Cubs

This Jake Arrieta means another big finish for Cubs

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USA TODAY

This Jake Arrieta means another big finish for Cubs

Alex Avila worked with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer during Cy Young Award seasons with the Detroit Tigers – and caught Chris Sale and Jose Quintana last year on the South Side – so he knows what an ace looks like.

Avila’s first impression of Jake Arrieta became the biggest takeaway from Wednesday night’s 3-0 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs saw flashes of their 2015 Cy Young Award winner and what that could mean this October. 

“A big horse,” Avila said. “He’s like those guys. When they’re out on the mound, you expect good outings. You expect consistency. You prepare for that. He was pretty much everything that I had heard, as far as the way the ball moves, the way he can use his sinker on both sides of the plate, the effectiveness of his breaking balls.”

The Good Jake/Bad Jake narrative has faded away during what’s becoming a strong Boras Corp. push (10-8, 3.86 ERA) toward free agency. Working with Avila for the first time, Arrieta allowed one hit through five innings against a tough Arizona lineup anchored by All-Stars Jake Lamb and Paul Goldschmidt and trade-deadline addition J.D. Martinez.

If not for shortstop Addison Russell’s throwing error in the sixth inning – and Lamb’s two-run chopper that went by first baseman Anthony Rizzo and up the right-field line in the next at-bat – Arrieta might have completely shut down the Diamondbacks (61-46).

Either way, Arrieta didn’t hesitate when asked if he could approximate the 2015 finish that turned him into the hottest pitcher on the planet and transformed the Cubs into playoff contenders.

“Yeah, it’s possible,” Arrieta said. “Yeah, I don’t see why not. I think it’s possible for all our guys to elevate themselves and pitch at a really high level, or compete on defense or at the plate at a level higher than they have currently.

“That’s just having a lot of confidence in the guys that we have. We expect to do some really special things again this season, and we shouldn’t think otherwise.”

Arrieta still didn’t outpitch Zack Godley, an under-the-radar prospect the Cubs traded away in the Miguel Montero deal during the 2014 winter meetings. The night after the offense exploded for 16 runs, the Cubs managed only three singles and two walks in six innings against Godley (5-4, 2.86 ERA), the kind of homegrown pitcher the Theo Epstein regime hasn’t developed yet.

If Montero could have kept his mouth shut last month – or at least softened his public criticism of Arrieta’s issues holding runners on base – the Cubs (57-49) wouldn’t have needed to acquire Avila in a package deal with lefty reliever Justin Wilson before the July 31 deadline.

But Arrieta and Avila met for about 30 minutes on Tuesday to review the game plan and go over Arizona’s hitters and spoke again briefly before Wednesday’s start. Arrieta tied a season-high by pitching seven innings and finished with eight strikeouts against two walks, allowing those two runs (one earned).

Arrieta said: “I told him: ‘Whatever you throw down, regardless of whether I think maybe something else is the better pitch, I’ll trust you.’ I don’t know if I shook him off more than two or three times all night.”

“To be honest with you, I thought it was going to be a little bit more of an adjustment,” Avila said, “as far as getting used to the way he throws and the movement on his pitches behind the plate. But I ended up feeling really comfortable.” 

Do the Cubs have a new Arrieta whisperer or another personal-catcher situation? It’s too soon to go there – the Cubs had questions about Avila's defense – but Arrieta isn’t getting questions about his velocity or his mechanics or the walk-year pressures.

“I heard Rizzo allude to the fact that it’s a different feeling in the clubhouse,” Arrieta said. “It’s something that’s palpable in the dugout, in the clubhouse, on the field. We’re in a really good spot. I think that we feed off each other. And that’s what championship teams do.”

The ascension of Javy Baez...into Manny Ramirez?

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USA TODAY

The ascension of Javy Baez...into Manny Ramirez?

"Javy being Javy" may have to start picking up steam as a slogan.

Baez has often been compared to Gary Sheffield for the lightning-quick batspeed, but the guy Joe Maddon keeps comparing Baez to is actually Manny Ramirez. (If you're keeping score at home, Baez has now been compared to Sheffield, Ramirez and Willie Mays — and that's just in the first month of the 2018 season.)

The Cubs manager believes the only thing that has kept Baez from being Ramirez at the plate is laying off pitches out of the zone, namely the slider low and away.

Ramirez was one of the game's best hitters for nearly two decades in the '90s and 2000s, a force in the middle of the Cleveland and Boston lineups during that time.

We may be witnessing a similar type of evolution for Baez right now, who is hitting .344 with 8 extra-base hits (including 5 homers), 12 RBI and 9 runs in 7 games on this homestand.

Baez also ranks third in baseball in barrels per plate appearance — trailing only Boston's J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts — and boasts a slugging percentage (.691) in the same neighborhood as Bryce Harper's (.712).

"You're seeing the ascension," Maddon said before Thursday's game. "I've talked about this for a bit — where the moment he starts laying off the down-and-away slider, he's Manny Ramirez.

"He's got that kind of abilities at the plate. It's just a matter of maturing as a hitter, which he will."

[PODCAST: Does Javy Baez have an MVP in his future?]

Ramirez has had a hand in helping Baez become the player he is now, as the former Red Sox great was hired by Theo Epstein as a hitting consultant with the Cubs and spent time in 2014 with Baez in Triple-A Iowa.

Baez is still just 25 years old and the maturation process has already started, as he is now looking to go the other way instead of trying to pull everything.

For a guy that's hit just 21.9 percent of his balls to right field in his career, Baez has seen a jump in 2018, with 28.9 percent of his balls in play going the other way, and that was before he lined a pair of 110 mph hits) to right to kick off Thursday's game.

He's locked in right now and it's still very early in the season, but everything Baez has shown thus far in 2018 has been encouraging.

"He's using the whole field — I can't emphasize that enough," Maddon said. "He might take that out-of-control swing, but then he comes right back to reality pretty quickly. Whereas that one [would] lead to the second one to the third one and then he comes walking back [to the dugout]. 

"So I think he's making in-at-bat adjustments. His approach has been entirely different. He's willing to use the other side."

Maddon and the Cubs have typically been slotting Baez in the eighth spot in the order this season, but as he's exploded offensively, he's seen a steady climb.

That culminated in a start in the 2-hole Thursday, the first time Baez has been there since 2016.

Maddon was looking for some "energy" from Baez atop the order and it worked to perfection as he tripled in the first inning and wound up scoring a few pitches later on Kris Bryant's single. Baez singled and scored in the second inning, too.

There will still be growing pains, like when Baez collided softly with Rizzo for a foul pop-up in the third inning Thursday, causing the ball to drop. And he still doesn't walk much and will be prone to the strikeout.

But Baez can help the Cubs win in a dozen different ways and it sure seems as if his bat is catching up to the rest of his game.

Did Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo just take the best 'prom' photo of 2018?

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USA TODAY

Did Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo just take the best 'prom' photo of 2018?

Prom season is upon us, and we may already have a winner for best photo of the 2018 season.

Cubs' superstars Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, whose bromance has been well-documented, combined for a hilarious photo at Thursday's Bricks and Ivy Ball at Navy Pier. Check it out:

Look at those smiles!

In all seriousness, it's cool to see Bryant and Rizzo having fun with their bromance on and off the field. And while last night's event was not an actual prom, Bryzzo has to be in the running for best photo of the 2018 season.