Chicago Cubs

Why Cubs made the move now with Jen-Ho Tseng

Why Cubs made the move now with Jen-Ho Tseng

Trying to stabilize their bullpen, hoping for a spark and showing faith in their most advanced pitching prospect, the Cubs will drop Jen-Ho Tseng into the middle of a pennant race and start the Taiwanese right-hander on Thursday night against the New York Mets at Wrigley Field.

Tseng put himself in position to make his big-league debut with a breakthrough season, going 13-4 with a 2.54 ERA in 24 starts between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. The Theo Epstein regime – which is still waiting to fully develop a homegrown starter – sees Tseng as someone who can throw four pitches for strikes, keep hitters off-balance without overpowering stuff and follow a scouting report. Think Kyle Hendricks as an absolute best-case scenario.

But the Cubs also couldn’t ignore how far lefty swingman Mike Montgomery has already been pushed (116.1 innings) and how much lefty reliever Justin Wilson has struggled (6.39 ERA in 16 appearances) since getting traded from the Detroit Tigers at the July 31 deadline.

The Cubs made the surprise announcement around 5 p.m. Wednesday, or roughly two hours after naming Tseng as their minor league pitcher of the year for the second time since 2014, his first professional season after getting a $1.625 million bonus as an international free agent.

“I just sat down with him in my office,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I said: ‘I guess you’re here in town to accept an award.’ He just looked at me and I said: ‘How about you start tomorrow night’s game instead?’ He didn’t even blanch. Actually, his interpreter was more taken by the whole situation than Jen-Ho was. But I heard nothing but good things about this kid.

“We think right now – in order to get us all set up pitching-wise – it was the right thing to do.”

Bumping Montgomery from the rotation should help keep him fresh after getting the final out in last year’s World Series Game 7 and give Maddon another trusted option in a bullpen with too many question marks. Koji Uehara has been struggling and dealing with an infection in his right knee and may have reached his limit after making 49 appearances during his age-42 season.

By the time the Cubs finalized the Tseng decision, they hadn’t yet scheduled a next-step bullpen session for Jake Arrieta, who strained his right hamstring on Labor Day, the same day Iowa’s season ended. The Cubs sent Tseng to their Arizona complex to stay sharp and continue his throwing program. It’s unclear when Arrieta will be able to rejoin the rotation or if this will be a one-and-done situation for Tseng.

But Maddon recalled how the Tampa Bay Rays unleashed young pitchers in the playoffs, from using David Price as a reliever while winning the 2008 American League pennant and giving Matt Moore his second big-league start in a 2011 first-round win over the Texas Rangers.

“You just never know,” Maddon said. “On a different level, I went through that with Matt Moore with the Rays, also. I remember the meetings for that in Texas in the manager’s office, bringing in minor-league guys that had seen him more. They were absolutely adamant that this guy can do this – and he did.

“Lightning in a bottle happens, and you never know what happens after that with some young players. And even if it’s not a start that happens afterwards, maybe he’s going to help us in another way.

“David Price did it with the Rays out of the bullpen, also, in a pretty good run, so keep an open mind. I’m keeping a very open mind. I’m actually excited about seeing it.”

Sprinting toward October, Cubs close in on another division title

Sprinting toward October, Cubs close in on another division title

MILWAUKEE – “Yeah, that really killed us, that sweep at Wrigley,” John Lackey said sarcastically late Friday night, dismissing a question about what’s happened to the Cubs since the Milwaukee Brewers made their statement against the defending World Series champs two weekends ago. “Come on, dude, it’s 162 games. Things happen.”

The Cubs are 9-1 since then, but Lackey was in no mood to talk about this finishing kick in the National League Central race, probably because manager Joe Maddon gave him the quick hook in a Big Boy Game, pulling him with a runner on and no outs in the fifth inning. But that’s what’s happening here, the Cubs sprinting away from the Brewers and peaking at the right time.

The Brewers are gasping for air after these pulsating back-to-back nights at Miller Park, the Cubs again coming from behind to win in 10 innings and close in on their second straight division title and third playoff appearance in a row, something this franchise hasn’t done since the run capped by the 1908 World Series title repeat.

After a hard-earned 5-4 win, the Cubs knocked the Brewers back to third place and chopped the magic number to eliminate the St. Louis Cardinals down to five, meaning the clinch party could be in Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse next week.

“We played fine that series, actually,” Lackey said, referencing three games where the Cubs lost 2-0, 15-2 and 3-1, allowing the Brewers and Cardinals within two games of first place. “S---, you can lose in this league and still play good. That’s why it’s the big leagues.”

Actually, it looks like the Cubs responded to the challenge from an upstart team, the crowd of 40,116 and a playoff environment.

“It’s been amazing,” Carl Edwards Jr. said. “It actually felt like last year’s World Series when I came in the 10th inning.”

Edwards notched the last five outs this time – with All-Star closer Wade Davis unavailable because he did the same thing the night before – part of a group effort that included a guy whose right elbow hadn’t allowed him to pitch since Sept. 8 (Hector Rondon) and a lefty swingman who took a no-hitter into the sixth inning three days ago against the Tampa Bay Rays (Mike Montgomery).

Lackey’s response when asked about the bullpen’s performance – three runs allowed in 11 innings – halfway through a four-game showdown: “They’ve been asked to do a lot…and they’ve really stepped up and done a great job.”

“In order to win, you’re going to need contributions from non-All-Star players at times,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “You’re going to have to get contributions from players stepping up because of someone else’s bad performance or someone else’s injury.

“You want your best players to play best in these situations. But ultimately that won’t always happen. And when that doesn’t happen, you’re going to need some contributions from other guys.”

That’s been crucial for the 2017 Cubs. The game-winning run scored when Tommy La Stella – the pinch-hitter who had been dealing with a groin injury recently and personal issues that led him to walk away from the organization last summer – drew a bases-loaded walk against All-Star closer Corey Knebel.

If you want to see a grinding approach for October, just look at Jon Jay’s 15-pitch at-bat against Milwaukee starter Brandon Woodruff in the fifth inning, which led to a leadoff single, Ben Zobrist’s two-run single up the middle and a 4-3 lead after Lackey’s slow start.

Yeah, the Cubs look locked in now.

“I’m so proud of the way our guys (respond),” Maddon said. “They get hit a little bit, maybe something to the solar plexus, but we still keep going.”

The Godfather, Anthony Rizzo, lays down new law in Cubs clubhouse

The Godfather, Anthony Rizzo, lays down new law in Cubs clubhouse

MILWAUKEE – Javier Baez broke the code of silence when he mentioned to reporters the latest thing for a Cubs team that designed a Party Room for their state-of-the-art clubhouse at Wrigley Field, turned Jason Heyward’s Rain Delay Speech into World Series mythology and interviews each other in the dugout for pretend TV segments after hitting home runs.

“He doesn’t know how the Italian way works,” Anthony Rizzo said. “There are supposed to be team things that stay with the team.”

Baez let it slip before Friday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, replaying the dramatic 10-inning comeback victory from the night before at Miller Park. If you see the Cubs instantly disappear from the dugout, or a TV camera shows a shot of an empty dugout…    

“We got this new thing,” Baez said. “I don’t want to be the one saying it. I’ll just let him say it. But it’s really fun. When somebody’s mad, everybody walks in and we do some fun things that get us hyper. You guys ask Rizzo.”

The Godfather gave a cryptic response. Omerta is expected to be part of The Cubs Way.

“It’s a team retreat,” Rizzo said. “It’s not just me. It’s anyone who needs to let out some steam this late in the season. It’s a team thing. It’s a long season and you go through ups and downs. And there’s times where you get to that boiling point where you just want to kill anything in your way.”

Rizzo needed to vent and called his teammates into the visiting clubhouse on Thursday night after striking out with two runners on in the eighth inning of a tie game that could swing the National League Central race.

“Throughout the year, you go back in the tunnel probably 25 times,” Rizzo said. “You got to take it out somewhere. You can only stay sane so long. It’s September. It’s a team (thing) now.

“It’s worked. We’re 3-for-3 on it. But it’s not me gathering. It’s just whoever feels like it’s time – you’ll see the team rushing off the bench and going for a nice little retreat.”

In many ways, Rizzo sets the clubhouse tone with his laid-back vibe off the field and intense competitive streak on the field. Tom Verducci’s book, “The Cubs Way,” detailed a scene before last year’s World Series Game 7 where Rizzo got naked, played “Rocky” music, quoted movie lines and shadowboxed until reliever Hector Rondon joined “in on the hijinks, picked up an aerosol can of shoe cleaner and sprayed it in the direction of Rizzo’s groin.”

“This is strictly in-game,” Rizzo said. “You can’t do it, though, and be selfish and go on a nice little retreat when we’re winning. It’s got to be the right timing. It helps, too, because it’s been fun the last couple weeks since we started doing it.”

One obvious benefit: There are no annoying TV cameras. Like in late July when frustrated pitcher John Lackey bumped into Rizzo in the Wrigley Field dugout and exchanged words with the face-of-the-franchise first baseman.

“We’ve come together now,” Rizzo said. “It’s not about anyone. It’s about us. When things go wrong for a certain individual, we rally around him. And that’s what we got to keep doing from here on out.”