Maddon era ends with a Cubs whimper

2019-09-29 JoeMaddon

Joe Maddon watches from the Busch Stadium visitors’ dugout on his final day as the Cubs’ skipper.

What was long enough presumed was made official Sunday. The Joe Maddon era in Chicago ended with the Cubs’ regular season finale, and a 9-0 loss to the National League Central-clinching Cardinals while they were at it.

The final decision came Friday, apparently, despite the Cubs taking one from the Cardinals to start the weekend, when Maddon and president Theo Epstein met over a bottle of wine, and Epstein affirmed there’d be no contract renewal.

And it may not be quite as simple as saying that, if only the Cubs could have played just  last weekend the way they handled the Cardinals the first two games this weekend, Maddon might have survived.

Getting swept by the Cardinals in the Cubs’ final season set at Wrigley Field last weekend merely finished breaking their backs for the year. They still had another week and weekend to play and, until they hit St. Louis Friday night, the Cubs still looked and played broken—and against the Pirates, yet.

But the plain truth is that the Cubs were broken long before last weekend. And the breakage wasn’t Maddon’s fault entirely or exclusively. Maybe ESPN’s Jesse Rogers said it best after Sunday’s news broke: “Maddon’s dismissal from the Cubs boils down to one sentence: He wasn’t able to outmanage the mistakes the front office saddled him with.”

That happens only too often and not exclusively with the Cubs. But it feels magnified anyway because the Cubs delivered in 2016 what was long presumed impossible. And enough people in Cub Country and elsewhere really thought it was the opening salvo for a dynasty-to-be.

The dynasty that isn’t hit their wall in their own venerable playpen at the end last year. They slip-slid into a National League Central tiebreaker with the Brewers and lost that game. Then settled for the NL wild card game against the Rockies and lost that one, too. Scoring a grand total of two runs in both games, 22 innings worth of baseball.

The Maddon era qualifies cumulatively as a raging success, but its finish qualifies as a raging flop. For two straight seasons Maddon presided over a team that didn’t achieve what their talent demanded. He wasn’t necessarily in a great position to continue the earlier success, but he wasn’t necessarily able any longer to call his team to account before trouble spots became chronic.

Enemy teams came to salivate, not shiver, at the prospect of Cubs on the bases—they led the National League in baserunning outs this year. The other guys had only to put the bat on the ball and often as not save their prayers—this year’s Cubs were the league’s most error-prone defense.

“When you make a lot of errors in the field, when you make a lot of errors in the baserunning, that’s momentum,” pitcher Cole Hamels told Rogers. “That’s an area that could get corrected. There’s still a lot of players in here that are still learning.”

Hamels could have been talking about accountability, too. This year’s Cubs seemed to lose that. Maddon’s isn’t an in-your-face style of leadership, but as Rogers notes it’s believed that even when he did call players in to account for their mishaps, mistakes, and misses, “he didn’t address matters strongly enough . . . or the message didn’t get through.”

It’s not easy being as well respected as Maddon is for keeping his sanity when everything and everyone else around you has search parties out trolling to retrieve theirs. Neither is it easy to discover your remarkably sane and becalmed manner in keeping your clubhouse on message and on task no longer keeps it either.

“[P]eople — players, coaches, general managers, fans, even writers — came to see it is possible to work your butt off and still be a reasonable human being,” wrote Yahoo! Sports‘s Tim Brown. “You can be the boss without being condescending. You can lose and find hope. You can win and recognize that’s about an inch from losing.”

You can even manage the Cubs out of the wilderness, back to the Promised Land for the first time since the Roosevelt Administration (Theodore’s), and keep them in contention for the two seasons to follow, and still keep your marble (singular) when everything around you dissipates.

Which is probably the best reason while Maddon may not remain unemployed for very long. The rumour radar seems to be trained on the Mets, the Phillies, and the Padres as prospective new employers. The Padres job is open since Andy Green was pinked last week; the Mets and Phillies jobs may be opening very shortly.

A rumoured-enough possible Maddon successor is David Ross, whose clubhouse leadership and work as Miguel Montero’s co-backup behind the plate was invaluable to that 2016 World Series conquest. Ross retired after that Series. Don’t think for a moment that the Cubs didn’t miss him in the clubhouse from that point forward.

That was another problem after the ’16 triumph. The Cubs’ most tangible clubhouse leadership came by way of imports from other teams: Ross, Miguel Montero, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Jason Heyward. Their homegrown core led by example enough mostly but didn’t develop, or didn’t feel comfortable developing, more direct and over influence.

Ross retired after the World Series conquest. And Montero blew his leadership cred when he a) complained publicly about losing ’16 postseason playing time to Willson Contreras and Ross behind the plate; and, b) blamed Jake Arrieta publicly for the June 2017 day the Nationals ran wild on the bases (seven attempts, seven thefts) against Montero’s arm.

The latter got Montero run out of town post haste. Lackey retired after the 2017 season. Lester really started showing his age this season. Heyward is still a plus defender but a minus hitter.

But nobody expected Albert Almora, Jr. to stop hitting, or David Bote to become a defensive liability, or Hamels to be injured, or Contreras and Kyle Schwarber running the bases like trucks with flat tires, or Kyle Hendricks developing a seeming allergy to winning on the road. (At home in ’19: 2.05 ERA; .206 batting average against; 0.87 walks/hits per inning pitched. On the road in ’19: 5.02 ERA; .290 BAA; .141 WHIP.)

Hendricks himself reflected a major Cub dilemna this year. At Wrigley Field, if you don’t count that final weekend’s implosion, the Cubs played like a world champion in the making. On the road, they played like the 1962 Mets without the laughs. They dealt with key injuries, of course, and in abundance enough—but so did the Yankees and the Astros, and those two were deep enough to keep on winning.

Which is why Epstein himself may have some splainin’ to do. He didn’t exactly retool the retooling-needy bullpen with solid bulls. He depleted the farm to win the ’16 Series and beyond. The Cubs haven’t drafted a single major league-quality pitcher under the Ricketts/Epstein regime; the scouts haven’t mined deeper for jewels. Their 2018 round one pick, Nico Hoerner, proved a pleasant surprise. His September callup turned into a presence in the Cubs’ 2020 scheme, almost unexpectedly.

More than just the manager may be different next year. Hamels is about to test the free agency market. So does trade deadline acquisition Nicholas Castellanos, whose torrid play after joining the Cubs was too far from enough to help. So does relief pitcher Steve Cishek.

Aging utility man Ben Zobrist—whose season was disrupted by a harsh divorce, harsh enough to prompt his leaving the team to tend his children through it—may or may not retire. And there may (underline that, gang) be trade winds blowing around Almora, Kris Bryant, Jose Quintana, and the should-have-been-purged Addison Russell, whose too-much-proven domestic violence embarrassed everyone around the Cubs.

Maybe, too, Epstein overshot when he said last winter he wouldn’t even think about extending Maddon (if at all) until after this season was done. If it made Maddon too lame a duck maybe that extended to the players. Nobody likes that coming unemployment is a given for the boss you happen to love.

So why not send that boss out with a bang instead of a whimper? If the Cubs couldn’t stay the course to the postseason, the least they could have done was finish what they started and try forcing the Cardinals into an NL Central tiebreaker.

No such luck. Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty could have thrown from a sitting position, maybe even in a deep leather sofa Sunday afternoon. The Cardinals buried the Cubs, 9-0. It seemed almost like a mercy killing. And even a Cub win wouldn’t have forced the tiebreaker, after all: the Rockies beat the Brewers in thirteen in Coors Field. On a walkoff wild pitch.

But it might have shown a little pride.

Things in Busch Stadium began quietly enough and within reason with an RBI single by Paul Goldschmidt and a run-scoring Area Code 6-4-3 dialed by Marcel Ozuna in the first. The quiet lasted just long enough for Dexter Fowler—another element in the Cubs’ 2016 triumph allowed to leave—to hit one into the left field seats with Flaherty himself aboard on a base hit in the second.

And the Cardinals didn’t wait for the Cubs to regroup in the third, either. Ozuna singled home Goldschmidt and, after Yadier Molina walked, Matt Carpenter sent one over the right center field fence. Then Goldschmidt continued the party with a one-out bomb in the fourth.

It got so bad that Maddon sent Zobrist out to pitch the eighth. But Maddon wasn’t trying to be cute, even if there’ll be those sourpusses who decide he’d just surrendered completely without even a whiff of a fight back. He really did want to give a little gift to his 2016 World Series MVP, a personal favourite from their days together in Tampa Bay.

Zobrist walked Fowler to lead off but got a prompt line out to right center from Tommy Edman before walking Goldschmidt. He got a pop out to second baseman (and former Cardinal) Daniel Descalso. Then, he struck Molina out on 2-2 for the side. Molina couldn’t resist a sly grin as he lingered a moment in the batter’s box. Zobrist enjoyed the moment thoroughly. (He can also brag, wink wink, about a 0.00 lifetime ERA if he wants.)

It was a pleasant gesture and a pleasant way to accept the gift. God and His servant Jolly Cholly Grimm only knew how often the Cubs’ regular relievers got torched with men on and two outs during the season. Maybe Zobrist’s unlikely ability to wiggle into and out of trouble gives the front office a hint about fixing that bullpen. Among other things.

What’s brewing out of Milwaukee?

2019-09-26 RyanBraun

Ryan Braun slammed the Brewers toward a postseason berth clinch Wednesday night.

This season’s been strange enough without picking out the unlikeliest feel-good stories of the year. You thought a season-long battle with the injured list making the Yankees actually seem lovable was strange enough? You thought slugging their way to the American League Central title makes the almost-unexpected Twins’ case?

Well, then, what do you think about the real feel-good story of the year? It’s out of Milwaukee, you know. It’s called Lose MVP, Make Postseason Anyway. And as of this morning it could start changing to Lose MVP, Take Division.

The Brewers are doing what lots of fans only wish their teams might have done. Everyone wants to see their teams rise from the dead. The Brewers are bloody well doing it. Just like they did last September. Except that this time around they looked a little worse for wear before the month began. And they won’t have Christian Yelich in service again until spring training.

Be real. A runaway success is well and good. For all intent and purpose, that was this year’s Astros, Braves, Dodgers, and even the Yankees. Jaw dropping as the Yankees’ endurance was despite their season being St. Elsewhere, Yankee Stadium, their organisational depth helped make sure the farthest behind the Yankees ever fell was five and a half games—on 18 April.

The Astros were probably baseball’s second-most injury-challenged team, maybe with the now also-ran Phillies right up there with them. But the Astros are made of a lot stronger stuff and are at least as deep as the Yankees. They’re liable to end up with baseball’s best regular season record, if the Yankees don’t. They were last seen near five games behind even earlier than the Yankees—on 3 April.

And with Mike Trout out of the picture since going down for the season over nerve surgery in his right foot, Alex Bregman—who’s been Trout’s only anywhere-near-viable competition for the prize this year—is liable to end up as the American League’s Most Valuable Player, with Justin Verlander the likely AL Cy Young Award winner. These Astros aren’t exactly sad sacks. They could even win this year’s World Series. Could.

So turn to the Brewers. Whose best player and team carrier got knocked out of the box literally on 10 September when he smashed his kneecap on his own foul off the plate. A knockout that had an awful lot of people, yours truly included, thinking the Brewers might have been knocked out right then and there. Even as they hung in anyway that day to beat the Marlins by a run.

They finished that day five games out in the NL Central and a game behind the Cubs for the same. They finished the same day a game behind the Cubs in the wild card standing. And with Yelich out of  the picture, for all manager Craig Counsell’s absence of fear for what’s outside or nowhere within reach of the box, it was too easy to wonder how soon, not whether the Brewers’ tickets home for the year would be punched.

Lots of teams take a refuse-to-lose posture when disaster strikes. But you can count on a single hand how many act like their posture then. The Brewers are 19-4 in September overall—but 12-2 since Yelich was lost.

And after jumping the Reds for six in the first en route a 9-2 win Wednesday night—Ryan Braun’s grand salami on the game’s 20th pitch was merely the opening blow—they had the pleasure of delivering knockout punches to two teams for the price of one: the Cubs, who’ve spent September imploding; and, the Mets, whose post-All Star pluck and jive turned out to be less pluck than jive, after all.

The Brewers are not going to get cocky and kid either you or themselves that this makes Yelich expendable. They may be insane, but they’re not that crazy. But they weren’t exactly a threshing machine before September, either: they entered the month three games over .500 after an August that proved their season’s worst month.

They opened September 2-2, winning once and losing once each to the Cubs and the Astros. And then . . . and then . . .

* They took three straight from the Cubs.

* They beat the Marlins two straight before and including the night Yelich kneecapped himself, then beat them two straight more.

* They took two out of three from the Cardinals and three out of four from the Padres.

* They swept the Pirates, whose internal dysfunction this season was the year’s saddest feel-bad story, and now sit on the threshold of sweeping Cincinnati.

Go ahead and say it. The Brewers fattened themselves this month the way the Mets did out of the All-Star break, on preponderantly weaker pickings. But just as the Mets had to figure ways to elude both a bullpen made of 95 percent arsonists and a moment-challenged manager, the Brewers had to overcome:

* An entire roster whose individual wins above replacement-level player this year didn’t even show a single other All-Star level player, never mind anyone within a hundred nautical miles of Yelich’s level. And that’s despite five Brewers hitting 20 home runs or more this season (including Yelich’s 44), two (Yelich and Mike Moustakas) hitting 35 or more as of this morning, and the team’s on-base percentage sitting fifth in the league (.329) as of this morning, too.

* A starting rotation with only one member (Brandon Woodruff) showing a fielding-independent pitching rate under 4.00. (Woodruff missed all of August and most of September on the injured list.)

* A bullpen showing only one member (closer Josh Hader) with an FIP and an ERA below 3.00, with the average FIP (among its regular bulls) otherwise being 4.46. (They might have had a second bull close enough to Hader if Corey Knebel didn’t miss the season following Tommy John surgery.)

Now the Brewers are fighting on two fronts. They have a clean shot at sneaking the NL Central title right out from under the Cardinals’ noses. Or, they might have, if the Cardinals got to finish the regular season against anyone other than the Cubs. The Cubs have imploded so severely that winning even one of the final three this weekend might require a clergyman to verify the miracle.

More realistically, the Brewers have home field in the wild card game at stake. If the season ended this instant, the game would be played in Washington. But if the Brewers could end up tying the Nats’ season record, the game would be played in Miller Park, since the Brewers beat the Nats in their season series 4-2.

And the Nats—who had to find ways to survive their own manager’s periodic tactical lapses and their own self-immolating bullpen—won’t have it easy. After they finish with the Phillies today, they get to end the season interleague and against the Indians, still in the postseason hunt despite waking up this morning a game and a half behind the Rays for the second AL wild card.

The Indians won’t make things easy for the Nats. If they could survive a sweep at the Mets’ hands in New York, which proved maybe the true last grand stand of the Mets’ season, and stay in the hunt since, they won’t go down without a battle to the Nats.

But stranger things have been known to happen, including the Brewers being this far in the first place. Maybe the Cubs find enough self pride to give the Cardinals a run for it this weekend. Maybe enough, assuming the Brewers spend the weekend in Coors Field reminding the Rockies (whom they haven’t seen since may) who they’re dealing with, to set up a possible NL Central tiebreaker game.

They’re not strangers to that circumstance. Just last year they forced a division tiebreaker with the Cubs and beat them to force the Cubs to the wild card game they lost to the Rockies. These Brewers don’t seem to fear anything yet. Which gives this year’s almost-as-feel-good Cardinals a little more incentive than just rivalry pride to keep the Cubs in their apparent place on the final weekend.

But don’t bet too heavily against the Brewers, anyway. A team that loses its MVP and carrier and continues the September binge they started with him is not a team who’s going to dry up and blow away upon command.

Wrigley agonistes

2019-09-22 JoeMaddon

Joe Maddon (left) and Anthony Rizzo after the Cubs’ Sunday loss.

“Adversity,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon pronounced before they played their first home game this season, “is good for the soul, brother.” Did Maddon and the Cubs absolutely have to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy?

You want adversity? This year’s Cubs laid it on themselves good and thick. This weekend and this month. Right down to the moment Maddon decided it was a good idea with a 2-1 lead to send a gallant but past his single-game sell-by date Yu Darvish out to pitch the top of the ninth Sunday afternoon.

He probably did it because when everything else was said and done Brother Joe couldn’t or wouldn’t trust practically his whole bullpen as far as he could throw any home run pitch surrendered by Cardiac Kimbrel this weekend without the benefit of the ball flying off the end of someone else’s bat.

But pinch hitter Jose Martinez led off hitting a 1-0 cutter to the back of center field that just did elude a diving Albert Almora, Jr. for a triple. Former Cub Dexter Fowler sent pinch-runner Tyler O’Neill home promptly with a sacrifice fly. Then Tommy Edman singled to right, Paul Goldschmidt doubled him home, and then Maddon reached for Pedro Strop, who followed a prompt walk with two swinging strikeouts.

And the Cubs had nothing left against even a less-than-his-old-self Andrew Miller in the bottom of the ninth beyond Jason Heyward’s two-out single. The home side of their 2019 ended in four whimpers. Obviously, ending 118 years worth of adversity three years ago just wasn’t good enough for the soul, brother.

“If you just play back the tape,” Maddon said after Sunday’s game, “it’s almost unbelievable that it turned out this way.” The problem is that it’s only too believable. On a weekend when the Cubs needed to play like their 2016 selves in the worst way possible, they played like their 1909-2015 selves—in the worst ways possible.

The Cardinals, though, had just enough left. “There was a time when we could have mailed it in,” said shortstop Paul DeJong after Saturday night’s survival. “But we kept pushing. We’re at a point in the year where we smell blood and we’re trying to take what’s ours.”

Thus did the Cardinals clinch at least a postseason trip. Their magic number for a division clinch is two. The Cubs’ tragic number for even wild card elimination is five. They may get to regroup against what’s left of the Pirates for three in PNC Park, but guess who they end the regular season against and where next weekend?

Does Kris Bryant still think St. Louis is a boring town? I’ve never been there but I know this much about their Cardinals: They have been and they are a good many things. Boring isn’t one of them. Even the best baseball fans on earth, which is the reputation Cardinal fans do have, won’t be able to resist letting the Cubs have it but good next weekend.

The problem is, the Cubs are many things except boring, too, but their kind of excitement did the Cardinals the biggest favour of their month and, just maybe, their season. And if you want to talk about karma, be reminded that Bryant had to leave Sunday’s game after spraining his ankle trying to beat a third inning-ending double play.

Now it’s almost impossible to believe the Cubs began the four-game set against the Cardinals with a clean shot at overthrowing the NL Central leaders. And all four losses were by a single run, making for the longest streak of one-run losses (five) the Cubs have had since 1947, the last time they’d lost four straight one-run games.

How much it would have kept the Cubs’ almost-dissipated postseason hopes alive can’t be known now, but in a season during which he’s been second guessed frequently enough one more won’t kill Maddon.

If he wasn’t even going to think about Kimbrel Sunday, and he probably would have been executed on the spot if he did, why didn’t he give Darvish a pat on the fanny and thanks for a job done well above and beyond the call, and send Strop out to open the top of the ninth?

It’s not that that was the single decision above all that sank the Cubs this year. They were done in by a combination of factors, especially their terrible road results. Yet if Strop had a season to forget for the most part his September’s been plenty strong. He has only one earned run surrendered in six and a third innings’ September work, including five strikeouts now in two and a third innings against the Cardinals this weekend.

But the Cardinals had their own issues. They looked pitiful enough at the All-Star break, their shutdown closer Jordan Hicks went down to Tommy John surgery in June, and even the best fans on earth couldn’t resist the itch to demand president John Mozeliak’s head on the proverbial plate.

Then they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and went 44-23 after the break so far, against the Cubs’ post-break 35-30. Mozeliak is presumed safe from the guillotine. The Cardinals don’t necessarily see adversity as good for the soul so much as they see it means time to see what they’re really made of. It looks like they’re made of a lot stronger stuff than even their own fans thought.

Some Cub heads may roll soon enough. A few of those heads may remain Chicago icons for their parts in the 2016 conquest, but a team whose fans too long lamented, “This year is next year,” isn’t really in the mood to go forward saying, “Ahhhh, wait till three years ago.”

Maddon wasn’t offered a contract extension and he’s liable to finish the season as another ex-Cub manager, never mind the one who finally led them to their first World Series conquest since the Roosevelt Administration. (Theodore’s.)

President Theo Epstein’s most recent signings weighed against the net results this year could have him placed on probation, figuratively speaking. This year’s Cubs “were done as soon as ‘urgency’ and ‘October starts in March’ became the alternatives to actually fixing a lineup the front office said ‘broke’ and a bullpen that was an obvious weak link coming out of spring training,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey Saturday.

Strop plus trade deadline find Nicholas Castellanos, Cole Hamels, Steve Cishek, and others face free agency this winter. Ben Zobrist—whose season was disrupted sadly by his difficult divorce, which prompted him to leave the team for a spell to tend his children through it—may or may not retire after it’s over.

And Chicago Tribune columnist Paul Sullivan thinks aloud that, if Epstein’s recent talk about days of reckoning can be believed, it’s not impossible that Bryant, Almora, Jose Quintana, and the should-have-been-purged Addison Russell (it wasn’t a great look when the Cubs stood by him despite his too-much-proven domestic violence) will find new uniforms to wear next year.

Adversity may be good for the soul, but not everybody turns it into postseason possibilities. The Yankees and the Astros underwent a lot more adversity this year, but now the Yankees have an American League East clinch, the Astros have a postseason berth clinched at minimum, and those two are battling to see who finishes with baseball’s best record on the season.

This year’s Cubs were a good, not great team, as Morrissey notes. Maybe Maddon should get a re-consideration considering the Cubs managed to get to within a fortnight of securing just the second wild card at all. Maybe. Maybe not.

But Maddon didn’t help his cause or his case Sunday afternoon. The much-maligned, oft-struggling Darvish has been the Cubs’ best pitcher in this year’s second half: a .194 batting average against him; a .605 opposition OPS; a 2.70 ERA; a 0.81 walks/hits per inning pitched rate. He gave the Cubs everything he had Sunday until Maddon asked him for what wasn’t left. And failed to see Darvish’s tank on fumes.

Maybe Epstein should get just a little more than mere probation especially since the promised player development machine over the last eight years has been a broken promise except for Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, David Bote, and this stretch drive’s pleasant-surprise emergency call-up Nico Hoerner. As Morrissey reminds, not one homegrown Cub has thrown a postseason pitch or stuck around for more than a full season.

If adversity’s good for the soul, it should be better for a top down rethinking. There won’t be any more baseball at Wrigley Field this year, barring divine intervention. The angels have only so much kindness to spread around.

Could Ross take the Cubs’ bridge?

2019-09-22 AnthonyRizzoDavidRoss

Keeping Anthony Rizzo (left) steadied in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series is probably only one reason David Ross (right) may be seen as managerial material—and closer to a shot at it than he thinks.

When the Cubs delivered the long unthinkable almost three years ago, about-to-retire veteran catcher David Ross couldn’t be found when the celebration moved to the clubhouse. He’d ducked into the visitors’ weight room in Cleveland’s Progressive Field to repose with his wife and his two children.

A reporter found Ross anyway. And, asked the man known affectionately as Grandpa Rossy whether having been big enough in the Cubs’ century-plus-overdue return to the Promised Land had him re-thinking his intended retirement. “Oh, God, no,” Ross replied. “How can I top this? If I come back, it’ll be to get my [World Series] ring and maybe yell at [Anthony] Rizzo from the seats.”

The storybook Cub season gave Ross his happy ending. As for how he could possibly top that, the former catcher who’s worked since 2017 as an ESPN colour analyst may get his answer, perhaps sooner than he thinks. Perhaps as soon as this off season. If not sooner.

With the Cubs’ continuing collapse ramping up speculation that manager Joe Maddon won’t be offered a new deal to stay with the team he shepherded to that Series triumph and kept in contention since, the list of prospective successors has come to include Ross himself.

September began with the Cubs having a grip on the second National League wild card. A critical four-game set against the National League Central-leading Cardinals in Wrigley Field began with the Cubs a measly three games behind them with an excellent shot at overthrowing them for the division lead. There went that idea.

That series is on the threshold of ending with the Cardinals taking the first three at minimum and the Cubs taking in the possibility that any postseason hope they had this time around is all but over. All three were one-run losses. Two out of three were lost in the ninth inning. Saturday night especially.

After the Cubs had four deficit comebacks they handed an 8-7 lead to Craig Kimbrel. The same Kimbrel who owned one of the game’s most dominant relief resumes before he made closing postseason games for last year’s World Series-winning Red Sox exercises in cardiac crash cart alerts. The Kimbrel who only thought he was going to shoot the moon in free agency last winter anyway, and ended up shooting barely past the antennae atop Willis Tower when he finally signed a three-season deal with the Cubs in June.

The same Kimbrel who returned from the injured list (knee) Thursday and surrendered Matt Carpenter’s tenth-inning bomb that proved the winning run. Saturday night Kimbrel saw and raised. With a lot of help from Cardinals catcher/leader Yadier Molina and shortstop Paul DeJong.

Saturday night he opened against Molina, starting Molina with a climbing four-seam fastball. And, watching it fly into the left field bleachers. Then DeJong checked in at the plate. Kimbrel opened with another four-seamer that didn’t climb quite so high. DeJong had an easier time sending that one over the center field wall. And the Cubs had no answer in the bottom after Kris Bryant opened with a walk off Carlos Martinez.

Thus the first time they’ve lost four straight one-run games since 1947. Overtake the Redbirds for the Central? Second wild card? Not when they’re skidding while the Brewers are on a 13-2 run that began with sweeping the Cubs the weekend of September 6. It put the Brewers three behind St. Louis in the Central and three up on the Cubs for the second wild card.

This is one hell of a way to play the final regular season series at the Confines. Not even Rizzo’s unexpectedly early return from an ankle sprain Thursday—or his opposite field home run in the bottom of the third—proved inspiration enough. And Maddon wasn’t even aware Rizzo would be ready for duty until he heard it from president Theo Epstein after a pre-game press confab.

Which suggests to a lot of observers that Maddon’s days on the Cubs’ bridge really are numbered. No matter that he’s led them on their most successful run since the years of Frank Chance; or, that he kept them in contention, somehow, some way, despite this year’s battle between the injured list and the bullpen over who could do more to sink the Cubs deeper.

And Ross’s name was thrown forth as a prospective successor by none other than USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale, in a column whose headline began by noting not one major league manager was executed yet—four days before Padres skipper Andy Green got pinked after a grotesque 9-0 loss to the Diamondbacks Friday night. “The biggest surprise in Chicago this winter,” Nightengale wrote, “will be if David Ross is not named their next manager by Thanksgiving.”

The Cubs have been preparing Ross, who helped lead them to the 2016 World Series championship and four consecutive division titles, to the heir apparent, and although bench coach Mark Loretta can’t be completely ruled out, they believe Ross will be the perfect fit.

Epstein himself added to the sense of Maddon’s impending non-renewal, never mind that he can be faulted almost as easily for some of this year’s issues by way of a couple of signings here and a dubiously-retooled bullpen there, for openers. “Honestly, we’ve been essentially a .500 team for months now,’’ he’s quoted as having told the Cubs’ flagship radio station. “If you go back twelve, thirteen months, it’s just been marked by underachievement and uninspired play.”

If Grandpa Rossy’s tires are being kicked as a Maddon successor, the “uninspired” portion of Epstein’s comment looms a little more profoundly.

Ross was a journeyman major league catcher respected for his knowledge of the game, his handling of pitchers (some of whom made him their personal catcher, including Jon Lester with the 2013 World Series-winning Red Sox as well as the 2016 Cubs), and his mentoring of younger players. He’d been one of the Cubs’ clubhouse leaders in his two seasons there, and among the more audible whispers coming from the Cubs’ arterials has been how much his leadership has been missed in the Cubs’ clubhouse since his retirement.

The latter came into very close focus during that 2016 Series. When Ross had one horrible moment in the bottom of the fifth, throwing Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis’s squibbler away and into the seats, opening a door for the Indians to shrink the Cub lead to 5-3. And, when he atoned for it in the top of the sixth, hitting a 2-2 service from spent Indians bullpen star Andrew Miller into the left center field bleachers.

Because the television cameras soon enough panned close enough up to Ross and Rizzo at the dugout railing, where Rizzo gripped the rail almost like he was clinging to dear life onto a skyscraper’s fortieth-floor ledge. “I can’t control myself right now,” Rizzo said. “I’m trying my best.”

After Rizzo admitted he was an “emotional wreck,” Ross replied, “Well, it’s it’s only going to get worse. Just continue to breathe. That’s all you can do, buddy. It’s only gonna get worse . . . Wait until the ninth with this three-run lead.” At the Cubs’ championship rally Rizzo’s voice almost cracked a few times while he credited Ross with teaching him how to be a winner.

A lot of speculation has had former Yankee manager (and one-time Cub catcher) Joe Girardi succeeding Maddon if Maddon isn’t offered a new deal. But Girardi’s Yankee exit came under the same circumstances that might block a new Maddon deal. His young Yankee team still underachieved. He, too, lost touch with his front office and clubhouse. And he, too, had a recent run of head-scratchers.

None more head-scratching than his failure to call for a review at once on a hit batsman ruling for Indians outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall with two out in the bottom of the sixth, Game Two, 2017 American League division series. Every television replay showed the pitch hitting the knob of Chisenhall’s bat. A Yankee review would have meant strike three.

Girardi fiddled and got burned. Now the Indians had the bases loaded. And the next batter, Francisco Lindor, hit one off the right field foul pole near the second deck. Turning a potential blowout into a one-run deficit. The Yankees would survive to be pushed home by the eventual World Series-winning Astros in that American League Championship Series, but Girardi’s non-review call still stung.

Reaching for Ross would be the Cubs’ way of gambling as the Yankees did hiring Aaron Boone to succeed Girardi, with a similar lack of managing experience. How has that worked out for the Yankees? Boone’s managed them to back-to-back 100+ win seasons and a division title this year plus a second straight trip to the postseason. Despite leading baseball in the injured list.

He’s not exactly a strategical genius but if managing is 70 percent or more keeping your players on task regardless of onslaughts such as injuries, Boone should be a Manager of the Year candidate. By the Baseball Writers Association of America and the American Red Cross.

When Ross retired, there was speculation enough that managing might be in his future. All other things considered, it might not be that great a shock, even if it might send Cub Country to protracted spasms of joy, if that future proves to be this offseason, if not a little sooner. And if there’s speculation about him taking a team’s bridge, Grandpa Rossy isn’t exactly in a big hurry to shy away from it. He recently admitted as much to FanSided: yes, he’s got the itch to manage.

“That has definitely crossed my mind, with all the rumors that fly around,” he told FanSided‘s Mark Carman last week, referring indirectly to the Cub speculation, though he also said he wasn’t in that big a hurry to see Maddon’s days on the bridge expire. But Ross is still “flattered” by the thought that people think he’s managerial material.

Former catchers are often the first thoughts teams have when it comes time to name a fresh manager. With good enough reason: their game knowledge is often a given, and historically they win often enough.

Four former catchers now managing have division, pennant, and/or World Series rings on their resumes: Maddon, Bruce Bochy, A.J. Hinch, and Ned Yost. Bochy’s retiring from the Giants after this season; Yost is often rumoured departing Kansas City after this season, too. Their predecessors in triumph include Connie Mack, Al Lopez, Ralph Houk, Yogi Berra, Gil Hodges (who converted to first base early in his playing career), Johnny Oates, Joe Torre, Mike Scioscia, and Girardi.

Put Ross on the bridge of the right team and he could join that company. Whether the Cubs prove the right team, however, may not be entirely within his control.

“It’s a huge honor . . . People think that you’re the best guy to run an organization . . . [but it’s] one of those things that it’s gonna have to be the right opportunity to come back,” he continued. Especially if it’s one of the teams for whom he played.

“I’ll tell you, my heart definitely itches to get into the dugout at times and to be part of something special that I’ve been a part of before, so there’s a push/pull for sure,” he said. “It’s gonna have to be a unique opportunity to pull me away from my family and the sacrifices you make to be in the major leagues.”

The Cubs have been accused of many things in their history. Lacking uniqueness isn’t always one of them.

Funeral to frat party and back in a Wrigley blink

2019-09-19 MattCarpenter

Matt Carpenter runs out the bomb that proved the difference maker in the tenth Thursday.

You knew it was just round one of total weekend war when a throw to first to catch Kolten Wong in the act was challenged, the safe call upheld, and the Wrigley Field boos rained louder than a heavy mental concert Thursday night. In the top of the first.

And, as Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks and catcher Willson Contreras ended the half inning with a strike-’em-out (Paul Goldschmidt)/throw-’em-out (Wong) double play,  the cheering from the Confines would have drowned the earlier booing out if both could have happened at once.

Then, for the following seven innings, Wrigley Field resembled a funeral home with Cardinals starting pitcher Jack Flaherty the chief undertaker. Until the Cubs tied things at four in the bottom of the ninth, turned the funeral home into a frat party and sent it to extra innings.

With Craig Kimbrel—returning from elbow inflammation, not having pitched since the beginning of the month—taking the mound for the top of the tenth. Cardiac Craig, about whom it was written snidely that every time he nailed a postseason save for last season’s Red Sox his high-wire act still made it feel like losing.

He struck out former Cub Dexter Fowler on a full count. Then Matt Carpenter—who’d lost his third base job to rookie Tommy Edman, who came into the game late when it looked like the Cardinals had it in the bank, and who hadn’t gone long since late August—hit Kimbrel’s first pitch over the center field wall. That’s what a quick trip back to the minors to fix your swing can do for you.

It also knocked Wrigley back into funeral mode for the moment, until Kimbrel settled enough to get rid of Goldschmidt and Steve Cishek came in to get rid of Marcell Ozuna and get the Cubs one more chance. Which Giovanny Gallegos—the guy the Cardinals surrendered Luke Voit to the Yankees to obtain—had no intention of giving them in his first-ever Cardinals save situation.

Late game Cub insertions Ian Happ (fly out to center) and David Bote (swinging strikeout) were dispatched almost in a blink. And Nicholas Castellanos, the Cubs’ midseason acquisition from the Tigers, who’d been nothing but solid and beyond for the Cubs since, flied out to center to end it.

The 5-4 win pushed the Cubs four behind the Cardinals in the National League Central and one behind the Brewers for the league’s second wild card, the Brewers having flattened the Padres earlier in the day. The Cubs have to win a mere three straight against the Cardinals this weekend to keep pace with them and maybe re-claim their second card grip.

Flaherty’s evening ended after a 1-2-3 bottom of the eighth, 118 pitches, eight strikeouts, a lone walk, three hits overall, and one rudely-interrupting home run, keeping the Cubs otherwise unbalanced with a blend of breakers, changeups, and fastballs a barista would have envied for its smooth richness.

He walked off the mound for the final time of the game so collected he could have been forgiven for saying, quietly, “Well, I guess I’d better be shoveling off.” Even if he knows about as much about the old friendly radio undertaker Digger O’Dell, whose catch phrase it was, as this year’s American League East-and-100 game-winning Yankees know about avoiding the injured list.

And he got a nice respectful hand from even enough Cub fans and he’d earned every finger of it. Even that was just respectful, low-keyed applause and cheering. The real noise came after the Cardinals brought in former starter Carlos Martinez to open the bottom of the ninth, and Martinez opened with a walk to Nicholas Castellanos before Kris Bryant, who’d been kept quiet by Flaherty all night, smacked a single up the pipe.

With Kyle Schwarber and his 37 home runs so far checking in at the plate with the potential tying run. With Martinez falling behind to him 3-0 before striking him out, but with Ben Zobrist doubling home Castellanos, putting the tying runs into perfect position, and with Javier Baez—whose thumb is still balky but who can still run swiftly—pinch running for Zobrist.

It took eight and a half for Wrigley to come back to life. And when Contreras flicked a squirty grounder up the short third base line with Bryant tearing home as if it was supposed to be an unintentionally intentional suicide squeeze, only with all hands safe and first and third, the Confines became as unconfined as you imagine when the Cubs re-awaken from the dead.

Then Cardinals manager Mike Schildt brought in Andrew Miller, whose formidability as an Indian the Cubs remembered only too well from 2016, but who’s been worn down since by health issues stemming from his former bullpen overwork, to face the lefthanded Jason Heyward. Heyward smashed a grounder to second that pushed home Baez to tie things at four.

You got the idea early that even with the Flaherty factor hitting was going to be a challenge thanks to the notorious Wrigley winds, when Nicholas Castellanos skied one that might have flown out elsewhere but hung up for a right field catch in the first, and Jason Heyward hit a cannon shot liner that died a shuttlecock into Wong’s glove playing second ending the second.

And you also got the idea early and often that both sides weren’t exactly going to be in a big hurry to blow plate umpire Bill Welke to a steak dinner any time soon. Welke called so many pitches strikes that didn’t even graze the floor or the outside edges of the zone it’s a wonder neither Cardinal nor Cub decided to serenade him whistling the ancient television theme from The Outer Limits.

But you also knew the delight Cub Country took in Anthony Rizzo deciding to test his recently-sprained ankle by playing first base would be matched only by a sense that it would do a bigger favour to the Cardinals. And in the top of the third, it was.

Flaherty batted with first and second with Rizzo ambling down the line, a la Keith Hernandez, slowly but surely, and practically in front of the mound, aiming as has become a Cubs mainstay to choke off the bunt even if it went near the third base line. Flaherty dropped the bunt, all right. Right up the short third base line. And on his still-balky wheel Rizzo couldn’t get the ball in time to keep the bases from loading.

The pillows stayed stuffed long enough for Dexter Fowler to dial Area Code 4-6-3 with Edman (a leadoff walk) scoring on the play. And Rizzo atoned for his ankle’s betrayal in the bottom of the inning, sending Flaherty’s first pitch to him the other way into the left center field bleachers to tie things at one. Smartly, Rizzo he didn’t run it out any faster than he absolutely had to or could.

The tie held up long enough for Edman to open the top of the fifth with a triple into the right field corner and for Harrison Bader, who’s been as much a struggler at the plate as reliable in the outfield this season, to smack a single up the pipe to break the tie.

The Cardinals got a scare when Wong had to leave the game after ending the top of the fifth with a ground out to first. He fumed over leaving the game and the Cardinals may have fumed quietly with him, since he’s their best player this season by wins above replacement-level.

Then they sent Carpenter out to play third and moved Edman to second. And Flaherty went back to work as though nothing short of an undetected tornado could interrupt his quiet pleasure in his work. You might feel that kind of quiet surety, too, if you took the fifth-best post All-Star break earned run average (1.07) of all time out to the mound to start your evening’s work of play.

Flaherty was so composed and efficient that the Cardinals didn’t even think about getting a reliever up until Martinez got up to throw in the bottom of the eighth, after Flaherty reached 108 pitches on the night. Don’t even think about it: Flaherty doesn’t look like a pure hard, grunting, thrusting thrower; he relies on mechanical soundness to provide the fastball’s power and the command of the breakers.

He nailed the Cubs’ impressive rookie call-up Kyle Hoerner (eleven runs batted in in his first ten games worth of impressive) on a called third strike that looked under and not on the floor, and while Hoerner objected mildly to the call Flaherty simply walked around the mound and went back to work.

Then he struck out his counterpart Hendricks swinging, and Hendricks to that point was working with equivalent composure, not letting the quirky Wrigley elements get as far into his head as a two-run deficit ordinarily might, though he engaged a long yet civilised-appearing discussion with Welke after that swishout before returning to the mound.

He was probably a little more miffed when Goldsmidt opened the St. Louis sixth with a sharp double down the left field line. The Cardinals must have wondered about his ump conversation when Ozuna was rung up on a pitch that didn’t even graze the outer strike zone before Hendricks nicked Paul DeJong on a runaway inside pitch.

But Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ wise old man behind the plate, lined a single to left that Schwarber played on the carom off the heel of his glove before throwing home. Goldschmidt waved home from second should have been a Deadbird, except that he eluded Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, abetted by Contreras inside the baseline seemingly unable to get the handle on the tag.

Which ended Hendricks’s evening and gave the Cubs more reason to be miffed, when Bader stroked a liner to left center off Hendricks’s relief Rowan Wick, right after Wick turned Edman aside on a swinging strikeout. Then Schwarber opened the bottom of the seventh with a single up the pipe. And Flaherty in a momentary lapse of soundness wild pitched Schwarber to second while working to Ben Zobrist, before Zobrist grounded to second to push Schwarber to third.

And the Cubs’ basepath issues reared up and bit them flush on the fanny, when Contreras bounced one right back to Flaherty and Flaherty bagged the Schwarbinator in a 1-2-5-6 rundown out before Heyward grounded out for the side.

The Cardinals didn’t really look all that much better going 4-14 with men in scoring position in the first seven innings, but what matters is how you make it count when you do it and how you hang in there when the other guys decide it’s party time at the ninth hour. And Carpenter spoiled the party in the top of the tenth.

Leaving the Cubs to resist the temptation toward counting the days and accept the temptation to counting the ways they might keep both feet from their seasonal graves. They’d rather not be shoveling off just yet.