LaHair feels like he can do some damage

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LaHair feels like he can do some damage

As Alfonso Soriano surveyed the scene, a big smile crossed his face: Yeah, babe, swagger.

Inside the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium, a pack of reporters moved toward Bryan LaHair. The 6-foot-5-inch, 240-pound first baseman filled up the space in front of his locker.

LaHair is measured and polite, and answered questions about the Adam Wainwright fastball he lifted over the left-field fence and into the Cubs bullpen. That grand slam on April 13 helped ruin the day the Cardinals raised their World Series banner.

Swagger may not be the right word, at least not after 230-plus big-league at-bats. But theres an inner calm to LaHair. At the age of 29, he believes he belongs, that hes in the right place at the right time.

You saw it late Monday night at Wrigley Field against Cardinals closer Jason Motte. LaHair fouled off six straight fastballs that were clocked between 95 and 98 mph. That 12-pitch walk in the bottom of the ninth set in motion a 3-2 comeback victory.

I just dont have any fear, LaHair said. Im real confident with two strikes. Sometimes when youre struggling, thats when you lose confidence. But I just feel like I can do damage with two strikes, as much as I can with no strikes.

In that kind of situation, you just got to relax and just breathe and let the anxiety go.

This is what Theo Epstein means when the Cubs president talks about grinding out at-bats. LaHair grew up a Red Sox fan and played high school hoops for J.P. Ricciardi a Moneyball figure and the former Blue Jays general manager at Holy Name in Worcester, Mass.

Entering Tuesday, LaHair had seen 4.11 pitches per plate appearance, second among Cubs regulars and trailing only David DeJesus (4.16), who ranked 11th in the National League.

LaHair has reached base safely in his last 14 games, and hit three of the teams six home runs. He knows he will strike out often, and doesnt expect to walk all that much. Hes just looking for a good pitch to hit hard.

LaHair believes the sample sizes are too small to read too much into the splits against right-handers (13-for-30, .433 average) and lefties (0-for-6 with five strikeouts until Tuesday's heroics).

Im not afraid of left-handers, he said. I feel like any time I come to the plate I can do something. (But) Im onboard. I have a role right now (and) we just accept it and be part of the team.

Nothing against LaHair, but pretty soon fans will want to see Anthony Rizzo, the first baseman of the future whos hitting .373 with seven homers and 19 RBI in 19 games at Triple-A Iowa.

Ive been following him, LaHair said. I know hes doing really well and thats expected. (The) kid can really hit. Theres no doubt about it. I know down there hes been working on some things and trying to make some adjustments for the big-league level.

Ive been there before and hes going to figure that little part out (and) Im sure hes going to have success.

Thats not quite Ryan Theriot having a little fun and telling Starlin Castro: Come and get it. And Rizzo talked in spring training about wanting to be in the same Cubs lineup with LaHair.

Two left-handed bats, a lot of power, (seeing) a lot of pitches, LaHair said. (Thats) definitely a good combo. Its just whenever the right time is.

LaHair hasnt practiced at all in the outfield this year, but thinks it would only take him a few days to get back up to speed if the Cubs ever make that decision (and somehow move Soriano).

But Epstein believes that players whove hit at every level can do it in the big leagues. Its time to see what sort of asset LaHair can become across the next few months.

The guy who last season won the Pacific Coast Leagues MVP award and then went to play winter ball in Venezuela will act like hes been here before.

This is my opportunity, LaHair said. This is something Ive been visualizing my whole entire life. So its like Ive been there a million times. Ive been seeing myself do this for awhile.

Jose Abreu ready for 2017 after season full of 'different challenges'

Jose Abreu ready for 2017 after season full of 'different challenges'

GLENDALE, Ariz. — A torrid two months at the plate helped Jose Abreu end what he found to be an extremely trying 2016 season with numbers close to his career norms.

But even though he finished with an .820 OPS and 100 RBIs for a third straight season, Abreu admits that 2016 was a season unlike any other he'd faced.

While he didn't disclose any theories for the cause of his lengthy struggles, the White Sox first baseman said Sunday he's pleased to have finished on a positive note and thinks that rebounding from those difficulties will only make him stronger. Abreu — who hit .293/.353/.468 with 25 home runs and 100 RBIs in 695 plate appearances — is also a fan of new White Sox manager Rick Renteria and is equally impressed with the prospects the club acquired this winter.

"Yes, those were different challenges, especially in my mind," Abreu said through an interpreter. "I never in my life experienced some of the kind of struggles like I did last year. But that put me in a better position as a player, as a person too. I'm in a better position now for this season because I learned from the experience."

In spite of his struggles, Abreu was still a league average player through the first four months of the season. But the 2014 All-Star hardly resembled the player who produced a 153 OPS-plus over his first two seasons. His timing was off and Abreu — hitting .269/.325/.413 with 11 homers and 56 RBIs through July 30 — wasn't driving the ball as he typically had in his first two seasons, when he smacked 66 homers.

Abreu was lost at the plate and nobody could figure out why.

But after the arrival of his son, Dariel, who visited him for the first time since he moved to the United States, Abreu took off. He hit .338/.402/.568 the rest of the season with 14 homers and 44 RBIs in 249 trips to the plate.

"Right after last season ended, I had my meeting at my house with my family, just to explain to them how the season was because they know about baseball," Abreu said. "But sometimes they can't register how the process is in a season as long as the major league season is. We talked about it. I explained to them all of the challenges, the problems I had during that season. Once we ended with that meeting, last season was in the past. We moved on and we were trying just to figure out things and how can I do better for this season."

Now in his fourth season in the majors, Abreu has a firm grasp on how the White Sox operate and likes some of the team's modifications. He likes how Renteria thoroughly communicates what he has in mind for the club. Abreu also enjoys being seen as one of the team's leaders and wouldn't mind being a mentor to prized prospect Yoan Moncada.

Now he hopes to carry over his strong finish to the start of the 2017 campaign.

"I'm working on it," Abreu said. "That's one of my goals. Everybody knows that at the beginning of last season, I wasn't performing good. It was kind of a surprise for me, too. But I'm in good shape right now and I believe I will be able to succeed."

After playoff bullpen issues, Cubs again see Pedro Strop as a late-game force

After playoff bullpen issues, Cubs again see Pedro Strop as a late-game force

MESA, Ariz. – Inside Wrigley Field’s state-of-the-art clubhouse, the Cubs posted a blown-up image of the 2015 Sports Illustrated cover where Pedro Strop is high-stepping next to Kris Bryant down the third-base line, the mosh pit awaiting at home plate.

Between his tilted-hat look, chest-pounding celebrations and overall joy for the game, Strop sets an example for the younger guys in the bullpen and the Latin players in the clubhouse. Strop has been so valuable that Jake Arrieta could have never thrown a pitch in a Cubs uniform and Theo Epstein’s front office still would have considered the Scott Feldman trade with the Baltimore Orioles an absolute success.  

Yet when the long rebuild reached its apex – and manager Joe Maddon searched for World Series answers – Strop had already been marginalized in the bullpen. A freak injury – Strop heard a pop and tore the meniscus in his left knee while trying to slide and field a groundball in August – bumped him from his role as the seventh- or eighth-inning stopper.  

“It was a little difficult,” Strop said. “After I came back from my surgery, it was a different situation. But it’s something that you got to get used to and understand the situation, understand how deep our bullpen is and just go and fight whenever they ask you to.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal.”  

During Sunday’s media session, Maddon dismissed any issues with Strop (2.85 ERA) or Hector Rondon, the former 30-save closer who strained his right triceps last summer and didn’t quite get his timing down for the playoffs. Down 3-1 in the World Series, Maddon summoned Aroldis Chapman to throw 97 pitches combined in Games 5, 6 and 7 against the Cleveland Indians.

“Listen, it’s not a lack of trust,” Maddon said. “(Strop) just got hurt. And when you get hurt like that at that time of the year, it’s hard to play catch-up. When guys get injured in-season and you get to the moment where you’re trying to win a championship, you got to put like personal feelings aside on both sides of it, whether you’re managing it or playing.

“I have nothing but trust. My God, the threat is when you have him, you want to use him too much, always. And the same thing with Ronnie. I talked to Ronnie about that – I don’t want to put him in a position. I think Rondon got hurt last year because part of it was my greediness on using him too much in the early part of the season.

“You really have to battle against that when you get guys that good. You want to use them all the time. (I have) a tremendous amount of trust in both of those guys. It’s just a matter of utilizing them properly and keeping them healthy.”

[MORE: What Joe Maddon wants to see next from Javier Baez]

Since the middle of the 2013 season, Strop has notched 84 holds for the Cubs, putting up a 2.68 ERA and a 0.984 WHIP to go with 254 strikeouts in 211-plus innings. At a time when a $10 billion industry is reassessing the value of high-leverage relievers, Strop will make $5.5 million this year before hitting the open market.

“You never know,” Strop said. “I would love to repeat the championship season and win another one here before I hit free agency. Hopefully, they want to bring me back. I really like the city of Chicago. I love the fans and I love my team and the coaches.

“After this season, it’s going to become business, so hopefully we can put something together.”