Cubs

Cubs: All-Star or not, Jake Arrieta already knows he’s elite

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Cubs: All-Star or not, Jake Arrieta already knows he’s elite

Whether or not Jake Arrieta took it as an All-Star snub, the Cubs still have a top-of-the-line pitcher they would feel comfortable starting in Game 1 of a playoff series.

That dream is closer to reality than anyone could have expected two years ago, when the Cubs acquired Arrieta from the Baltimore Orioles in the Scott Feldman sign-and-flip deal.     

Arrieta dominated the White Sox on Sunday, closing out the first half in style with a 3-1 complete-game victory that stopped the Cubs from being swept out of Wrigleyville.

Arrieta allowed only two hits all afternoon, striking out the side in the first inning and the ninth inning while giving up zero walks. He also hit his first career home run, driving Jose Quintana’s 90 mph fastball over the left-field wall in the fifth inning.

At a time when so many other teams that won the offseason look like trade-deadline sellers, Joe Maddon’s Cubs scattered for the All-Star break with a 47-40 record and legitimate playoff expectations, holding a one-game lead over the New York Mets for the National League’s second wild card.

“We’ve seen a lot of positives,” Arrieta said. “There’s a lot of things that have been obvious weaknesses throughout the course of the first half that we know we have to get better at, but that’s just the way the season is.

[MORE: Cubs keeping Kyle Schwarber in the picture for second half]

“Joe’s alluded to it several times in the past that we’re going to stink for certain periods of time, and we’re going to be incredible for certain periods of time. How can we minimize those times where we’re not very good?

“It’s easy to kind of hang your head and let the frustration set in … I think we’ve shown the ability (to) not let something linger for too long of a period of time, and come together as one.”

Good starting pitching creates that sense of momentum. Arrieta has backed up all his big talk and is now 10-5 with a 2.66 ERA, a 0.99 WHIP and 123 strikeouts in 121-plus innings. 

Maddon watched Arrieta up close when he managed in the American League East. The Tampa Bay Rays saw Arrieta as a guy who couldn’t control his fastball, driving the pitch count up to around 100 and waiting for him to break by the fourth or fifth inning.

Arrieta needed only 106 pitches to slice through the White Sox (41-45) in a quick game that lasted two hours and 18 minutes. It was a great all-around performance to end a three-game series that drew big crowds (124,854 total) but didn’t generate all that much buzz.

Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer will keep looking to add at least another starter by July 31, but Arrieta continuing to pitch like a Cy Young Award vote-getter will be key to any second-half surge.

“I intend to go out there and pitch at an elite level and have some dominant performances,” Arrieta said. “My mindset is not on wins or ERA or innings. I want to go out there and throw a shutout every time.

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“If I keep (that) killer instinct, have that aggressive mentality from the first pitch to the last pitch, I feel like I’ll be pretty deep into the games with some pretty good numbers to show for it.

“I know if I do that…we’re going to come out ahead quite a bit.”  

Maybe because it’s been such a long process after spending time on the Triple-A level in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013, Arrieta didn’t want to make the All-Star Game about himself and looked forward to watching teammates Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant in Monday night’s Home Run Derby.  

“Those individual accolades are great,” Arrieta said. “But I know my teammates can count on me to come up big for us when the moment arises. I thought about that stuff a little bit several days ago, but it’s out of sight, out of mind now. I’m actually looking forward to having a couple days off and doing some things with the kids.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”