Next question: Cubs ace Jake Arrieta ready to put his game face on


Next question: Cubs ace Jake Arrieta ready to put his game face on

MESA, Ariz. – It took 71 seconds before Jake Arrieta sounded annoyed by the third question about his right thumb: “There’s no blister anymore.”

Even if Arrieta already answered that in his own mind, stir-crazy reporters – and anxious fans watching on TV – wanted to know before the Cubs leave Arizona.

In front of another sellout crowd at Sloan Park, it became the storyline during Tuesday’s 9-5 win over the Oakland A’s, the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner throwing 102 pitches and looking ready for Opening Day.

“Everything’s good,” Arrieta said, standing outside the clubhouse in a tank top on an unseasonably cold and windy day for Mesa (63 degrees at first pitch) that felt more like Wrigley Field. “I’m just really staying on top of it and making sure it doesn’t open up. But it’s been a nonissue, really.”

[MORE: Cubs see Opening Day roster come into focus]

Manager Joe Maddon has no doubts about who will get the ball on April 4 at Angel Stadium of Anaheim: “I have all the confidence in the world that Jake’s ready to go.”

It could have been a major issue, because without Arrieta’s evolution into a No. 1 starter, the Cubs don’t win 97 games and two playoff rounds last year and begin this season as a World Series favorite. 

“I don’t think we pay much attention to it,” Arrieta said. “We have high expectations for ourselves. Within the team, we know that everybody expects big things from us. We do as well.

“But we don’t harp too much on that. We know that the most important thing for us to do is to be healthy once the season starts and get our reps and be ready from Day 1.

“That’s the thing on the front of all of our minds versus the expectations. We know we have some big shoes to fill this year based on what we were able to do last year. But I think we can do that pretty well.” 

Arrieta – who went five innings and allowed one Oakland run on two hits and two walks against five strikeouts – set the bar impossibly high during a season where he won 22 games, threw a no-hitter at Dodger Stadium and finished with a 0.75 ERA after the All-Star break.

“He expects it out of himself,” said Anthony Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman who played the piano in front of his teammates as part of the daily morning diversion at Camp Maddon. “Anything less would be disappointing for him, I know that. But he’s just got to go out and pitch and be himself.

“We (all) just have to go out and be ourselves.”

Arrieta didn’t look like himself last week at Scottsdale Stadium, giving up five runs to the San Francisco Giants and walking off the mound in the middle of the first inning and making a fist.

As alarming as it looked, that’s apparently old news now for Arrieta, who is still a great interview on just about any topic other than the disappearing blister on his right thumb. 

Next question?

“It’s exciting to get on the road and really start this journey,” Arrieta said. “Everybody’s been waiting for this moment. It’s approaching fast. It’s finally here. And to be the guy on the mound for the first one is something special.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.