Cubs

Cubs see division lead beginning to disappear: 'Are you in or are you out?'

Cubs see division lead beginning to disappear: 'Are you in or are you out?'

“What’s happened?” Jason Heyward said, repeating back part of a reporter’s question. “Nothing happened. Baseball happened.”

It was only fitting that “Better Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk threw out the first pitch and led the seventh-inning stretch on Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field. Maybe the Cubs aren’t quite that desperate – and would never admit it even if they were in crisis mode – but the Milwaukee Brewers had only one realistic way to stay relevant in the National League Central race: Sweep the defending World Series champs.

Mission accomplished for the upstart Brewers team the Cubs allowed to hang around into September and gain more and more confidence. The flip-flopping St. Louis Cardinals – sellers one day, buyers in another deal, holding auditions for the future while trying to compete now – have also closed to within two games of first place.

The Bears losing their opener to the Atlanta Falcons in the final seconds at Soldier Field – and all the Monday morning quarterbacking – will give the Cubs some cover during their day off. But what could have been a four-game lead over the Brewers disappeared with a 3-1 loss in front of 40,113.

“If you go over there and ask that clubhouse what happened to them when they got swept by Cincinnati (last week), it’s the way the game goes,” said Heyward, the $184 million Gold Glove outfielder with a .259 batting average who is always available at his locker to answer questions.

“I’m not saying, ‘Oh, OK, so what,’ but that’s just a part of the game. Teams are going to pitch well sometimes. Sometimes, you’re not going to hit well. Sometimes, balls are going to go at people. Sometimes, (that’s) going to be what it is.”

The Cubs are getting what they deserve for all their inconsistencies – a stressful finish where 11 of their last 19 games are against either Milwaukee or St. Louis. The Cubs also have enough of an off-the-field reputation when it comes to rainouts and game times that the Brewers could make themselves feel slighted and turn those petty behind-the-scenes disputes into part of the narrative.

“We’ve been in a tight race all year,” rookie Ian Happ said. “Just keep playing good baseball and see where it shakes out at the end.”

The Brewers lined up their top three starters – Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson and Zach Davies – and limited the Cubs to three runs total in 27 innings. The first point the Cubs led all weekend came during Sunday’s second inning, when No. 8 hitter/backup catcher Rene Rivera lifted what looked like a routine flyball to right field. It carried over the head of Hernan Perez, who stuck out his glove and watched the ball bounce away for a questionable RBI double.   

“They got us,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We were just unable to string together any kind of hits, and then our power’s been negated a bit.

“If you look around baseball, it happens to every team at some point. It’s contagious to hit as well as it is contagious to not hit. You got to just keep working your way through it. It’s going to come back to us. We’re going to start hitting again.”

After pinch-hitter Alex Avila struck out swinging at All-Star closer Corey Knebel’s 97-mph fastball to leave Heyward stranded at second base and secure the sweep, the Cubs played reggae music in their clubhouse and looked forward to a day off after playing 20 games in 20 days – and ahead to what will ultimately define their season.

“You say ‘gave up three games,’ whatever,” Heyward said. “They had a great series. That’s that.

“That’s the name of the game right now – find a way to get it done. Nobody’s going to care at the end of the year. It’s just: ‘Are you in or are you not?’ And no doubt that all the teams right now in our division that still have a chance are doing the best we can to get in.

“These games are big, of course, but they’re over with.”

If you can't wait for baseball to be back, take a look at the Cubs' spring training schedule

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USA TODAY

If you can't wait for baseball to be back, take a look at the Cubs' spring training schedule

Set your alarm, there are only three more months till baseball is back.

The Cubs announced their spring training schedule Monday, getting folks all amped up for the 34 exhibition games in February and March.

Spring game action gets started Feb. 23 out in Arizona, with the Cubs taking on the Milwaukee Brewers to kick off Cactus League play. The Cubs' first home spring game at Sloan Park in Mesa comes the next day, Feb. 24.

In addition to a 32-game Cactus League slate, the Cubs will take on the Cleveland Indians in a pair of exhibition games in Las Vegas. That 2016 World Series rematch comes March 17 and 18.

And of course, there will be three meetings with the White Sox, as both Chicago teams play their spring schedule out in Arizona. Those "Cactus Crosstown" games will be played Feb. 27 and March 10 in Mesa and March 16 in Glendale.

Here's the full schedule:

What if Jake Arrieta stays in the NL Central and repeatedly haunts the Cubs?

What if Jake Arrieta stays in the NL Central and repeatedly haunts the Cubs?

Jake Arrieta in a Brewers uniform?

That's not a sight Cubs fans would like to see, but the North Siders' I-94 rivals are apparently keen on trying to add Arrieta, the free-agent pitcher who's been one of the National League's top arms for the past several seasons.

The Cubs have their own decision to make on whether or not they're going to pursue re-signing Arrieta, a guy who over the past three seasons has posted a 2.71 ERA and struck out 589 batters, winning 54 games in 94 starts for a team that won the 2016 World Series and has advanced to three consecutive NL Championship Series.

The downside to losing Arrieta is obvious, as the Cubs would lose a huge part of their formidable starting rotation, but there would be an added downside if Arrieta were to remain in the NL Central and repeatedly haunt his former team.

Given Arrieta's track record, adding him would make sense for any team in the majors, but the Brewers in particular could use a front-of-the-line starting pitcher to boost their chances of besting the Cubs for the Central crown. The Brew Crew staged a surprising threat to do just that in 2017, perhaps proving that their rebuilding effort has yielded fruit ahead of schedule.

But there are questions in that rotation, with Jimmy Nelson expected to miss time next season after having shoulder surgery. Chase Anderson was great last season, and Zach Davies was solid, too. Brewers starters posted an ERA of 4.10 on the season, good for fifth in the NL. The four teams ahead of them, including the Cubs, all made the playoffs. Adding an arm as good as Arrieta's could make the difference in jumping past the Cubs in the Central and getting the Crew to the postseason for the first time since 2011.

And it'd be a plus for the Brewers to make it so Arrieta couldn't shut down their hitters anymore. In 15 career starts against the Crew, Arrieta is 8-4 with a 2.74 ERA. However, they'd surely love to have him call Miller Park home. He's never lost there in five starts, boasting a 2.03 ERA with 30 strikeouts.

There's an argument to be made that Arrieta would be able to seek revenge on the Cubs no matter what team he ends up pitching for, be it an NL team facing off against the Cubs in the playoffs or an American League squad meeting the Cubs in the World Series. After all, as Scott Boras put it, signing Arrieta is a ticket to "Playoffville."

But should Arrieta make the short drive to Wisconsin and set up shop in America's Dairyland, turning the Brewers into a legitimate playoff contender and challenger to the Cubs' grip on the NL Central crown? Well, consider the Cubs-Brewers rivalry cranked up to 11.