While Carpenter goes down in history, McNutt stays with Cubs

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While Carpenter goes down in history, McNutt stays with Cubs

MESA, Ariz. The black Jaguar pulled into the parking lot right around 8 a.m.

Chris Carpenter and Trey McNutt got out of the sports car on Tuesday and walked toward the Cubs complex. Carpenter punched in the key code at Fitch Park, and McNutt followed his roommate through the glass doors.

That morning, Carpenter would be called into an office and told that he was traded to the Boston Red Sox as the compensation for Theo Epstein. McNutt would have to call his wife for a ride back home to North Scottsdale.

I feel like Im in high school, McNutt said.

McNutt had his wife take their pickup truck to work. Out of nowhere, a 32nd-round pick from small-town Alabama had emerged as arguably the organizations best pitching prospect, a player the Red Sox targeted once Epstein decided to leave for a presidents job with the Cubs last October.

The long-winding negotiations went in a different direction. So Carpenter, who described the day as kind of surreal, becomes the answer to a baseball trivia question.

My name will go down in history, I guess, Carpenter said.

The Cubs selected Carpenter, 26, out of Kent State University in the third round of the 2008 draft. He made his big-league debut last season, but struggled during his transition to being a reliever at Triple-A Iowa, posting a 6.53 ERA in 22 games.

Still, the Red Sox are getting a power bullpen arm who can throw close to 100 mph.

I appreciate everything the Cubs have done for me, Carpenter said. Its been a great organization over the past four years and Im looking forward to going to Boston and helping them win now.

If youre going to pick two teams to play for, why not the Cubs and the Red Sox? You cant complain about that.

While the Epstein compensation drama played out, Carpenter and McNutt lived and trained together throughout the offseason. They talked about it during the Arizona Fall League with Andrew Cashner, another name floated, and since traded to the San Diego Padres.

The Red Sox had zeroed in on the 22-year-old McNutt, a potential mid-rotation starter Baseball America judges to be the organizations fourth-best prospect heading into 2012.

Instead, McNutt was planning to spend the rest of Tuesday helping Carpenter load up his car, which will be shipped to Red Sox camp in Florida.

I just hate it for him that he has to leave right at the last second, McNutt said. Its just a big hassle. Spring trainings already stressful enough, especially when youre trying to win a job and now hes got to worry about packing up all his stuff and moving all the way across the (country).

But hell be fine.Ive never met a guy (tougher) than him mentally, so I dont think this is going to bother him. It wont faze him.

So McNutts life wont be turned upside down. Maybe one day hell make it to the show and become part of those Cubs teams Epstein promises will be playing annually in October.

But for now, all this meant was that McNutt could move to a different part of the place they shared with two other Cubs minor-league players. Carpenter had the master bedroom, and McNutt was calling it. Baseball history could wait. The guy just needed a ride home.

One guy was living in the living room, McNutt said. Well all have a bedroom now.

Cubs: Jason Hammel still fuming after Joe Maddon’s quick hook at Dodger Stadium

Cubs: Jason Hammel still fuming after Joe Maddon’s quick hook at Dodger Stadium

LOS ANGELES – Even from the upper levels of Dodger Stadium, inside the Vin Scully Press Box, you didn’t need binoculars or a lip reader to tell that Jason Hammel wanted nothing to do with Joe Maddon. 

Not this early on Saturday afternoon, not when the Cubs pitcher came into a possible playoff preview with a 13-6 record and a 3.07 ERA. An animated Hammel gestured toward home plate and walked off the mound in the middle of the third inning, continuing a sometimes awkward/usually productive relationship with the star manager that dates back to their time together as Tampa Bay Rays.    

The media waited several extra minutes outside the visiting clubhouse after a 3-2 loss to the Dodgers while Hammel met with Maddon in his office. Maddon’s postgame press conference then lasted almost eight minutes, giving Hammel time to shower and change into his street clothes. Hammel was still fuming by the time reporters wandered over to his locker.

“That’s between me and Joe,” Hammel said. 

Hammel – who normally enjoys the back-and-forth exchanges and gives insightful answers, even to uncomfortable questions – declined to get specific about the meeting, the decision-making process or how to work with Maddon.  

“That’s a conversation for me and him,” Hammel said. “There’s no reason for that to be in the papers. It’s a professional way of working through it. We’ll leave it there.” 

No, Hammel doesn’t get much latitude, even during his 11th year in the big leagues and a strong individual season that had so far answered questions about a second-half fade. But Maddon didn’t like what he saw against a stacked left-handed Los Angeles lineup.

Maddon walked out from the dugout with two runners on and one out in the third inning. Adrian Gonzalez loomed next, trying to extend a 3-1 lead with one big swing. Maddon summoned Rob Zastryzny from the bullpen and watched the rookie lefty get two groundball outs.  

“I didn’t even pitch today in my mind,” Hammel said. “I barely threw 40 pitches, so this is a side day for me.”

Zastryzny looked extremely impressive, retiring 11 of the 12 batters he faced, eight days after getting called up from Triple-A Iowa and making his big-league debut, showing that he could become an X-factor for October.

“He was not happy with me taking him out that early,” Maddon said of his conversations with Hammel. “I can understand why, because it’s happened in the past. But I just didn’t see the game straightening out.

“Watching them one time through, it looked like they were on him a little bit. And I thought that was a great lineup for ‘Rob Z.’ One of the things with bullpen arms – I want to put them in a meaningful spot. 

“I didn’t see it happening for ‘Hammer’ today, and that’s cool, because he didn’t throw that many pitches. He’s going to be very well-rested for his next start. But it also illustrates ‘Rob Z’ and what he can do for us in the future.” 

No, Hammel didn’t look all that sharp, giving up five hits to the 12 batters he faced, including a first-inning homer to Corey Seager and three consecutive hits to begin the third. But Hammel is also a respected veteran teammate who helped the Cubs transform into a playoff team last year and build baseball’s top-performing rotation this season. 

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]  

Who cares? The Cubs are still 36 games over .500 and began the day with huge leads over the St. Louis Cardinals (14) and Pittsburgh Pirates (16.5) in a watered-down division. 

Well, Hammel is a guy who feeds off confidence and positive reinforcement. The Cubs might need him in October, especially if John Lackey (shoulder) experiences a setback before coming off the disabled list or another starter gets hurt down the stretch.  

“It is what it is,” Hammel said. “The guys fought hard. ‘Z’ did a hell of a job coming out of the ‘pen.”

Then again, the Cubs already think Mike Montgomery could develop into a good big-league starter – the lefty swingman got a longer leash given this particular Los Angeles matchup on Friday night – and thought enough of Zastryzny to make him a second-round pick out of the University of Missouri in 2013.

But for now, Maddon allowed Hammel to take advantage of his open-door policy and vent.

“I want them to be able to do that,” Maddon said. “I have a reason why I did it. I’m not going to hide about anything. It’s not like I just picked that out of the hat and chose to do it today. 

“You just got to shoot them straight back. And hopefully they can deal with it. There’s a great line: ‘Honesty without compassion equals cruelty.’ So at some point, you got to understand your audience, too.”

Joe Maddon defends bunt decision after Cubs can’t knock out Dodgers phenom Julio Urias

Joe Maddon defends bunt decision after Cubs can’t knock out Dodgers phenom Julio Urias

LOS ANGELES – The Cubs had Julio Urias and the Los Angeles Dodgers on the ropes, but couldn’t knock out the young lefty from Mexico who’s drawn comparisons to franchise icon Fernando Valenzuela and could be the next star to burst from this pitching-rich pipeline.  

The Cubs created their “you go, we go” sense of momentum on Saturday afternoon at Dodger Stadium with Dexter Fowler drawing a leadoff walk and MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo hitting back-to-back singles into right field to generate the game’s first run.

Urias had already thrown 17 pitches in the first inning when manager Joe Maddon instructed cleanup hitter Ben Zobrist to try to bunt for a hit. It became an easy out for Urias, who then struck out Addison Russell and Jorge Soler looking and began to find his rhythm during a 3-2 victory in front of 49,522 at Chavez Ravine. 

“Second and third was kind of a nice spot to be,” Maddon said. “(Zobrist) could have hit into a double play. He’s the one guy who’s heavy groundball against that particular pitcher. 

“I actually like the bunt for the hit right there, (because) we had (already) scored (and) Addison’s been a pretty good RBI dude. I thought it was a nice move right there (to) at least get one (run) out of that. 

“You got him and Soler coming up versus a left-hander who’s a little bit shaky right there – I kind of liked it.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs had roughed up Urias during his second career big-league start on June 2 – or two-plus months before his 20th birthday – by hitting three homers and scoring six runs off him in five innings at Wrigley Field.   

But Urias – who pitched at four different minor-league levels last season – clearly has an accelerated learning curve. He managed to last six innings this time and didn’t allow another run after that early flurry, finishing with eight strikeouts against two walks.  

Urias has gone 4-0 with a 2.03 ERA in his last six games (four starts), helping bail out a $250 million team and a fragile rotation that’s used 14 different starting pitchers. If the Dodgers (72-57) can get Clayton Kershaw back to full strength, keep Rich Hill healthy and continue to bring along Urias, then the Cubs might have some matchup nightmares in October. 

“(Urias is) all of what they think he is,” Maddon said. “The kid was outstanding. He knows how to elevate against the guy you’re supposed to elevate against. He knows how to throw the ball down against the guy you’re supposed to throw the ball down to. He’s got a nice move to first base. He handled himself well at the plate. And he’s 20 years old. That’s pretty good.”  

Why Kris Bryant wants to be like Jason Heyward and what it means for Cubs

Why Kris Bryant wants to be like Jason Heyward and what it means for Cubs

LOS ANGELES – To get a better idea why Theo Epstein’s front office invested $184 million in Jason Heyward – and how Cubs manager Joe Maddon thinks through the lineup – just listen to Kris Bryant. 

The National League’s leading MVP candidate explained Heyward’s value to the best team in baseball late Friday night at Dodger Stadium after blasting his 34th and 35th home runs during a 10-inning comeback victory.

Bryant, a particularly gracious teammate, credited Heyward for sparking the ninth-inning rally against Los Angeles closer Kenley Jansen, hitting a leadoff double and taking advantage of a misplayed strike three and a wild pitch to score the game-tying run.   

“We all know what he can do at the plate,” Bryant said. “Everybody knows what he can do in the field. He’s a huge asset to this team. If it wasn’t for him getting us started there, we wouldn’t have won the game. Simple as that.
 
“Heads-up base-running (is) something that you really can’t teach. And he has it. It’s just awesome to see him come out and compete every day.

“It inspires me. It makes me want to be like him, always keeping your head up, always being a great teammate, being so positive. I can’t say enough about him.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!] 

Maybe a road trip that began with Heyward getting a mental break and sitting through three games at Coors Field becomes a turning point in a poor offensive season (.229 average/.629 OPS). In his first game back after that reboot, Heyward homered against the San Diego Padres, hitting his first one in almost a month. 

After sitting against Los Angeles lefty Julio Urias – with Maddon wanting to get Jorge Soler involved – Heyward came off the bench to deliver a pinch-hit RBI single off reliever Pedro Baez in the seventh inning of Saturday afternoon’s 3-2 loss at Dodger Stadium (and then get thrown out trying to steal second base).       

“He’s not hit to his level yet this year, but he plays a significant game on a nightly basis,” Maddon said. “He doesn’t cry about things. He doesn’t make excuses. He shows up and he plays. That’s why I say he’s a winner.

“The hitting’s going to be there. I’m telling you it’s going to be there. And it’s going to be there at the right time this year – and for years to come. 

“He’s just had a tough moment and he’s been digging himself out of a hole all year at the plate. But every place else, he’s among the best in the game right now.”

That’s why the Cubs can sacrifice a measure of offense in the playoffs and still thrive with Heyward’s Gold Glove defense, speed and instincts.   

“Jason does set a great example daily,” Maddon said. “Because a lot of guys going through that moment would not be the teammate that he is and pick up everybody else. 

“A lot of times when guys aren’t hitting, they go, ‘Oh, my self-worth goes down. Should I pop off? Should I say something?’ Guys who have carried their batting average on their sleeve and then react accordingly – that’s not good. Just be who you are. He has a lot to bring on a daily basis, even if he’s not 3-for-4.”   

The Cubs also remember Heyward as a tough out and a dynamic lineup presence for the St. Louis Cardinals during last year’s playoffs. And everyone will forget the numbers from the regular season if Heyward performs in the postseason. 

“Once October starts,” Heyward said, “you got to be on. That’s the way we’re trying to look at it.”