout loss to Dodgers

Jake Arrieta not at his sharpest in Cubs shutout loss to Dodgers

LOS ANGELES – It’s harder to find perspective when the lights are flashing all around Dodger Stadium and the techno music is thumping and Adrian Gonzalez just launched a two-run homer 429 feet to straightaway center. 

But that’s why Jake Arrieta pays Scott Boras. The super-agent sat in a front-row seat behind home plate on Friday night, watching his client go through another up-and-down start for a Cubs team that needs Arrieta to pitch more like an ace.

It’s easy to lose sight of this during a 4-0 loss where the Dodgers looked more like the team on a mission after getting eliminated from last year’s National League Championship Series.

But Arrieta is someone who has already experienced the low points that made him think about quitting baseball as he shuttled back and forth between the Orioles and Triple-A – and the intoxicating high from ending the 108-year drought and creating so much joy for generations of Cubs fans.

So Boras isn’t buying the idea that Arrieta might be feeling the weight of his upcoming free agency.

“Coming from Baltimore to here and establishing himself in the big leagues was the major arc of his career,” Boras said, “the most difficult moment of illustrating that he is an everyday major-leaguer. The fact that he has the skills, and what he has up here (in his head), the dynamic of winning two World Series games and things like that, I’d say he’s (been) measured. When you win World Series games, that’s the most important thing.

“If you want me to measure pressure, I’d say that’s World Series cojones.”

To get back there, the Cubs will need more consistency from Arrieta, who gave up four runs across six innings to move to 5-4 with a 4.92 ERA.

Arrieta put up nine strikeouts against one walk, but the Dodgers beat his fastball. Gonzalez had gone more than 130 plate appearances this season before notching his first home run in the sixth inning. Chase Utley – the 38-year-old veteran who began the game hitting .204 – also homered off Arrieta in the third inning.

Arrieta has now allowed 10 homers this season. He gave up his 10th in the middle of August last season, when he went through command/mechanical issues and still wound up as an 18-game winner and one of the toughest pitchers to make hard contact against in baseball.

The Cubs are 25-22 and looking at replacing possibly two or three starting pitchers by Opening Day 2018.

“You don’t really think about (it),” Boras said. “When the Cubs come to town, I look at the standings: OK, where are they at? They’re trying to win again. This club’s a good club and you think about what moves they’re going to make to make it better. I think Jake’s total focus has always been about putting himself in a position that few players get to be in, and that is being on a club where you can win more.”

Cubs: Is Joe Maddon turning Kyle Schwarber into a platoon player?

Cubs: Is Joe Maddon turning Kyle Schwarber into a platoon player?

LOS ANGELES – Joe Maddon doesn’t want to put the platoon label on a young hitter who became a World Series legend before his 24th birthday. But the Cubs manager also isn’t planning to start Kyle Schwarber against left-handers anytime soon. 

“If people want to say that, I can’t avoid it,” Maddon said Friday at Dodger Stadium, where Schwarber sat against lefty Alex Wood, who took a 20.1-inning scoreless streak into this National League Championship Series rematch. “I’m going to do that until I feel good about him, because I don’t want to lay too many at-bats on him in a negative situation.

“If he’s not swinging the bat well against righties, it’s a bad assumption that I’m going to think he’s going to swing it well against lefties. Then I’m just putting him in a deeper hole by throwing him out there, just based on really bad logic.

“I’m just trying to pick his spots right now to get him going. Once he goes, he can play against anybody.”

[MORE CUBS: The 'friendly rivalry' between Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman]

Schwarber – who’s hitting .181 with a .656 OPS and 55 strikeouts in less than 200 plate appearances this season – will start Saturday against Dodger right-hander Brandon McCarthy. But even with Clayton Kershaw looming on Sunday, Maddon didn’t want to give Schwarber the entire weekend off, the way Jason Heyward mentally reset last August at Coors Field.

“I don’t think it’s there yet,” Maddon said. “I’ve had good conversations with him. I think it’s a different set of circumstances.”

For the Cubs, this doesn’t really change their overall evaluation of Schwarber as a core player and potentially one of the most dangerous left-handed sluggers in the game. But Maddon has been backing away from the idea of Schwarber as a leadoff hitter, trying to reboot the player who had been such an intimidating postseason presence.

“My concern when the guy is struggling a little bit is you don’t want him to get him too many at-bats,” Maddon said. “It’s really hard to get yourself out of that mental, physical and numerical hole. By not getting him as many at-bats, it will be easy to get back to a number he’s more comfortable with.

“I don’t care about that – I really don’t. I’m looking at his past, process, what he’s doing for the team in regards to on-base, everything else. But for the guy himself, he looks up at the scoreboard and he sees numbers everywhere and they evaluate themselves based on numbers.

“I don’t want him to do that. I just want him to get back into the process of having good at-bats.”