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Excitement, angst face Cubs fans as winter winds down

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CHICAGO — Talk to a Chicago Cubs fan these days and you’re likely to find mixed emotions. That’s been the theme of the offseason right up to, and through, this past weekend’s annual winter fan convention.

Mixed emotions. Conflicting thoughts. Excitement and angst.

Those are all part of the Cubs experience right now as the calendar inches toward spring training. In the past, the Cubs signed big-ticket free agents like Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Yu Darvish. But this winter has been anything but big. The front office forecast early that the budget wouldn’t allow for additions like those splashes. Utility man Daniel Descalso is the lone new player on the team that’s won the most regular-season games the past four seasons but has come up short in the postseason the past two years.

“We didn’t have the flexibility this year to go ahead and sign a huge free agent and I’m not sure we would have anyway,” owner Tom Ricketts said on ESPN WMVP-AM 1000 last week in a rare interview. “We like the team we have. We have strong young guys at most positions.”

So free agent Bryce Harper would not have been on the Cubs’ radar, even with the budget for him? Not many fans believe that from an owner who has been less transparent in recent days. Ricketts canceled his annual fan forum over the weekend for the first time since buying the team in 2009. Yet team president Theo Epstein held a session with fans himself. He wanted to face the music after a disastrous end to 2018, and he did.

So there was transparency from one executive, whereas the owner claimed “low ratings” from previous years were to blame for canceling his own panel discussion. Ricketts did explain himself regarding the employment of shortstop Addison Russell, who is suspended for the first 28 games of 2019 after violating the league’s policies on domestic violence. That’s yet another topic ripe with mixed emotions, especially when you consider the Cubs won’t invite former star Sammy Sosa back into the fold until he comes clean about use of performance-enhancing drugs. For some fans, that opened the door to compare and contrast Russell’s and Sosa’s situations. Right or wrong, it doesn’t sit well that one has a job with the team and the other can’t wave to the fans at a fan convention.

Without Ricketts answering questions, without charismatic team leader Anthony Rizzo in attendance (he was on his honeymoon) and without a major new addition to the team, the headlines from the convention fell to Kris Bryant. He was openly critical of how free agency has played out again this winter, then hours later called the city of St. Louis “boring” — starting an offseason feud with the rival Cardinals. Many fans loved it, but since Bryant and his team must now back up the rhetoric, even that moment brought some mixed emotions.

Eventually, the weekend discussion returned to the field, where the Cubs failed on offense down the stretch last season and then vowed to fix what ailed them. That’s when the Harper discussion picked up, only to be quashed early in the offseason.

“The money got eaten up in a lot of ways by the guys that were coming through the [arbitration] system, and it’s not like we had a big contract roll off,” Ricketts said.

So the team turned inward, with manager Joe Maddon saying over the past few days there was more to “extrapolate” from his current group, while the front office has asked players to maximize their day-to-day prep better. After all, the Cubs won 95 games last season. Tweaking to maximize potential only makes common sense.

“You turn over every stone,” Zobrist said. “You’re thinking about ‘why.’ It’s not just that it did happen. You have to figure out why and then you have to make an adjustment and do something different.”

The Cubs also want better leadership in the clubhouse. This was supposed to be a tight group — the same that won the World Series in 2016. But perhaps it’s been too tight. Calling each other out, when needed, hasn’t been a part of the room since David Ross and Jon Jay moved on. Perhaps a full season with pitcher Cole Hamels will provide some extra leadership.

“That’s where I need to be,” Hamels said this past weekend. “That’s the role directed towards you if you play this game long enough. Being more vocal, instead of just letting it play out on the field.”

Ultimately, if the Cubs start to hit again, the rest should take care of itself. The starting staff is deeper — Darvish is healthy and seems more confident — and Epstein has found effective arms for his bullpen over the years, even if they aren’t always the biggest names. The key might simply be the Cubs’ attitude. They were once on top of the world, but the end of last season knocked them down. How they get up off the mat is how they’ll be judged moving forward. Mixed emotions and all.

“We’re a confident group,” Albert Almora Jr. said. “We just have to finish what we start. We want to send a message early on.”

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New York Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu on verge of winning AL batting title

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NEW YORK — DJ LeMahieu is on the verge of a first in more than a century of Major League Baseball: the first player to win undisputed batting titles in both the American and National Leagues.

Luke Voit is about to become a more common name atop the leaderboards but part of an illustrious list, joining Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Alex Rodriguez as New York Yankees to top the majors in home runs.

“I’ve always admired the Babe,” Voit said after the Yankees woke up from their latest slump to beat the Miami Marlins 11-4 on Saturday and kept their hold on the AL’s No. 5 postseason seed going into the final day. “It’s just awesome company. That guy hit 700 home runs (714 to be exact). That means I got to start hitting like 150 a year to catch up to him. So that’s never going to happen.”

Voit hit his major league-leading 22nd homer. Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox is second with 19.

LeMahieu had his fourth four-hit game and three RBIs while raising his average to .359. He passed Washington’s Juan Soto (.346) for the big league lead and opened a large margin over defending AL batting champion Tim Anderson of the White Sox, second in the AL at .337.

“This game’s been around for a long time, and I think anyone who’s watched knows just how special a player DJ LeMahieu’s been for us in these two years,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said.

LeMahieu won the 2016 NL batting title with a .348 average for Colorado. Ed Delahanty hit .410 for the Philadelphia Phillies to win the NL championship in 1899; he is credited by some researchers with the 1902 AL championship at .376, while others accept Nap Lajoie as winning that title at .378 despite lacking the plate appearances required in more modern times.

“Guys don’t win batting titles in both leagues, because you win it in one league, they probably keep you,” said Marlins manager Don Mattingly, the 1984 AL batting champion with the Yankees. “It’s a different game nowadays.”

A 32-year-old infielder in his second season with the Yankees, LeMahieu will become New York’s first batting champion since Bernie Williams in 1998.

Voit hit a three-run drive against Nick Vincent in a seven-run sixth for a 10-3 lead. He has made 38 consecutive starts, including 19 straight at first base, despite an injured foot.

“I’ve been trying to transform myself into a better power hitter and this year was another steppingstone for me,” Voit said. “I’ve always been a guy, high school, college, minors. I play through stuff. I’m a grinder. I want to be out there. I want to help a team, especially when we were hurting earlier in the year and I had to do whatever it took to be out there. So I was making sure I was getting plenty of treatment from all of our trainers and trying to stay on top of it so I could play through it and not be like killing me.”

Yankees rookie Deivi Garcia (3-2) allowed four runs and seven hits in 6⅔ innings with seven strikeouts and a walk. Boone has not announced whether Garcia or left-hander J.A. Happ will follow Gerrit Cole and Masahiro Tanaka as his playoff starters.

Preparing for a first-round playoff series on the road, likely at Cleveland or Tampa Bay, the Yankees (33-26) are trying to hold off third-place Toronto (32-27) and keep the No. 5 seed. New York’s season has flowed and drifted like the tide: a 16-6 start, following by a 5-15 slide, a 10-game winning streak and five losses in a six-game span coming in.

New York trailed 3-0 before Tyler Wade‘s two-run homer in the fifth against Ryne Stanek, and Aaron Hicks had a two-run homer in the sixth against former Yankee Stephen Tarpley (2-2) for a 5-3 lead.

Wade’s homer off the second deck in right ended the Yankees’ first five-game homerless streak since April 1-5, 2014. They have scored nearly half their runs via the long ball, 156 of 315, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“Any spark to get us going, especially with the last game coming up tomorrow and going to the playoffs,” Wade said after his third homer this season.

Giancarlo Stanton was in a 1-for-21 slide with 12 strikeouts before his 113-mph RBI double to the left-center gap in the fifth that drove in Aaron Judge with the tying run.

“I feel like we’re always one swing away,” Voit said. “We just need to get that one to get us going.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Los Angeles’ Angels Mike Trout — ‘We gotta get to the playoffs’

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The Los Angeles Angels were mathematically eliminated from postseason contention at Dodger Stadium on Friday night, which means that in nine full seasons in the major leagues, Mike Trout — considered by many the game’s greatest player for most, if not all, of those seasons — has made the playoffs only once.

“The biggest thing is getting to the playoffs,” Trout said Saturday, moments before the second of a three-game series against the cross-town Los Angeles Dodgers. “You guys all see it. I see it. It sucks being out of it. It’s time. We gotta get to the playoffs.”

Trout made the playoffs in 2014, when the Angels suffered a first-round sweep at the hands of the Kansas City Royals. The 2020 season will now mark the fifth consecutive time his Angels have finished with a losing record, even though the offseason additions of manager Joe Maddon and third baseman Anthony Rendon had many believing the team might contend for a championship.

The Angels lost 25 of their first 37 games but have since won 14 of 21. The 60-game season didn’t provide enough time to make up ground.

“It could be a different story if we played a full season,” Trout said. “We got hot just a little late and fell short.”

The end result, a postseason absence even though Major League Baseball expanded the field to 16 teams, could lead to the firing of general manager Billy Eppler, who’s winding down his fifth season with the team and hasn’t been extended beyond 2020.

Eppler played a lead role in recruiting Shohei Ohtani, was a big reason Trout basically decided to spend his entire career with the Angels and took steps to rebuild the farm system, adding high-ceiling talent such as Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh. But Eppler consistently came up short addressing the pitching staff; the manager he appointed in 2019, Brad Ausmus, lasted only one season. Decorated executive Dave Dombrowski has been rumored inside and outside of baseball to be his successor.

“Billy was a big reason why I signed back here,” Trout said. “We’ve built a friendship over the years. He’s put a lot of great teams together, and it just didn’t work out these last few years. The relationship and the friendship I’ve built with Billy — it obviously goes beyond baseball now. I’ve had a couple GMs come in here; I’ve never had the GM relationship I’ve had with him with anybody else.”

Trout, who became a father eight weeks ago, was batting .281/.390/.603 with 17 home runs in 241 plate appearances heading into Saturday’s game. He ranked seventh among major league position players in FanGraphs wins above replacement, and though he continually called this season “a grind,” Trout will undoubtedly finish within the top five in American League Most Valuable Player voting for the ninth consecutive year. But he’ll be 30 next year — and is still chasing October.

“I don’t like losing,” Trout said. “I wanna get to the playoffs. Every time we get into spring, our main goal is to get to the playoffs and bring a championship back to Anaheim. That’s just the mindset. When you’re that close and you come up short, it sucks.”

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Chicago White Sox’s Jimmy Cordero suspended 3 games for hitting Willson Contreras

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Chicago White Sox pitcher Jimmy Cordero was suspended three games for intentionally hitting Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, while manager Rick Renteria got a one-game ban, Major League Baseball announced Saturday.

Cordero hit Contreras during Friday’s blowout loss to the Cubs, several innings after Contreras threw his bat high into the air to celebrate a three-run homer.

“I knew it was coming,” Contreras said after the game. “I have no regrets, zero regrets. Once they hit me, I don’t think that’s the smartest thing to do. He got thrown out. And who knows if he’s going to get suspended?”

Renteria will serve his suspension during Saturday’s game against the Cubs. He and pitching coach Don Cooper also were fined an undisclosed amount.

It is unknown at this time if Cordero will appeal the suspension.

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