Without Pena and Garza, Rays still fight Goliath

540343.jpg

Without Pena and Garza, Rays still fight Goliath

Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011Posted: 12:05 a.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Follow @CSNMooney
The other day, Carlos Pena looked up at the TV screen and stopped in the middle of the clubhouse. He stood there transfixed, watching highlights from the Red Sox-Rays game at Fenway Park.

Pena doesnt seem to have any regrets about coming to Chicago. In fact, hed be very interested if the Cubs offered him another pillow contract. But part of him still belongs in Tampa Bay.

The Rays are at it again, chasing the Yankees and making the Red Sox sweat. They were nine games out of a playoff spot on Sept. 2. They entered the wild-card race on Tuesday one game behind the Red Sox in the loss column.

To see the David and Goliath story unfold and materialize in real life is cool, Pena said. I get a kick out of that, seeing the underdog triumph over the mighty empire. You sit there and you want it to happen. I lived through that. I experienced it. I know how incredible it feels.

How can you not pull for the underdog?

The Rays are doing it with a 41 million payroll thats second-to-last in the majors, according to the USA Today salary database. Thats a fraction of what the superpowers spend in New York (203 million) and Boston (162 million).

The Cubs will spend around 135 million for another fifth-place finish. Thats why chairman Tom Ricketts is looking for a new general manager and will almost certainly study what the Rays have done.

Everything that were watching right now was laid a brick at a time, Pena said.

Changes are coming. The Cubs announced Tuesday that Gary Hughes a special assistant to fired general manager Jim Hendry and one of Baseball Americas top 10 scouts of the 20th century will not return next season.

Andrew Friedman graduated from Tulane University and worked on Wall Street before rising to be the Rays executive vice president of baseball operations. But his front office certainly isnt all about statistical analysis.

The Rays have used a starting pitcher under the age of 30 for 754 straight games, a major-league record. All 153 games this season have been started by a pitcher drafted and developed by the organization.

The Rays rotation began Tuesday with 1000.1 innings pitched, the second-most in the majors. They led the American League with a 3.49 ERA, 780 strikeouts and 15 complete games. They havent missed Matt Garza, who was shipped to the North Side in an eight-player deal last winter.

They harp on pitching and defense, Garza said. Its kind of ridiculous over there. (Its) unbelievable how they just keep funneling through.

Thats the vision Ricketts has laid out as the Cubs try to rebuild.

Speculation has Friedman as a person of interest in this search, though he has such a good relationship with his bosses that he works without a contract. Hes also said to have strong roots in Houston that could make him more interested in one day running the Astros.

Pena whos been suspected of writing inspirational messages on the erase board in the Cubs clubhouse remembers one saying in particular that manager Joe Maddon once put up for the Rays: Fortune favors the bold.

That sums it up, Pena said. This team is so unconventional, so unafraid to be themselves. Theyre not consumed by following rules. (So) Joe will be the guy who will bring six guys in the infield and (its like): What is he doing? And he doesnt care if it doesnt work.

The other day they stole like seven bases. Theres some freedom there.

That could be the major difference between Tampa Bay and Chicago. There wont be a blank canvas at Clark and Addison. The next general manager will inherit several key employees in the front office, as well as the bad contracts already on the books.

When Ricketts looks at an executives track record of success, hell have to take into account the limiting factors and decide how it will translate. It helped that the Rays had so many consecutive years at the top of the draft.

When building a roster, the Rays dont necessarily have to worry about selling tickets, because almost no one goes to their games anyway. The media spotlight isnt nearly as bright in Tampa Bay. A franchise that began play in 1998 doesnt feel the weight of history.

Thats extremely helpful for them because they dont have to deal with that, Pena said. (Absolutely) its a (bigger) challenge to keep that type of attitude and mentality when you have outside influences.

But you look at the end (and) it almost seems like its a bunch of kids going out there playing the game of baseball with absolutely no attachment to it.

Pena means doing it the right way, without being overwhelmed by the pressure. He hopes to change the Cubs culture, where everyone wants to talk about what went wrong in the past and guess whats going to happen in the future.

The Rays lost 96 games in 2007 and went to the World Series the next year. They won 96 games last season. They sharpen their focus because they live in a world where players leave to get rich somewhere else.

Its always live in the moment, Garza said, because next years team is not going to be the same.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Preview: Cubs-Dodgers Sunday on CSN

jon-lester-08-27-16.jpg

Preview: Cubs-Dodgers Sunday on CSN

The Cubs take on the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday, and you can catch all the action on CSN. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m. Then catch first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

CSN will also carry the live audio call of Los Angeles Dodgers broadcasting legend Vin Scully during Sunday's game as the SportsNet LA audio feed will be featured during the third inning.

Sunday’s starting pitching matchup: Jon Lester vs. Kenta Maeda

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the Cubs: All of the most recent news and notes.

— See what fans are talking about before, during and after the game with Cubs Pulse.

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.”