Cubs

Cubs: Jake Arrieta gearing up for 20 wins, Cy Young case and playoffs

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Cubs: Jake Arrieta gearing up for 20 wins, Cy Young case and playoffs

PHILADELPHIA – Jake Arrieta took care of the worst team in baseball inside a quiet stadium that had entire sections of empty seats.

Joe Maddon’s Cubs have embraced the idea of trying to play the same game all the time, whether it’s March 7 in the Cactus League or Oct. 7 in the National League’s wild-card playoff.

That’s where this surprising season appears to be heading, as the Cubs moved another step closer with a 5-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 1 of Friday’s doubleheader at Citizens Bank Park.

“I think about pitching in October every day,” Arrieta said. “But it’s really not going to be any different. I know it’s a different stage, people are waving towels. (But) it’s the same (game).

“It’s a crazy atmosphere. But whether there’s 45-, 50,000 – or 10,000 – it doesn’t make what I have to do any different.”

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon remembers the friend he lost on 9/11

Arrieta notched his 19th win in a dead atmosphere, handcuffing the Phillies for eight innings and only allowing Aaron Altherr’s solo home run, cutting his ERA down to 1.99.

“It is good, but that’s what I expect,” Arrieta said. “That’s what the team needs, so that’s what I try and give us.”

After that no-hitter at Dodger Stadium, 20 wins would be yet another sign that Arrieta is one of the game’s elite pitchers.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Arrieta said. “After the season’s over, you look at your line and you can kind of appreciate it then. But it’s just really not even where my mind’s at right now.”

Arrieta will go for No. 20 on Wednesday on Comcast SportsNet against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, where the Cubs could return for the wild-card matchup next month against Gerrit Cole.

The Cubs have already settled one debate internally – Arrieta or Jon Lester? – so the next one for fans and media types will be whether or not there’s a home-field advantage in the wild-card game.

“It’s all about the starting pitcher – both sides – on that particular game,” Maddon said. “I think you want it for your fans, as much as anything. But to say it gives you an advantage or disadvantage actually playing the game – I don’t know that it does.”

It’s been 16 straight quality starts for Arrieta, the longest stretch for a Cubs pitcher since Lon Warneke (17) in 1933. The last time Arrieta didn’t finish six innings was against the Cleveland Indians on June 16, the same night the Golden State Warriors won the NBA Finals.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

In his next start, Arrieta threw a complete-game shutout against the Minnesota Twins, beginning the run that would launch him into the Cy Young Award conversation with Los Angeles aces Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

“I definitely believe our guy deserves it, no question,” Maddon said. “I really thought everything kind of jumped from that moment. I’ve always believed that when a young starter pitches a complete game like that, it can really propel them. It’s kind of like they taste blood in the water.

“My vote’s for Jake. The other guys are really good. It’s going to be an interesting conversation, no question. It’s good for baseball to have all that discussion and it’s going to be hard to argue against any of the trinity.”

Arrieta notched his 200th strikeout in the second inning, freezing Cody Asche with a curveball. It looks like Arrieta’s peaking at the right time, his focus, swagger and execution reaching another level on the way to October.

A cynical way to look at it would be a young team might actually benefit from going on the road, sharpening the focus for the wild-card game and minimizing certain distractions.

It would mean getting away from the Wrigley Field fishbowl, where there is so much history and the potential for wild mood swings if the Cubs get down early.

“It’s possible,” Maddon said. “I don’t really apply myself there that much. I just know that it would come down to the two starting pitchers on that particular day: Who pitches the better game?

“That’s what it’s going to be. It’s all about that all the time. So I’m not concerned either way.”

Especially if Arrieta gets the ball in a win-or-else situation and stares down the Pirates.

“Nothing fazes me,” Arrieta said.

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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USA TODAY

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: