Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein thinks big with Cubs, braces for the backlash

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Theo Epstein thinks big with Cubs, braces for the backlash

MESA, Ariz. On the day the Cubs put his name in lights on the Wrigley Field marquee, Theo Epstein joked that he should immediately hold another press conference to resign, because his popularity was at an all-time high.

As the jam-packed stadium club began to thin out, it came across as another moment of self-awareness for Epstein, who had grown restless last October after almost 10 years in a dream job, general manager of the Boston Red Sox.

So as the Cubs shut down spring training at HoHoKam Stadium on Tuesday and headed for their United Airlines charter flight back to Chicago, their president of baseball operations understood that you have to be braced for the backlash.

The message boards and talk radio will second-guess manager Dale Sveum. The 40,000 fans at Clark and Addison will boo Carlos Marmol when he blows a save and when Starlin Castro spaces out at shortstop. People will wonder why the Cubs are charging so much for some of their premium tickets.

For all the hype on the North Side, it wasnt hard to find Red Sox fans who were glad that Epstein was gone, remembering the expensive free-agent mistakes, instead of the two World Series titles that became deeply emotional experiences throughout New England.

I can go ahead and write your stories for you right now if you want, Epstein said. At some point, youre going to write about: Oh, the honeymoon is over. Were not seeing enough progress. I dont know when thats going to be.

It might be two years from now. It might be three years from now. It might be two months from now. It might be two weeks from now. But because progress as an organization isnt linear, (we know) thats coming and we just dont let it bother us.

Its important to just focus on what were doing internally and understand that everything outside is really no offense just noise in the end, whether it comes from you guys (in the media) or even comes from some fans who are deservedly upset at a given point. Its really just noise. And if we let it effect our decision-making, shame on us.

So as (Bill) Parcells said: If you listen to the fans in the stands, pretty soon youll be sitting with them.

When Epstein left the Red Sox almost six months ago, longtime Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy remembered how in 1993 a college kid approached him in the Yale Bowl press box.

Turned out it was Epstein, showing off his column in the Yale Daily News. Shaughnessy wrote how it was a rip job on legendary Yale coach Carmen Cozza and marveled at Epsteins meteoric rise in his own column headlined: Any way you write it, its still a success story.

Epstein had grown up not far from Fenway Park, so he knew the nature of the beast and felt that part of the Red Sox problem for many, many decades was focusing too much on the next days sports section, on what people thought (and) a little bit too much on the Yankees (instead of) focusing on just building something.

So Epstein insists the goal of the 2012 team is to win the World Series what else is he supposed to say? and then points out that there is a subtext to the narrative.

In Epsteins mind, the year will be a failure if the Cubs dont establish a culture of hard work, preparation and accountability. They must integrate young players onto the major-league roster and develop impact players in the system.

Top prospects Anthony Rizzo (first base) and Brett Jackson (outfield) should be mashing at Triple-A Iowa, but it doesnt sound like the Cubs will automatically promote them if Bryan LaHair struggles or Marlon Byrd is traded or either one gets injured.

The best decisions are made when you focus almost exclusively on their development, Epstein said. Not necessarily the short focus of: We have a 15-day vacancy at a certain position in the big leagues lets rush this guy up here.

Epstein said triggering major-league service time and the financial ramifications will not really be a factor. After an offseason in which the Cubs showed fiscal discipline and didnt go hard after Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, they could reach another crossroads with Matt Garza by the trade deadline.

Its easier to sit back and sort of evaluate how to balance short-term and long-term interest in a boardroom during the winter in sort of a cold, clinical, objective environment, Epstein said. It becomes a lot more difficult (during) five-game losing streaks when your bullpen blows four games in a week and you lose some one-run games and its really frustrating the same problems are manifesting over and over again.

Everyone in the building coming to work has a frown on their face, the medias starting to pick at you a little bit, the fans are getting restless. Thats when it becomes harder to maintain that objectivity and properly balance short- and long-term interest.

So one of the things that we do now, right before the season starts, (is) in the front office pledge to each other: Lets maintain the proper perspective no matter what happens. We get off to a hot start and were in the middle of this thing, yeah, were going to prioritize winning this season.

(But) lets not get carried away. Were still operating on two fronts. As much as 2012 will matter and will become increasingly important if we get off to a good start, were still doing everything we can to build a championship-caliber organization for the long-term.

And on the flip side, if its miserable during the course of the year as it is for just about every team at one point or another during the season lets not lose perspective and overreact.

The noise is about to get cranked up louder. The fans want one thing. Its the reason you take this job.

Ultimately, the only way to make them happy, Epstein said, is to (give them) baseball in October on a consistent basis and a World Series championship, eventually.

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

MILWAUKEE – Teammates swarmed Kris Bryant in Miller Park’s visiting dugout late Thursday night, flinging sunflower seeds and forming a mosh pit around the National League’s reigning MVP.

Are you not entertained? The Cubs haven’t always played with this urgency or made it easy while nursing a World Series hangover. But they can feel it now, how close they are to October and how much they learned last year while making history.

It’s too early to pop champagne bottles, but the Cubs won a huge swing game in the NL Central race, beating the Milwaukee Brewers in the 10th inning when Bryant blasted Oliver Drake’s 92-mph fastball off a beam underneath the gigantic video board.

The Cubs watched it ricochet back onto the right-center field grass for a go-ahead two-run homer, bumping up the division lead to 4.5 games while cutting the magic number to clinch the division down to six.

After a head-spinning 5-3 victory that lasted 3 hours and 57 minutes and ended at 11:08 p.m., Bryant didn’t sound surprised or overexcited, the same way he didn’t overreact when the Cubs struggled to gain traction before the All-Star break and the Brewers swept the defending World Series champs two weekends ago at Wrigley Field.       

“We’ve done that so many times,” Bryant said. “We’ve had a nice run with that. I guess it is experience. The heartbeats aren’t going too fast when the game’s on the line there. It kind of plays to our advantage.”

So did the Brewers pushing their bullpen so hard this week trying to catch up that Cubs manager Joe Maddon would have to admit “their A-listers were not available,” meaning Corey Knebel, Anthony Swarzak and Josh Hader. Classic response from Bryant, who has 28 homers and likes to think of pitchers as nameless, faceless opponents: “I didn’t find out their top three guys were down until after the game was over.”

Maybe that changes the ninth-inning rally against Jeremy Jeffress where Ian Happ sprinted for a “Respect 90” single and scored the game-tying run when Javier Baez delivered a two-out, two-strike single up the middle. But the Cubs are in their element now, playing games that matter, not what-if.

“I just think we like loud,” Maddon said. “I think we’re a little bit like adrenaline junkies with the fact we’re used to 40,000 people a night.”

Just look at the stone face Wade Davis made in the ninth inning, escaping a bases-loaded jam by striking out Domingo Santana swinging at an elevated 95-mph fastball and forcing Orlando Arcia to chop a 3-2 pitch back to the mound. The All-Star closer who’s 32-for-32 in save chances went back out for the 10th inning and struck out the side to notch the win. That is a five-out playbook Maddon can use in October.

“You definitely feel it,” Davis said of the playoff atmosphere in a road stadium filled with Cubs fans. “It’s a lot easier to get up for the moment itself instead of having to create it yourself. You feel that.”

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

MILWAUKEE – This was the type of game Jake Arrieta visualizes, a loud atmosphere with 35,114 fans on their feet and an opponent that really doesn’t like the Cubs at all.

This one would ultimately be out of his hands, lasting 10 innings and almost 4 hours on Thursday night at Miller Park, but Arrieta looked like a Game 1 starter as the Cubs roared back for a 5-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Those playoff plans are coming into focus, the magic number to win the National League Central title down to six and Arrieta managing the Grade 1 right hamstring strain that has been one of the biggest question marks hanging over the defending World Series champs.

“It’s just good to be back out there,” Arrieta said. “These are big games, and I want to be a part of as many as I can, especially to try and clinch the division as quick as possible and then kind of line things up for us in October. But we got to get there first.”

Arrieta threw his first real pitch in 18 days at 7:16 p.m., firing a 92-mph fastball toward Brewers leadoff guy Eric Sogard and giving the Cubs a shot of adrenaline. That always wears off, but the Cubs are a different team when Arrieta sticks his chest out and triggers his perfect posture into a crossfire delivery.

Arrieta looked sharp in his first real action since Labor Day, even as his five-inning, 71-pitch limit exposed how fragile this pitching staff might be right now. If it’s not Jon Lester laboring at the top of the rotation, it’s the softer spots in the middle of the bullpen, or questions about how much wear and tear the Cubs can take after a deep playoff run in 2015 and last year’s World Series madness stretched into early November. 

But Arrieta basically picked up where he left off as the NL pitcher of the month for August, realigning his unique mechanics and generating enough power from his right leg, restarting the momentum in a second half where he’s shown the flashes of dominance you saw during his 2015 Cy Young Award season. 

Arrieta exited this game with a 2-1 lead – before it spun out of control – and passed one test by hustling to cover first base to complete an inning-ending 3-6-1 double play in the fifth. He walked just one of the 20 hitters he faced and could really only regret one pitch in the fourth inning, the 92-mph fastball Domingo Santana drilled off the batter’s eye in center field.

“I felt OK,” Arrieta said. “I can tell that something happened. I think it’s just the residual feeling of something like a hamstring strain. But no pain, really no discomfort. That’s a good sign.

“Tomorrow is the biggest indicator moving forward of how we’ll be able to approach this. I don’t see any reason that I won’t feel good tomorrow.”

Arrieta is scheduled to make two more regular-season starts, but this dramatic comeback means the Cubs might be able to treat those as controlled experiments instead of must-win situations.

“Just an incredible baseball game,” Arrieta said. “This is a really awesome time to be in an organization like this, in a division like the NL Central, where there’s a couple teams that have playoff aspirations in mind. If we take care of business here over the next few days, we get a couple steps closer.”