Cubs

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

MILWAUKEE – This was the type of game Jake Arrieta visualizes, a loud atmosphere with 35,114 fans on their feet and an opponent that really doesn’t like the Cubs at all.

This one would ultimately be out of his hands, lasting 10 innings and almost 4 hours on Thursday night at Miller Park, but Arrieta looked like a Game 1 starter as the Cubs roared back for a 5-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Those playoff plans are coming into focus, the magic number to win the National League Central title down to six and Arrieta managing the Grade 1 right hamstring strain that has been one of the biggest question marks hanging over the defending World Series champs.

“It’s just good to be back out there,” Arrieta said. “These are big games, and I want to be a part of as many as I can, especially to try and clinch the division as quick as possible and then kind of line things up for us in October. But we got to get there first.”

Arrieta threw his first real pitch in 18 days at 7:16 p.m., firing a 92-mph fastball toward Brewers leadoff guy Eric Sogard and giving the Cubs a shot of adrenaline. That always wears off, but the Cubs are a different team when Arrieta sticks his chest out and triggers his perfect posture into a crossfire delivery.

Arrieta looked sharp in his first real action since Labor Day, even as his five-inning, 71-pitch limit exposed how fragile this pitching staff might be right now. If it’s not Jon Lester laboring at the top of the rotation, it’s the softer spots in the middle of the bullpen, or questions about how much wear and tear the Cubs can take after a deep playoff run in 2015 and last year’s World Series madness stretched into early November. 

But Arrieta basically picked up where he left off as the NL pitcher of the month for August, realigning his unique mechanics and generating enough power from his right leg, restarting the momentum in a second half where he’s shown the flashes of dominance you saw during his 2015 Cy Young Award season. 

Arrieta exited this game with a 2-1 lead – before it spun out of control – and passed one test by hustling to cover first base to complete an inning-ending 3-6-1 double play in the fifth. He walked just one of the 20 hitters he faced and could really only regret one pitch in the fourth inning, the 92-mph fastball Domingo Santana drilled off the batter’s eye in center field.

“I felt OK,” Arrieta said. “I can tell that something happened. I think it’s just the residual feeling of something like a hamstring strain. But no pain, really no discomfort. That’s a good sign.

“Tomorrow is the biggest indicator moving forward of how we’ll be able to approach this. I don’t see any reason that I won’t feel good tomorrow.”

Arrieta is scheduled to make two more regular-season starts, but this dramatic comeback means the Cubs might be able to treat those as controlled experiments instead of must-win situations.

“Just an incredible baseball game,” Arrieta said. “This is a really awesome time to be in an organization like this, in a division like the NL Central, where there’s a couple teams that have playoff aspirations in mind. If we take care of business here over the next few days, we get a couple steps closer.”

Wade Davis won't second-guess the decision that kept him on the sideline 

Wade Davis won't second-guess the decision that kept him on the sideline 

LOS ANGELES – The Cubs talked a good game on Sunday night, manager Joe Maddon explaining his ninth-inning strategy during a Dodger Stadium press conference and the defending World Series champs standing at their lockers answering positive-slant questions about how they’ve been through this before and already done the impossible.

But there was no avoiding it in the visiting clubhouse, how much better this Dodger team is now and how much this 4-1 walk-off loss stung, because the Cubs are now down 0-2 in the National League Championship Series without All-Star closer Wade Davis throwing a single pitch.

The year after Maddon took so much heat for how hard he pushed All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman – and three days removed from Davis getting the seven-out save that eliminated the Washington Nationals – all the focus shifted to how John Lackey wound up allowing the three-run homer Justin Turner launched over the center-field wall.

“We got confidence in everybody that goes out there, so there’s no disappointment in any of that,” Davis said. “Lackey’s track record in the playoffs has been amazing. I don’t think that’s something anybody should be second-guessing.”    

Davis is a professional who wouldn’t subtly criticize a teammate or passive-aggressively criticize his manager. That’s what Twitter is for while the Cubs fly home overnight, two losses away from vacation, and talk radio on Monday morning, more than 24 hours to fill before Game 3 at Wrigley Field.     

“You have to understand when you have a guy like that coming off the performance that he had, to warm him up and not use him is equally as bad,” Maddon said. “Warm him up, not put him in the game, and then ask him to pitch maybe two innings later, that's really not good for him.

“I really was waiting for that opportunity to grab a lead and then throw him out there. That's what it was all about. There was no way he was pitching more than one, and that was pretty much it.”

Here’s how Davis – who unleashed 44 pitches to finish off the epic Thursday night/Friday morning clincher at Nationals Park – understood his pregame availability: “Help win the game whatever way we can.”

“I knew it was only going to be like a one-inning-type stint.”

Maddon sent Brian Duensing back out to begin a second inning against the Dodgers and watched the lefty reliever walk Yasiel Puig to lead off the ninth. After a sacrifice bunt and a Duensing strikeout, Maddon bet on Lackey’s Big-Boy-Game experience.

Lackey threw 27 pitches the day before and is 38 years old and has made only two regular-season relief appearances in a big-league career that began in 2002. Lackey walked Chris Taylor and watched his second pitch to Turner – a 92-mph fastball – soar out to center field and into the glove of a Dodger fan.  

“You want to be in these games,” Lackey  said. “It’s not typical the way I’m usually in ‘em, but still got to try to get the job done.”

Look, the Cubs bullpen is already in disorder and has no margin for error when the offense scores only one run and the Dodger relievers throw an eight-inning combined no-hitter in Games 1 and 2. But everything is magnified in October, when relievers become stars and all the decisions are dissected in real time on social media.

Davis never makes excuses and wouldn’t say that he’s still feeling the aftereffects from Washington.   

“Everything’s pretty taxing in the playoffs,” Davis said. “It’s just part of it. You take the ball whenever they ask you to take the ball.”

Davis – who so rarely shows emotion – laughed when a reporter asked if he could go longer than three outs again.

“You guys love that question,” Davis said. “Like I said, we’re just trying to win games.”

After talking for 90-plus seconds about a game he didn’t play in, Davis nodded and said: “We’re good.”

Joe Maddon explains why Wade Davis didn't pitch in that series-altering 9th inning of Game 2

Joe Maddon explains why Wade Davis didn't pitch in that series-altering 9th inning of Game 2

If it wasn't confirmed before, it is now: Joe Maddon's honeymoon period in Wrigleyville really is over.

The Cubs bullpen held serve with the lights-out Dodgers bullpen for a while, but at the end, all Maddon could do was watch his team lose with Wade Davis sitting in the bullpen, unused, in the ninth inning.

The reigning World Series-winning manager called on John Lackey with two outs in the ninth inning in a tie game against the Dodgers in Game 2 of the NLCS. It was the first time Lackey had ever pitched in back-to-back games in his entire 15-year career.

If you're reading this and didn't just wake up from a coma, you already know what happened: Lackey walked Chris Taylor, then served up a game-winning homer to Justin "Tormund" Turner.

Meanwhile, the Cubs' lone All-Star was sitting in the bullpen watching this all go down. 

Why didn't Maddon go to Davis - his best reliever - in the biggest spot in the game?

"'Cause I really just needed him for the save tonight; we needed him for the save tonight," Maddon said. "He had limited pitches, was one inning only. 

"In these circumstances, you don't get him up and then don't get him in. So if we had caught the lead, he would have pitched. That's it."

The "circumstances" are the fact Davis gave everything he had to even get the Cubs to this point, getting seven outs in Game 5 of the NLDS Thursday night/Friday morning and throwing 44 pitches. It was his longest outing - both by pitches and outs - since 2013 when he was working as a starting pitcher.

Davis had multiple forearm issues last season and he looked weary down the stretch this year at times as Maddon leaned on him hard during a tight pennant race with the rest of the bullpen struggling to find consistency.

Maddon went in depth later in Sunday's postgame press conference, but obviously the save part will drive Cubs fans mad. You can't get a save if you can't get past that bottom of the ninth inning and if you're gonna go down, might as well go down with your best pitchers on the mound against the other team's best hitters.

"I don't necessarily hold off for the save," Maddon said. "In the situation tonight, coming off of his last performance; the other thing you have to consider: understand, when you have a guy like that coming off the performance that he had, to warm him up and to not use him is equally as bad. 

"To warm him up not put him in the game and then ask him to pitch maybe 2 innings later, that's really not good form. So today/tonight, I really was waiting for the opportunity to grab a lead and then throw him out there. That's really what it was all about. 

"There was no way he was pitching more than one [inning], and that was pretty much it."

Maddon said he liked Lackey against the first guy - Taylor - and was going to have Lackey pitch the next inning too, if it got that far. Maddon pointed out that nobody is a good matchup against Turner, not even Davis, which is true.

But Maddon also isn't the only one to blame for the Cubs' 2-0 hole in the NLCS.

Maddon rightly pointed to the hapless offense - "we've gotta score more than one run" - that looks completely out of sorts this postseason. 

They scored nine runs in Game 5 in Washington, but most of those came off outs and Nationals mistakes. In the other six postseason games, the Cubs have scored a grand total of 11 runs.