MILWAUKEE – Cubs fans, Dexter Fowler feels your pain: “It sucks being on the couch and watching your team struggle.”
It only took five pitches on Friday night at Miller Park before Fowler answered the questions about how much this lineup missed his presence and how long it would take him to get back into a rhythm.
“You go, we go” is what manager Joe Maddon tells Fowler, and a sellout crowd of 42,243 roared when the All-Star leadoff guy hammered a 94-mph Jimmy Nelson fastball off the black batter’s eye in center field, setting the first-inning tone in a 5-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.
“I was just happy to be back around the boys,” Fowler said after going 3-for-4 with a walk, three RBI and two runs scored in his return. “It’s like being back home.”
Fowler’s strained right hamstring alone doesn’t begin to explain all this, because he had been hitting .207 in June, the rotation cooled off, the bullpen became unreliable and a 24-games-in-24-days stretch wore this team out before the All-Star break. But the Cubs were 27 games over .500 and had a 12.5-game lead in the division on June 19, the night Fowler went on the disabled list with what sounded like a minor injury.
If panic didn’t completely set in around a first-place team, underlying issues kept bubbling to the surface, the Cubs losing 15 of their last 21 games before that summer vacation.
But the second-half Cubs (58-37) now look energized, beating the American League’s best first-half team (Texas Rangers) and the defending National League champs (New York Mets) at Wrigley Field before rolling up Interstate 94 for a virtual home game.
Now here comes Fowler, who jumpstarted the offense again with the bases loaded in the second inning, lining a two-run double down the left-field line and saying postgame that he felt no lingering issues with the hamstring.
“He’s an asset at the top of the lineup,” winning pitcher Jason Hammel said. “Tough at-bat. And he can get you. It was nice to see him run around out there again.”
Yes, Hammel (9-5, 3.35 ERA) ate a handful of potato chips to help prevent cramping in the 86-degree heat, lasting five innings before five relievers combined to hold the Brewers (40-54) scoreless the rest of the night. For all the buzz about Theo Epstein’s front office upgrading the bullpen by the Aug. 1 trade deadline, Maddon may already have a shiny new toy in Carl Edwards Jr.
The skinny right-hander entered the game in the sixth inning, with a runner on second, and cut through the heart of Milwaukee’s order, forcing Ryan Braun to ground out and striking out Jonathan Lucroy and Chris Carter on six pitches combined.
Just like that, the Cubs are getting answers from within, after all the outside noise screamed: Do something! The fans chanted “Let’s go, Cubbies!” before closer Hector Rondon got the final out and his 17th save. This is again looking like the team Fowler envisioned when he turned down the Baltimore Orioles for a one-year, $13 million guarantee, shocking the industry by showing up in Arizona in late February.
“It’s really apparent how important he is to us,” Maddon said. “It just looked right.”
MILWAUKEE – “The next Andrew Miller” might be an unfair label for Mike Montgomery, who’s already been traded three times and still hasn’t completed a full season in the big leagues yet.
But Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein alluded to the possibility after acquiring Montgomery from the Seattle Mariners, projecting a 6-foot-5 lefty with first-round/top-prospect stuff who could thrive in the bullpen after struggling to make it as a starter.
Epstein had watched the beginning of the Miller reboot with the Boston Red Sox, and felt like the Cubs should trade for Montgomery this week, before the price skyrocketed beyond minor-league slugger Dan Vogelbach and minor-league pitcher Paul Blackburn.
Miller remains a target leading up to the Aug. 1 trade deadline – if the New York Yankees break up their dominant bullpen and sell off an All-Star reliever – but for now the Cubs will give a long runway to a pitcher who’s under club control through the 2021 season.
“I’ve seen his career,” Montgomery said before Friday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “I’ve watched a lot of his stuff, actually. He’s unbelievable with what he does. We’re definitely different types of pitchers. I don’t necessarily like to compare that much. I’m just going to try to be the best I can be with my style.”
Manager Joe Maddon noticed the differences in performance and maturity since seeing Montgomery as a minor-league pitcher with the Tampa Bay Rays after that blockbuster James Shields/Wil Myers trade with the Kansas City Royals following the 2012 season.
“He’s got all kinds of potential,” Maddon said. “You talk about Andrew Miller: Did you see him when he pitched in Boston a couple years ago? It wasn’t as polished as it looks like right now.
“With Monty, I know a big part of his ascension has been better command out of the bullpen. The velocity is back up to where it had been. He’s got a really good curveball, man. And he’s got a very good changeup, too.
“Part of the process is to be patient. Give the guy opportunities. Don’t expect too much too soon. But if you do everything well, this guy could really build to something very special.”
The Cubs believe it’s already starting to click for Montgomery, who turned 27 on July 1 and put up a 2.34 ERA, a 59 percent groundball rate and 54 strikeouts in 61.2 innings with the Mariners this season.
“I got a lot of confidence in what I’m doing,” Montgomery said. “I really feel I can help this team out in any situation. I know they got a lot of good players here already. But (I’ll) just go about my business the way I have been and pitch the way I have been.
“However that shapes up, I think it’s going to help this team and be good for me. I think I bring value in a lot of different ways. It’s just going out there and being confident and doing what you do and making good pitches. It’s that simple. I try not to get too far outside of that. Just worry about baseball and keep that tunnel vision on my craft.”
MILWAUKEE – The Cubs sent Albert Almora Jr. down to Triple-A Iowa the day after his wedding. This is a cold business, but the franchise does have a soft spot for the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein regime, still believing he could become the center fielder of the future, perhaps as soon as Opening Day 2017.
The Cubs rebooked Almora into a Pacific Coast League honeymoon by activating Dexter Fowler (hamstring) from the disabled list before Friday’s 5-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, getting back their “You go, we go” leadoff guy.
This was less than 24 hours after Almora posted a photo on Twitter and Instagram with the caption: “Finally hitched! #MrsAlmora.” Almora posed with Krystal, who’s expecting a baby boy in early September, or about the time there should be another call-up to The Show.
Teammates Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Justin Grimm – and their wives and girlfriends – attended the ceremony at a Chicago courthouse. Almora and his bride then bumped into manager Joe Maddon on Thursday night at Ocean Cut, the River North restaurant.
“It’s bittersweet,” Almora said inside the visiting clubhouse. “This is a big family in here. We look out for one another and we have a lot of fun playing baseball.”
Almora hit .265 with two homers, seven doubles and a .712 OPS in 34 games, showing his natural instincts, potential as a Gold Glove defender and the need for what Maddon called “a little bit more sophistication in regards to his at-bats.” It’s all part of the learning curve for a 22-year-old baseball gym rat accustomed to elite competition after growing up in South Florida and playing on Team USA.
“I’m confident I can play here, 100 percent,” Almora said. “I played like I belong. Like I said when I first got here – what helps me sleep at night is that I played my all. I left it all on the field. I can’t predict what could happen. But I’m happy with where I’m at.”
Given the first-round pedigree, this most recent snapshot and the expectation that Fowler will hit the free-agent market again this winter, is Almora your everyday center fielder next season?
“I can’t answer that,” Maddon said. “All I know is that he’s proven to himself and us how good he is. Yes, he can play on a consistent basis. There’s no question about that. But I don’t know what the overall game plans are.
“The biggest thing with a guy like that is he gets his feet wet (and realizes): ‘I belong here. I can do this.’ And then he gets to go back and work on things that he knows is going to make him better here.
“We – and the front office – are comfortable with the fact that we believe that he can. And, more importantly, he believes that he can.”