Cubs show why they are defending champs while Nationals still have something to prove

Cubs show why they are defending champs while Nationals still have something to prove

WASHINGTON – The Cubs already visited the White House. The Washington Nationals are still the team with so much more to prove.

Dusty Baker needs this October to cement his spot in Cooperstown, the way Joe Maddon put the final bullet point on his Hall of Fame resume. Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant took different routes out of Las Vegas, but only one has the World Series ring to go with the Rookie of the Year/MVP hardware. While the clock is ticking on Max Scherzer and that championship parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Jon Lester megadeal essentially paid for itself.

Cubs vs. Nationals is supposed to be a circle-your-calendar event. Except the Cubs rolled out a Cactus League lineup on Monday night and Nationals Park featured rows and rows of empty seats amid a crowd of 29,651 where the celebrity vibe became more George Will than A-Rod and J-Lo.

The Cubs still hung on for a 5-4 victory that might have been their best under-the-circumstances win in a season that will hit the halfway point this weekend, showing why they’re the defending champs.

“It is exciting – don’t get me wrong,” Maddon said. “It’s just that we’re attending with a different group than we thought we would be attending this party with.

“And that’s OK, because these guys now are getting the kind of experience that is going to be very beneficial to us in August and September.”

A rash of injuries forced the Cubs to start Jeimer Candelario at third base and Mark Zagunis in right field and Javier Baez kept making highlight-reel plays while Addison Russell rested his sore right shoulder, leaping to grab to a Harper line drive and racing across the left-field line and sliding into the wall to make another spectacular catch in foul territory.

“Games like this is what we need right now – competition,” said Baez, who struck out in his first three at-bats and finished at 2-for-5. “Playing tight games like this will make us make adjustments better and be more in the game.”

With Kyle Schwarber more than 1,000 miles away in Des Moines and hitting the reset button at Triple-A Iowa, Willson Contreras became the leadoff hitter of the day and launched Gio Gonzalez’s fifth pitch of the game into the left-field seats.

The young Cubs manufactured their next run in the eighth inning when Baez stole third base and scored on Albert Almora Jr.’s perfectly placed bunt into the no man’s land between the pitcher’s mound and the first-base line. The bullpen is Washington’s Achilles’ heel and showed with a three-run meltdown in the ninth inning.

Eddie Butler – who began the season in the Iowa rotation – neutralized a powerful Washington lineup while getting just one strikeout in five innings. Maddon pushed a lot of bullpen buttons, not going to Wade Davis for a four-out save and then summoning the All-Star closer when Hector Rondon couldn’t work with a five-run cushion.

In a dramatic finish, Davis survived giving up three hits, a walk and a wild pitch, striking out Ryan Zimmerman with a curveball to end a game that lasted 3 hours and 54 minutes.

“To play so well and not win that game would have really been awful,” Maddon said.

The Cubs needed this with Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg looming the next two nights. But for all of their talent and regular-season dominance – three division titles since 2012 and close to a 100-win pace this year – the Nationals still haven’t won a playoff series in a city where the Senators once won it all in 1924.

This could be an epic matchup in October, bursting with stars and pumping with bad blood. Just listen to Baker during his pregame media briefing, responding to a question about a power hitter like Anthony Rizzo batting leadoff: “I ain’t worried about the Cubs. They can do their thing.”

Or Baker dismissing Maddon’s mind games and the possibility of intentionally walking Harper when Zimmerman is a Triple Crown contender: “It’s a new time and a new day.”

The last word from Maddon, who keeps insisting the 39-37 Cubs have a hot streak in them and that he digs the youth movement: “If this was a spring training lineup, we might get a call.”

Cubs recall Jeimer Candelario, option Dylan Floro to Triple-A

Cubs recall Jeimer Candelario, option Dylan Floro to Triple-A

With injuries piling up on the infield, the Cubs recalled Jeimer Candelario from Triple-A Iowa on Monday. 

Candelario will be immediately available as the Cubs begin a four-game set with the Washington Nationals and will start in the opener. The move gives the North Siders needed depth as Addison Russell, who left Sunday's game with shoulder pain, and Ben Zobrist (wrist) remain sidelined. 

This is the 23-year-old's second stint with the big league club. He hit .143 with two RBI last month. In the minors, Candelario is a career .270 hitter with 65 homers and 402 RBI. 

To make room, the Cubs optioned Dylan Floro to Triple-A. Floro has surrendered six earned runs in 6 1/3 innings in the majors. 

If Nationals are playoff preview, what should Cubs do at trade deadline?

If Nationals are playoff preview, what should Cubs do at trade deadline?

WASHINGTON – Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio has perspective after sitting through the darkest days of the rebuild, the sign-and-flip cycles and moments like “Men Playing Against Boys,” the way ex-manager Dale Sveum once sized up the team during a 2012 series against the Washington Nationals.

Bosio trusted future “World’s Greatest Leader” Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and the rest of a growing front office would deliver talent during the 101-loss season that led to the Kris Bryant No. 2 overall draft pick and the Ryan Dempster/Kyle Hendricks buzzer-beater deal at the trade deadline.   

So while Bosio is a hardened realist who understands the banged-up Cubs haven’t played up to their potential, he also knows these are first-division problems. 

“If Theo and Jed can find a way to make our team better, you can bet they’re going to do it,” Bosio said. “But at the same time, they’re not going to sacrifice our future. They know that the team (here has) a lot of holdovers from the World Series club. There’s a lot of holdovers from the team that went to the National League (Championship Series in 2015). We’ve been through that. And when it comes crunch time, we produce.”

With that in mind, a look at where things stand five weeks out from the July 31 trade deadline as the defending champs begin a potential playoff preview on Monday at Nationals Park:

• If Max Scherzer flirts with another no-hitter or a 20-strikeout game on Tuesday, the questions will start all over again about adding a hitter. Javier Baez even let this slip over the weekend after a win over the Miami Marlins: “Pretty much not having a leadoff guy right now is kind of tough.” But shipping Kyle Schwarber to Triple-A Iowa is not necessarily the start of an offensive overhaul.

“Our focus is going to be on pitching,” Hoyer said. “I would never say never to something like that, because I don’t know what’s going to present itself as we get closer to the deadline. I will say this: When it comes to our offense, I really do see it as these are our guys. We’re as deep with position players as any team in baseball. These guys have performed exceptionally well. Most of these guys have won 200 games over the last two years.

“We believe in them for a reason. We don’t have rings on our fingers without all these guys.”

• With Jake Arrieta and John Lackey on the verge of becoming free agents, the Cubs feel like they should start working on their winter plans this summer and begin remodeling the rotation. The 38-37 record makes you wonder how ultra-aggressive the front office will be to win a bidding war for a frontline starter, but the Cubs are only 1.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers, a first-place team for now that was supposed to be rebuilding this year.   

But the Cleveland Indians got to the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7 with Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and Ryan Merritt making nine playoff starts combined, because they had Corey Kluber and a dynamic bullpen.

The primary focus will have to be on the rotation, but adding another high-leverage reliever to work in front of lights-out closer Wade Davis would shorten games and help preserve Carl Edwards Jr. (170 pounds) and Koji Uehara (42 years old).   

“At some point, you’re going to assess your own team,” Hoyer said. “Sometimes strengthening a strength can work. You see teams that sometimes have a good offense – and add another good hitter – and all of a sudden we’re going to beat you in a different way.”

• Without making this summer’s blockbuster deal for a closer – the way the Cubs landed Aroldis Chapman – Washington risks wasting Bryce Harper’s second-to-last season before free agency and another year of Scherzer’s $210 million megadeal.

Six different Nationals have saved games for a 45-30 team and the bullpen ranks near the bottom of the majors with a 4.88 ERA. Can’t blame that on Dusty Baker, who has notched more than 1,800 wins as a manager and guided four different franchises to the playoffs.

But it won’t be easy to find a quick fix for the Washington bullpen or Cubs rotation. The American League opened for business on Monday with only three of its 15 teams more than three games under .500, and one being the White Sox, who are (obviously) not seen as a realistic trade partner for the Cubs.

“The American League is incredibly jumbled up,” Hoyer said. “That’s why a lot of deals don’t happen this time of year, because people are still sorting it out. The next five weeks of baseball will determine a lot of that. Some of those teams that are in the race now will fall back.

“There’s a lack of teams right now that have a true sense of sellers. I think there are a lot of teams right now that are close enough that they’re not going to admit it that they’re going to be sellers. That five weeks will determine a lot about who ends up on which side of the fence.”