Jake Arrieta gives Cubs the confidence to beat Pirates in October


Jake Arrieta gives Cubs the confidence to beat Pirates in October

PITTSBURGH — Jake Arrieta is obsessed with pushing himself and finding different ways to improve, but he hasn’t been fixated on 20 wins the way the media has zeroed in on that magic number.

Arrieta says he thinks about pitching in October every day. That will remain his focus — not 20 wins or a Cy Young Award or his next contract — until he goes home to Austin, Texas, this winter and looks back on an unbelievable season.

The Cubs have bigger things in mind, cutting their playoff magic number to 10 with a 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates that took 12 innings on Wednesday night at PNC Park.

“We’re going to be really tough (to beat),” Arrieta said. “We have a lineup that consists of a lot of young players who are playing maybe beyond their years, which is something that I don’t think surprises a lot of us here.

“These guys can really play. And learning how to grow up in this atmosphere is something that’s only going to accelerate their careers.”

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez making a playoff statement with his defense]

Arrieta has already taken the huge leap forward, notching 19 wins, passing the 200-innings mark for the first time and dazzling a national-television audience with that no-hitter at Dodger Stadium.

Arrieta threw 117 pitches and accounted for eight innings, allowing only two runs (one earned) and finishing with five strikeouts against one walk in a no-decision that again showed why the Cubs will be a dangerous playoff opponent.

“It’s unbelievable how that guy handles those kind of games,” Starlin Castro said. “If we score a run, with that guy on the mound, we got a lot of confidence and a lot of trust that we can win that night.”

Arrieta has been remarkably consistent throughout the season — 17 straight quality starts now — and particularly good against the Pirates (87-58). He has given up only three earned runs across 29 innings to the team he will likely face in the National League’s wild-card game on Oct. 7.

“I feel comfortable against anybody,” Arrieta said. “The team that I’m facing on any given day isn’t really something I put a lot of thought and effort into. I just try and scout and do my homework as well as I can. And then kind of go from there.

“Three games in the series thus far, three one-run games. (The Pirates) play very sound, fundamental baseball. They’ve got guys at the top of the order who can manufacture things (and guys who can) drive them in. They’re very balanced. They’ve got a lot of weapons. And we play them tough.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs expecting Jorge Soler back for Cardinals series]

Arrieta (1.96) is trying to become the first qualifying Cubs pitcher to finish with a sub-2.00 ERA since Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1920. That kind of sustained dominance should prevent the kind of epic collapse it would take for this team to miss the playoffs.

But knowing the stakes, Arrieta couldn’t believe his throwing error with two outs in the sixth inning (near the end of a season where we’ve devoted so much bandwidth, airtime and newspaper ink to Jon Lester’s yips).

Arrieta fielded the ball Starling Marte hit back to the pitcher’s mound, sort of hopped twice and lobbed a high throw to first base that bounced off the top of Anthony Rizzo’s glove. Marte didn’t seem to be running all that hard down the line, quickly accelerated and pushed Rizzo as he turned away from the base. Gregory Polanco kept running and scored an unearned run before Marte got thrown out at second.

“I made an inexcusable mental mistake (that) could have ended up potentially costing us the game,” Arrieta said. “That’s my one takeaway.

“Even though we won the game, that’s going to bother me for awhile. That’s just kind of personally the way I am. Luckily, we were able to pull it out and come out on top. I’ll just use that for future reference and not let it happen again.”

[MORE CUBS: This is nice for Cubs, but Jon Lester signed up to win World Series]

The Cubs got contributions from all over, Kris Bryant’s RBI double off the left-field wall followed by Castro driving in another run with a bunt in the sixth inning. There was Javier Baez throwing out a runner at the plate in the eighth inning and a defense that turned four double plays. Pedro Strop and Fernando Rodney became the bridge to Hector Rondon, who threw two scoreless innings to earn the win.

The Cubs manufactured the winning run in the 12th inning with back-to-back singles from Chris Denorfia and Austin Jackson. Pinch-runner Quintin Berry scored on Rizzo’s sacrifice fly to left field, moving the Cubs to within three games of the Pirates for home-field advantage in the wild-card game.

The Pirates seem to be more concerned with catching the St. Louis Cardinals and closing their four-game gap within the division. But after watching Lester’s complete-game performance here on Tuesday night, the Cubs know they can do some damage.

“On the mound, we’re extremely confident,” Arrieta said. “Obviously, Lester is a proven ace who can handle the pressure and handle the big situations in October. We’re in a good spot.

“Lester and I and the other guys know what we have to do to extend our season.”

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

USA TODAY'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, 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

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'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 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.