Cubs

Cubs: Jake Arrieta redefining dominance as he makes his case for NL Cy Young

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Cubs: Jake Arrieta redefining dominance as he makes his case for NL Cy Young

Before the weekend, the Arizona Diamondbacks pointed to Jake Arrieta as a perfect role model for what the organization hopes their young pitchers can turn into.

The 29-year-old Cubs ace proved why he deserved that level of praise again Saturday afternoon as he dominated the D-Backs in a 2-0 Cubs win in front of 40,690 fans at Wrigley Field.

Arrieta followed up his first career no-hitter Sunday with another gem Saturday, allowing just four hits in eight shutout innings.

He has not given up an earned run in his last four starts, a span of 29 innings.

"It's as good as you're gonna get on the major-league level," manager Joe Maddon said.

[SHOP: Buy a Jake Arrieta jersey]

Arrieta picked up right where he left off in August, when he was 6-0 with an 0.43 ERA in the month.

It was the 15th consecutive quality start and he has a 0.99 ERA over his last 14 starts (a span of 109 innings).

Arrieta has now won seven consecutive starts and improved to 18-6 on the season, lowering his overall ERA to 2.03 and WHIP to 0.92 in the process.

Has he done enough to put himself firmly in the conversation for National League Cy Young alongside Dodgers stars Zack Greinke (15-3, 1.59 ERA, 0.846 WHIP) and Clayton Kershaw (12-6, 2.18 ERA, 0.897 WHIP)?

"It's hard for me to fathom that somebody's better than Jake Arrieta," catcher David Ross said. "I know numbers are numbers and there's some guys in L.A. that are doing a really good job, but I'll take [Arrieta] on the mound any day of the week."

Maddon is not one to talk about individual awards or look too far ahead to the end of the season, but even he admitted Arrieta has to be in the conversation for the league's top pitcher.

"Absolutely," Maddon said before comparing Arrieta's run to what he's seen in the past with David Price and James Shields in Tampa Bay. "I've seen guys really good. [This stretch] is right up there with the best that I've seen and I've had. He's been awesome, absolutely awesome.

"When the conversation [for NL CY] occurs, his name would be - I would guess - Top 3 with everybody. It's just a matter of how you want to apply your vote. And there's still some time left."

Arrieta said he got over the no-hitter pretty quickly, to the point where he was sick of talking about it two days later and was instead focused on watching video of the Diamondbacks. He wants to sit back and reflect on the accomplishment after the season ends.

Will he also be reflecting on a Cy Young Award in his trophy case?

Nobody knows yet, but he acknowledges that it's nice to even be in the conversation.

"It means you're doing something right, so yeah, it's a good thing," Arrieta said. But at the end of the day, all that's great, but if we do things in the playoffs, that's an even greater sense of accomplishment as a team.

"That's really what we're all focused on. The other things just kinda happen and take care of themselves with everything we have going on here. Winning ballgames is really our most important task at hand."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion. 

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

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USA TODAY

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.