Cubs

Jake Arrieta gets locked in with Cubs and makes no-hitter history

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Jake Arrieta gets locked in with Cubs and makes no-hitter history

LOS ANGELES — Jake Arrieta cemented his status as one of the game’s best pitchers with this no-hitter, still hitting 96 mph in the ninth inning, using his brute force and analytical sense to make the Los Angeles Dodgers look helpless.

Arrieta screamed and flexed his muscles after burying another slider, striking out Chase Utley for the exclamation point to this 2-0 victory. Arrieta strode from the mound and into the arms of Cubs catcher Miguel Montero.

The mosh pit formed around Arrieta, who made baseball history on Sunday night at iconic Dodger Stadium, in front of a national-television audience and in the middle of a pennant race that has re-energized this franchise and a starving fan base.

Arrieta is a huge reason why baseball matters in Chicago this summer, why the Cubs could be playing deep into October, this year and beyond.

What a way to end a difficult West Coast trip and return home to Wrigleyville with a 5 1/2-game lead over the San Francisco Giants for the second wild card.

“It’s something everybody wants,” Arrieta said. “Every kid thinks about it. Little League, high school, college, minor leagues, you think about it. It’s almost impossible not to, because everybody that plays this game wants to accomplish great things.”

[MORE CUBS: GIF: Cubs' Jake Arrieta finishes no-hitter vs. Dodgers]

The Dodgers had no chance against Arrieta, who struck out 12 of the 29 hitters he faced and allowed only six flyballs, throwing 80 of his 116 pitches for strikes. He lowered his ERA to 2.11 and now leads the majors with 17 wins.

“He has that kind of stuff nightly,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s really crazy. The ball looks like a Wiffle ball. Even from the side, you can see the break on the slider, the cutter and the curveball. Right now, he’s just pitching on a different level regarding velocity and movement.

“And he deserves it. If you watch this guy work — I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody work any harder.”

Arrieta is a fitness freak with a Pilates routine and 4 percent body fat. He’s also a student of the game who believes in visualization, inhaling all the data and breaking down hitters on video.

During a postgame toast inside the visiting clubhouse, Arrieta turned to teammate Dan Haren and asked: How did I get the last three outs?

In front of a big crowd (46,679) that sensed the moment, Arrieta struck out Justin Turner, Jimmy Rollins and Utley to end the game in a blur.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs celebrate Jake Arrieta's no-hitter with pajama party]

“He was locked in,” Haren said.

“Everything happens so fast,” Arrieta said. “The sequences are happening so quickly that from time to time you have a hard time replaying (it).”

The 10th no-hitter in franchise history since 1900 will be replayed forever on some future Cubs network. Carlos Zambrano threw the franchise’s last no-hitter in 2008 against the Houston Astros at Milwaukee’s Miller Park in a game relocated because of Hurricane Ike.

The only quasi-controversial call came in the third inning when Kike Hernandez smashed a ball directly at Starlin Castro. It took a short hop and bounced off the second baseman for an error.

“That’s an error,” Castro said. “If it hits my backhand, maybe it’s going to be a hit. But it’s right on me. I didn’t even move anywhere.”

“Initially, I thought it was a hit,” Arrieta said. “It was a tough play (and Hernandez) hit it pretty well. I thought it could have gone either way. I wasn’t aware that it was an error until an inning or two later. It was kind of out of sight, out of mind.”

[WATCH CUBS: Montero on Arrieta: 'He was Jake, impressive every time he goes out']

That’s the laser focus Arrieta has developed since that trade with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season, a year that saw him make 15 starts on the Triple-A level at the age of 27.

Arrieta has now made 14 straight quality starts, and the last Cub to do that was Greg Maddux in 1992, the first of his four straight Cy Young seasons (and last one in Chicago).

Theo Epstein’s front office took a chance on Arrieta’s raw talent and a strong coaching staff — Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode in particular — has allowed that natural ability to flow.

“Of course,” Arrieta said, that Scott Feldman trade will be a defining moment in his career. “It was approaching that period of time when I was with Baltimore that I knew things might happen. And they did.

“I was embraced by everybody. Everybody made me feel extremely welcome, and the comfort level was there from the get-go. It was like a seamless transition.

“I came over here and started doing some things I knew I was capable of doing to help me be more consistent. The momentum just continued to roll.”

Like on Sunday night, when Castro made a nice play while grabbing Carl Crawford’s line drive to end the seventh inning. And there was new franchise shortstop Addison Russell ending the eighth by charging a chopper up the middle and making an off-balance throw to first base to get Hernandez.

“We want every ball hit to us,” Castro said. “After the fifth inning, we said: ‘We got this.’ Because that guy is nasty. Every time. It’s unbelievable.”

Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

MESA, Ariz. — For years, Chris Bosio was credited as part of the reason for the Cubs’ recent string of pitching success. He helped turn Jake Arrieta into a Cy Young winner and oversaw pitching staffs that led the Cubs to three consecutive NLCS appearances and that curse-smashing World Series win in 2016.

But now it’s 2018, and Bosio is out. Jim Hickey is in.

The Cubs’ new pitching coach arrives with high expectations and has been tasked with shepherding a group of arms that saw a few too many bumps in the road last season. Jon Lester had his worst season in a long time, Jose Quintana’s numbers weren’t as good as they had been during his time with the White Sox, Tyler Chatwood led the National League in losses last season, and Yu Darvish got roughed up in a pair of World Series starts. And that’s before even mentioning the bullpen.

Still, even with all that said, the Cubs look to have, on paper, one of the best starting rotations in the game. And the upgrades in the bullpen have tempered some of the rage over the relief corps’ repeated postseason implosions. Theo Epstein’s front office had a mission this offseason to improve the pitching staff, and Hickey is a very large part of trying to accomplish that mission.

“What really was the slam dunk in my decision to come to Chicago or at least the finishing touches on it was getting to meet Theo, getting to meet Jed (Hoyer), going physically to Chicago, go to the offices there, seeing the physical building, meeting the people inside, just getting that vibe. Everybody was on the same page, and that page was winning,” Hickey said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. “And also built not just to win here for two or three years but for a sustained period of time, and that was what was very, very attractive.”

Hickey’s ties to the Cubs are obvious. He worked as Joe Maddon’s pitching coach in Tampa Bay for eight seasons before Maddon left to take over managing duties on the North Side. The two coached some phenomenal pitchers with the Rays, guys like James Shields, David Price, Scott Kazmir and Chris Archer and won an American League pennant in 2008. Prior to that, Hickey coached for the Houston Astros and oversaw a staff that included Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt en route to the 2005 World Series.

How does the Cubs’ rotation of Lester, Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Quintana and Chatwood compare to those great rotations from Hickey’s past?

“That’s a really tough question. But I think one through five, it may be as deep as any staff that I’ve had,” he said. “Really tough to say. I’ll give you a better idea after the season’s over, but one through five, it’s really, really good. Had some very, very good staffs, obviously, in years past. But these five guys, we talk about it all the time, the starters pitching innings and not falling into this pattern of starters being used less and less and the bullpen being used more and more.

“If you were to give me a staff of five guys, or give anybody a staff of five guys, that threw between 185 and 200 innings, you would probably have a championship-caliber club. And that’s what my expectations are out of this staff, and I think they will be a championship-caliber club.”

Hickey’s toughest task, though, likely won’t be working with all those veteran starters but instead working with a  bullpen that struggled under the bright lights of the postseason last October. While Cubs relievers had the sixth-lowest ERA in baseball during the regular season (3.80), the playoffs were a different story, with the bullpen rocked to the tune of a 6.21 ERA. Cubs relievers walked a postseason-high 27 batters while striking out only 35 in 37.2 innings.

The front office tried to fix that strike-throwing problem by bringing in new closer Brandon Morrow, who shone with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, and Steve Cishek, who has closing experience from his time with the Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners, plus he worked with Hickey last season in Tampa Bay.

But Hickey is the bigger key to fixing that problem, and it’s one of his biggest objectives to not just bring the walks down but make the Cubs one of the best staffs in baseball when it comes to issuing free passes.

“I really think that walks, especially out of the bullpen, are a little bit more of a mindset than they are anything physically or mechanically wrong,” he said. “You come into a situation where maybe you give up a base hit and maybe it changes the game, so you’re a little bit reluctant to throw the ball over the plate.

“So I think it’s more of a mindset, and once the group gets the mindset of ‘attack, attack, attack,’ it’ll be contagious. And I think it is contagious. I think last year it was probably contagious in that there was more walks than you would like, and I think as you turn the corner and head the other direction, that would be contagious, as well.

“I have very few outcome goals in a season. I don’t sit there and say, ‘I want to lead the league in earned-run average’ or ‘I want to lead the league in strikeouts.’ … But that one thing, that one outcome goal that I always have for a staff is to have the least amount of walks in the league. And I think at the end of the day, especially with the talent that’s out there, if that is the case, it’s going to be an extremely successful season.”

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”