'Spoiler' role not a fit for Cubs

'Spoiler' role not a fit for Cubs
September 9, 2013, 1:30 am
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Tony Andracki

When a team is well out of the playoff race, there are three things that can get them motivated and playing inspired baseball in the final weeks of a long, grueling season.

The first is pride and the second is the infusion of young talent, guys fighting for their big-league lives and providing hope for the future.

The third is the role of spoiler, knowing that winning games you're not supposed to can mean the difference between a rival squad playing in the postseason or sitting at home come October.

As the Cubs streak toward a third straight 90-loss season (or the third overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, depending on how you look at it), the role of spoiler doesn't exactly suit them.

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Sure, the front office is evaluating pieces for the future and there is plenty of pride and young talent to go around. But it's tough to play spoiler when the standings are basically set.

In the National League, the Atlanta Braves are running away with the East and the L.A. Dodgers are 11 games up on Arizona with just three weeks to play. In the Wild Card, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have eight games on the Washington Nationals.

In all likelihood, the only race left to be decided is the NL Central division title. The Cardinals enter play Monday up 1.5 games on the Pirates and Reds. Two of the teams will be forced to play a one-game playoff in the second-ever Wild Card round, while the division leader will sit at home and await the start of the National League Division Series.

Of the final 20 games left in the season, the Cubs play 13 against the Pirates, Reds or Cardinals, including a stretch of seven straight on the road starting Monday night in Cincinnati.

"You never want to be a spoiler, not that there's really spoiling going on. All three of these teams are going to be in the playoffs," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said Sunday. "Cincinnati is really getting hot, so they're right back in the divisional race.

"It's going to be fun. The atmosphere in Pittsburgh as well as Cincinnati, you're getting to that playoff-type atmosphere when you're trying to win a division. Later, its going to probably still be the same when we get to St. Louis. It's good for everybody to see that and play in those atmospheres because it's different."

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The Reds have been on a roll lately, coming off a three-game sweep of the Dodgers in which they won every game by just one run.

Cincinnati boasts MVP candidates Joey Votto (.924 OPS) and Jay Bruce (29 HR, 93 RBI) as well as leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo (.425 OBP) and enigmatic second baseman Brandon Phillips, who ranks second in the NL with 101 RBI.

But with the rosters expanding to 40 in September, they've added a new weapon in Billy Hamilton, the fastest man in the game.

Hamilton, who turns 23 Monday, made his MLB debut earlier this month and has appeared in four games, but has yet to see a pitch in the batter's box. Instead, veteran manager Dusty Baker has utilized the dynamic rookie in a pinch-running role.

Hamilton has appeared in four games and stolen a base in each while scoring pivotal runs in three of those contests, including the game-winning run in the 10th inning of Saturday's 4-3 win over L.A.

"There's one thing that you learn about speed like that: The more you try to stop it, the more bad pitches you throw," Sveum said of Hamilton's game-changing ability. "You don't really stop that kind of speed. Otherwise, people would have stopped it.

"If you want to keep slide-stepping, if you want to keep holding, if you want to keep throwing over, next thing you know, you give up a two-run homer or a three-run homer because you're so worried about something that's 99 percent chance going to happen anyway."

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The Cubs used to have a player like that in fan favorite Tony Campana, who struggled to get on base, but stole 54 bases in only 347 plate appearances while getting caught just five times.

Campana, 27, was designated for assignment in February and then wound up being dealt to the Diamondbacks for a pair of minor-league pitchers.

In two seasons in Chicago, he garnered 1.9 WAR (baseball reference) despite a measly .605 OPS, including just a .300 slugging percentage.

"The little playing time Campana had, he still won — I don't know if you can put a finger on it — three or four games himself just because his speed," Sveum said. "You put him in later in the game and he's guaranteed of stealing a base.

"You didn't have to worry about who was on the mound or how fast the pitcher was or who was catching. The odds of throwing him out were maybe five percent, at the most.

"Those guys change the game around late in the games, for sure."

The Cubs will get their first look at Hamilton Monday night. Tune in to Comcast SportsNet-Plus for complete coverage of the game. Cubs Pregame Live with hosts David Kaplan and Todd Hollandsworth kicks off at 5:30 p.m. with first pitch scheduled for 6:05 p.m.

Cubs Postgame Live will immediately follow the game on CSN-Plus.