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MESA, Ariz. — Steve Cishek took the mound for his first live batting practice session with his new team earlier this week. As the reliever stood on the mound against the Chicago Cubs‘ A-list of hitters — a former MVP (Kris Bryant), a perennial candidate for the award (Anthony Rizzo), a former All-Star starter (Addison Russell) and an emerging star (Willson Contreras) — he realized exactly what he got himself into when he signed as a free agent during the winter.

“It’s ridiculous,” the righty said later that day. “Our lineup is stacked. I know it’s only live batting practice, but game situations can’t be fun facing those guys over and over and over again. It can be intimidating. … It’s definitely the best team I’ve been a part of.”

It’s a notion newcomers to the Cubs’ spring clubhouse have repeated upon their arrival in Mesa, just days after the front office added the final piece of a busy offseason in right-hander Yu Darvish.

The Cubs are a force once again, and now they are removed from both their championship and hangover seasons. While the normal rhetoric in the spring is to tamp down expectations, the Cubs are way past that point. Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has Chicago at 7-1 to win its second World Series in three years, and raising that second trophy is at the forefront of this team’s thoughts.

“That’s one reason we all signed here, no doubt,” another newcomer, pitcher Tyler Chatwood, said. “They are built to win for a while, and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

From ownership on down, the Cubs like to remind everyone that they have won the most regular-season and playoff games in baseball over the past three seasons. But even for all of that success — or perhaps because of it — 2017 almost felt like a disappointment after the Cubs got off to a slow start and bowed out of the National League Championship Series in five games.

“I feel like we’re all ahead of where we were last year, for sure,” Bryant said. “It will be our fourth year together. The same core. It’s nice to go out there with the same guys that have been with you for three, four years.”

The Cubs overhauled their pitching staff but kept their position-player base intact, bringing back the same offense that ranked second in the NL in runs scored in each of the past two seasons yet still hasn’t reached its potential. The Cubs were awful in situational hitting, so they brought in veteran coach Chili Davis to address that shortcoming. An improvement in that one area could translate to a monster season for a lineup stacked with former first-round picks.

“You sure do hope you figure out the game a little bit more each year and you can apply that,” the 26-year-old Bryant said. “I feel that. All of us here are ready to take that next step.”

It’s a group just entering its prime, with plenty of big-game experience already under its belt, but the offense might not even be the biggest reason for optimism.

The addition of Darvish has people in the game thinking about 2016 all over again. The Cubs’ rotation was so dominant that season that 15-game winner Jason Hammel couldn’t sniff the playoffs, and this year’s starting staff could be just as good. Chatwood and Darvish join holdovers Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana to form arguably the most talented fivesome in the National League.

“I don’t like to talk about other teams,” Indians manager Terry Francona said recently. “But those guys [the Cubs’ front office] always get what they need. That is a good five-man rotation. I would love to face them in the World Series again.”

Cubs ownership isn’t backing away from high expectations. They signed off on the $126 million commitment to Darvish and expect a return on the investment.

“On paper it might be the strongest rotation we’ve ever had,” usually understated owner Tom Ricketts declared as camp opened. “We have a great team.”

Ricketts stopped short of calling anything short of a World Series a failure, but he did nothing to dissuade fans from lofty aspirations.

“At this point, with this team, that’s our goal,” he said. “I don’t blame them. They should have high expectations.”

Are these Cubs a 103-win squad, as they were in 2016? Could they be even better? A lot of that will be decided by the rotation and a revamped bullpen that includes new closer Brandon Morrow. There’s an added bonus in that Morrow and Darvish were both plucked from a Los Angeles Dodgers team the Cubs faced in each of the past two NLCS.

“Both Yu and Morrow were key to our success, and we wish them well,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “It’s going to be a good battle with those guys. Six times in the regular season and maybe another time in the postseason. Who knows?”

Although another playoff meeting with the Dodgers is still months from taking shape, the Cubs know what they have: a very talented group with new motivation — if perhaps not 108-year-drought motivation — and a renewed hunger.

“Nobody in this room is saying, ‘We were division winners last year,’” veteran Ben Zobrist said. “No one really cares about that at this point. We want to be World Series champions again.”

If the reaction of the newcomers is any indication, there is enough talent in the clubhouse to make it happen.

“It’s easy to say because I’m here now, but it’s the truth,” Cishek said. “Up and down our lineup, bullpen and starting staff, it’s an incredible, incredible team.”

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Milwaukee Brewers’ Corbin Burnes sees huge gains from a little tweak

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The difference between fighting for survival in the big leagues and potential greatness? In the case of Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Corbin Burnes, just a little tweak in the way he grips a baseball.

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that two seasons ago, Burnes was the worst pitcher in the majors, when he went 1-5 with an 8.82 ERA and allowed a staggering 17 home runs in 49 innings. His transformation began that offseason, when he started tinkering with a new pitch; then he broke out in 2020 and nearly won the National League ERA crown with a 2.11 mark. And now, he is the hottest pitcher on the planet.

The 26-year-old Burnes dismantled a struggling Chicago Cubs offense in a 7-0 victory on Wednesday, striking out 10 batters with no walks and two hits over six innings. His season line after three starts: 1-1, 18⅓ IP, 4 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 30 SO.

“Somebody just told me the no walks, 30 strikeouts,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said after the game. “That has to be pretty historic to start a season, I’m not sure, but that’s an incredible stat.”

It is historic. Only three pitchers have begun a season with more strikeouts without issuing a walk:

Kenley Jansen, 2017: 51
Adam Wainwright, 2013: 35
Noah Syndergaard, 2017: 31

In 2019, the league hit .330 off Burnes. They’re hitting .067 off him in 2021, as Burnes has fanned 30 of the 62 batters he has faced. The difference-maker: a wicked cutter that would make Mariano Rivera proud.

What’s interesting is that the pitch actually started out as a slider that Burnes tried to develop after that disastrous 2019 season.

“I had the idea in the offseason to throw two sliders,” Burnes said on a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday. “It was the slider we’d seen previously in ’18 and ’19 and then a harder, tighter slider, which eventually kind of turned into this cutter. So, at one point, I was throwing two different sliders — one with a little more depth, one with a little bit more horizontal — and the curveball for more vertical, so I was going to come in with three breaking pitches. When we got into spring training, we realized it was going to be more of a cutter, and that’s when we made a few tweaks: Let’s make it an actual cutter versus a slider with some depth and I wouldn’t worry about things blending together.”

That minor tweak in grip — from slider to cutter — changed everything. In 2019, Burnes had primarily been a four-seam fastball/slider pitcher, mixing in a few curves and changeups. The problem: Batters absolutely destroyed his fastball, hitting .425 against it. According to Mike Petriello of MLB.com, Burnes’ wOBA allowed on his fastball was the second worst of the pitch-tracking era (since 2008).

Now, in ownership of this unhittable cutter, Burnes has essentially ditched the four-seamer. Against the Cubs, he threw 42 cutters out of his 81 pitches and just nine fastballs (seven of those two-seamers). Yes, it also helps when that cutter comes in at 97 mph and is part of a lethal six-pitch arsenal: cutter, curveball, slider, changeup, two-seamer, four-seamer.

It’s not all as simple as having one new pitch, of course. Burnes throws exclusively out of the stretch now. He said he has focused on getting the curveball and changeup to the same level as the cutter and slider. He is pitching with supreme confidence.

“Mentally, I’ve been locked in for 18 innings,” he said.

As was the case with Rivera, the cutter apparently came pretty easy to Burnes, a natural outgrowth of his fastball.

“I’ve always been able to spin the ball really well; that’s kind of been my calling card,” Burnes had said Tuesday. “Even throwing a four-seam fastball, in the past it’s always had a little bit of cutting action to it. In ’18, we were able to get away with it. In ’19, it was one of those things where I didn’t have the command of it. I could throw it in the strike zone, but I didn’t know where it was going to be.

“With a few things we cleaned up, with a few ball positioning things in the hand, we were able to take it and basically it’s the cutter. When I throw it, I’m thinking through the process of throwing a four-seam fastball. For me, I think that’s why it’s become such an easy pitch. It’s something I’ve thrown my entire life.”

There’s no reason to think he can’t sustain this new level, other than he has to prove he can do it over 30 starts. The list of pitchers who can match his velocity, movement and pitch selection — that list might start and end with Jacob deGrom — is short. Burnes looks like a legitimate Cy Young contender.

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Chicago White Sox left-hander Carlos Rodon throws no-hitter against Cleveland Indians

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CHICAGO — Chicago White Sox left-hander Carlos Rodon came two outs away from a perfect game but threw the first no-hitter of his career in an 8-0 win over the Cleveland Indians on Wednesday night.

Rodon, 28, threw 114 pitches in the complete game, looking as strong at the end of the contest as he did at the beginning.

“I can’t believe it,” Rodon said on the game telecast afterwards.

With one out in the ninth inning, Rodon hit Roberto Perez in the foot, ending his chance at perfection. But the lefty then got Yu Chang looking on strike three and Jordan Luplow grounded out to third base.

Josh Naylor had opened the ninth inning with a slow roller to first baseman Jose Abreu, who barely got to the bag before Naylor. The call on the field was ruled an out, which was upheld by video review.

It’s the second White Sox no-hitter in as many seasons; Rodon’s teammate, Lucas Giolito, threw one last season on Aug. 25 against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Rodon was the third overall pick in the 2014 amateur draft but injuries have plagued his career. He was non-tendered by the White Sox this past December only to sign back with them on a 1-year deal for $3 million.

Tony La Russa is now the first manager to oversee two no-hitters in the American League and two in the National League, having been in the dugout Dave Stewart in 1990, Jose Jimenez in 1999 and Bud Smith in 2001.

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Pete Rose to sell picks for baseball, other sports through website

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Pete Rose’s baseball predictions are for sale for $89 a month.

Rose announced Wednesday that he was joining Upicktrade, a pick-selling website based in Mexico that recently made headlines in the U.S. with a short-lived partnership with the Vegas Golden Knights of the NHL. Rose will be making daily predictions about baseball and other sports.

Rose, who turned 80 on Wednesday and resides in Las Vegas, was banished from baseball in 1989 after an investigation revealed that he had bet on the game while managing the Cincinnati Reds. He has appealed to be reinstated multiple times but has been denied, most recently in 2015 by then first-year commissioner Rob Manfred.

During a conference call with the media Wednesday, Rose said he won’t be placing wagers on his picks and doesn’t believe working for the sports betting site would damage his chances of getting into the Hall of Fame.

“By me working with Upick, I’m not hurting Rob Manfred. I’m not trying to show him up by doing that,” Rose said. “I’m trying to make a living like everyone else. I’m not making a bet on the baseball game; I’m picking a baseball game. I’m using my knowledge to pick a game for whoever is working with Upick.

“But picking games on Upick don’t make me a bad person,” he added. “It’s not me trying to give baseball a black eye, because I’m not. I love baseball.”

It has been over 30 years since Rose’s banishment, and Major League Baseball is now embracing the legal sports betting market in the U.S. MLB has partnered with bookmakers, and select stadiums have announced plans to install retail sportsbooks.

Rose said he understands baseball’s change of heart on sports betting.

“Why is baseball doing what they’re doing? Because of the dollars, because there’s money in it,” he said. “Baseball was kind of stubborn for so many years, worried about gambling. But gambling is a big part of our country right now.”

Legal sportsbooks are operating in more than 20 states and the District of Columbia, with another wave of jurisdictions preparing to launch sports betting markets in the near future.

Upicktrade, which is based in Guadalajara, Mexico, partnered with the Golden Knights in February. Just days after the deal was announced, the Knights terminated the partnership with no explanation.

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