Cubs

Guaranteed: Jake Arrieta silences Pirates, delivers wild-card win for Cubs

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Guaranteed: Jake Arrieta silences Pirates, delivers wild-card win for Cubs

PITTSBURGH — Jake Arrieta wanted it loud, and that’s exactly what he got on Wednesday night at PNC Park, all those Pittsburgh Pirates fans chanting “Ar-ri-e-ta! Ar-ri-e-ta!” on cue in the first inning.

Leading up to this do-or-die game, Arrieta had responded to Pittsburgh fans over Twitter and lit the match on social media, saying all the decibels wouldn’t matter, another sign of a confidence level that borders on complete arrogance.

Arrieta backed up his big words yet again in this National League wild-card showdown, dominating the Pirates in a 4-0 complete-game victory that really didn’t create all that much drama after so much buildup.

Sure, there was a wild benches-clearing, bullpens-emptying mosh pit after Pirates reliever Tony Watson drilled Arrieta’s left hip with a purpose pitch in the seventh inning. And you felt glued to your seat, because of this all-or-nothing format and a Cubs season that has been so unpredictable.

But Arrieta is at the top of his game now — just ask him — a pitcher in total control, putting up 21 consecutive quality starts and 31 scoreless innings in a row.

“I relish that situation,” Arrieta said. “You got 40,000-plus fans, most of them Pittsburgh fans. They’re out for blood. That’s what I expected. But I was still able to keep my composure and make big pitches, regardless of the noise factor. And that’s what I anticipated doing."

[MORE CUBS: On to the next one: Schwarber, Cubs dismantle Pirates in wild-card game]

The Cubs feel invincible with Arrieta on the mound and had already scored the first run before he threw a single playoff pitch.

If that didn’t feel like game over, it almost did when Kyle Schwarber flicked his bat to the ground and watched a Gerrit Cole pitch fly over the right-field seats and out of this beautiful waterfront stadium for a two-run homer in the third inning.

Arrieta suffocated a Pirates team that won 98 games and wound up stuck in a wild-card game for the third year in a row. The Pirates scored four runs — three earned — across 45 innings against Arrieta this year.

“Talk about bull riding,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. “Sometimes you draw a tough bull.”

On Wednesday morning, a group of guys taking a cigarette break on Penn Avenue noticed the Cubs fans outside a downtown Pittsburgh hotel.

“Arrieta’s due for a bad game,” one called out.

[WATCH CUBS: Maddon: 'Jake was spectacular, obviously']

At some point, the law of averages will have to begin to even out and Arrieta will wake up from this dream season and stop being the hottest pitcher on the planet.

But the Cubs will ride Arrieta’s right arm as far as they can, with the next stop being Busch Stadium for a best-of-five division series that begins Friday against the hated St. Louis Cardinals.

During the postgame news conference, when a reporter mentioned his stuff hadn’t been as “crisp” — those two hit batters nearly sparked a brawl — Arrieta immediately fired back: “I’m not sure what game you were watching.”

Afterward, manager Joe Maddon said the pitch count would have been “infinity,” but Arrieta needed 113 bullets, allowing just four singles and finishing with 11 strikeouts against zero walks.

“It’s a pretty big moment,” Maddon said. “It’s either you win or you go home, and you guys and ladies (in the media) have heard him speak about this moment in advance and how confident that he was. Some people considered it like almost on the braggart side or flagrant. But for me, it’s self-confidence. (And) Jake is a different cat, man.

“(Joe) Namath guaranteeing the Super Bowl victory — that’s all I could think of the last few days. Just sitting in the lounge chair by the pool with all those reporters surrounding him. I was a big Namath fan in ’69.”

[WATCH CUBS: Rizzo: 'We know how to enjoy the moment, and that's what we're doing right now']

Arrieta carried the Cubs on his broad shoulders, getting the franchise back to the postseason for the first time since 2008 with a Cy Young Award-level performance (22-6, 1.77 ERA).

The Cubs hadn’t won a playoff game since Game 4 of the 2003 NLCS against the Florida Marlins at Pro Player Stadium, but the atmosphere around this team feels so much lighter now.

So when Arrieta loaded the bases in the sixth — hitting Josh Harrison and watching Addison Russell commit an error at shortstop — he calmly got Starling Marte to ground into an inning-ending double play.

That silenced the largest crowd to ever watch a baseball game at PNC Park (40,889), completely tearing down the wall of sound that had been building for only a few moments.

And then tempers flared again in the seventh inning. Arrieta held onto his bat and stared at Watson, but the eye-for-an-eye form of justice didn’t surprise him at all. He got a small measure of revenge by stealing second base.

“That s---’s awesome,” Arrieta said. “I might like that more than the CG. I’m going to try and stack up a few more in St. Louis.”

[WATCH CUBS: Montero: 'We got on the board early, I think that's a game changer']

Right now, it looks like it will take a superhuman effort to beat Arrieta in October. The Cubs haven’t lost a game he started since July 25, when Cole Hamels threw a no-hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field.

“I’m still trying to process everything,” Arrieta said. “I haven’t had time yet. After the no-hitter (at Dodger Stadium), we had a big series coming up. I had to prepare for the next one. And right now, we’re going to enjoy this for the night, probably into tomorrow, and then I’m going to get ready for St. Louis again.

“I think at the end of the season — hopefully a World Series — I’ll sit down with friends and family and teammates and really enjoy it.”

Drenched in champagne and smoking a victory cigar inside the visiting clubhouse, it sounded like Arrieta was joking when he said this, but who knows with a fitness freak like this?

“I’ll work out twice tomorrow,” Arrieta said.

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.