Cubs

Late rally improves offensive grades

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Late rally improves offensive grades

The end game will overshadow the middle game but the Bears (6-1) didnt so much defeat the Carolina Panthers (1-6) as escape them.

The 210 total yards of offense were the second-lowest to the 168 at Green Bay. The 25-percent third-down conversion rate was the seasons worst and put the defense back on the field too often too soon.

Because the Panthers werent kicking off deep to Devin Hester, the offense was effectively handed the ball at no worse than the Chicago 34 on four possessions and at the 45 after an interception. On none of those possessions was the offense able to manage even a field goal and only on one did the Bears run more than three plays.

Ball security was one of the strengths of the Chicago offense through the previous four wins and the seeds for disaster were planted when Jay Cutler lost the ball on a first-quarter sack. He proved that was no fluke by doing it again late in the second quarter.

The offense combined to have Cutler sacked on six of his 15 drop-backs in the first half. In one stretch, the Bears went three-and-out on six of seven possessions, two of those ending with fumbles.

QUARTERBACK C

Heres how well do this: An F for Jay Cutlers first three quarters, an A for the fourth, and a win for the .

Credit Cutler with his first come-from-behind win of the year, saving the game with a fourth-quarter drive after posting a passer rating of 37.8 through three quarters. His 12-for-14 passing in the fourth quarter, however, was franchise-grade stuff.

Cutler turned in the worst first half since his nine-sack nightmare at the Giants in 2010: six sacks, two fumbles, poor decision-making. Of nine passes thrown, seven were to Brandon Marshall, covered or not, and none to Devin Hester or Earl Bennett.

Cutler created problems for his line by holding the ball too long, contributing to four sacks in the first half, three in the first three possessions, and six overall. Cutler also squandered a potential drive by forcing a deep throw to Marshall into double coverage.

Half of Cutlers 28 attempts went toward Marshall. It wasnt working particularly well too often.

The real measure of a quarterback is winning even when he isnt playing well. Cutler did that, although needing Robbie Gould to hit a 41-yard field goal to finish it was far from dominant.

RUNNING BACK B-

Matt Forte established the run in the first quarter and with 61 yards in the first half, then was shackled with four carries for just nine yards in the second. His five catches on five targets, however, was crucial even if not producing big yardage (24). Forte provided some help in pass protection but was never a consistent factor after the first quarter (five carries, 44 yards).

Michael Bush was used sparingly, with three carries for net five yards, and did not catch a pass.

RECEIVERS D

Like Cutler, the overall evaluation has to be weighted toward the fourth quarter. Cutlers inaccuracy for three quarters was not helped by drops by tight end Matt Spaeth and WR Devin Hester. But tight end Kellen Davis highlight-reel TD catch was a big grab in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.

Earl Bennett didnt see a ball thrown to him in most of the first three quarters, then jump-started the offense with catches of 24 and 11 yards on consecutive plays. Bennett caught three of the four passes thrown to him and his yards after the catch were pivotal in extending the plays.

OFFENSIVE LINE C-

Six sacks allowed in the first half, zero in the second. But 64 rushing yards in the first half, 15 in the second. A potential F performance was saved by protection when it mattered.

Run blocking early was strong, with tackles Gabe Carimi and JMarcus Webb sealing edges and left guard Chilo Rachal road-grading on two pulls for big gains that established the run. Pass protection needed to improve but early sacks were more Cutler and coverage than protection debacles.

A Roberto Garza false start hurt momentum in the fourth-quarter and the Bears failed to convert the resulting third-and-long on the first good possession in more than two quarters.

The Panthers slanted their line similar to the plan used by the Detroit Lions. The Bears had trouble with it in the first half but made enough tweaks in the second to keep Cutler from being obliterated.

COACHING C

A gameplan was difficult to discern, whether for reasons of confusion or execution, more likely both. But the six sacks in the first half were troubling for a variety of reasons involving planning by both the line and quarterback getting rid of the ball.

The offense never established any rhythm, not surprising given the number of three-and-outs beginning late in the first quarter.

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

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USA TODAY

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

This became a three-ring circus on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Cubs manager Joe Maddon screaming at the umpires, the video board showing the replay of Curtis Granderson’s swing and the crowd of 42,195 booing and chanting “BULLS#$!!”

The Los Angeles Dodgers are still in command of this National League Championship Series, but the Cubs won’t go quietly into the offseason, unleashing All-Star closer Wade Davis for the final two innings of a 3-2 thriller that kept them alive for at least another night.

The Cubs can worry about the daunting task of winning three more elimination games in the morning. Once Davis forced Cody Bellinger into the double-play groundball that left Justin Turner stranded in the on-deck circle and this one ended at 11:16 p.m., he pulled at his right sleeve and buttoned the top of his jersey while waiting for the Cubs to start the high-five line. “Go Cubs Go” blasted from the stadium’s sound  system and fireworks erupted beyond the center-field scoreboard and Davis acted as if nothing had happened.

To put the idea of beating the Dodgers three times in a row in perspective, the Cubs blasted three homers and got a classic big-game performance out of Jake Arrieta and still needed Davis for a heart-stopping, high-wire act.

Maddon already ruled out Davis for Thursday night’s Game 5 after the closer fired 48 pitches – or four more than he did during last week’s seven-out save that eliminated the Washington Nationals. But at least the Cubs will have those decisions to make instead of cleaning out their lockers.

“I don’t know,” Davis said. “We’ll definitely come in tomorrow and get some treatment and go out and play catch and see how I feel.”

It looks like Davis doesn’t feel anything on the mound. Davis didn’t react to Turner chucking his bat and yelling into the visiting dugout after crushing a 94-mph fastball for a home run to begin the eighth inning. Davis didn’t seem bothered by Yasiel Puig flipping his bat after drawing a walk. And Davis never lost his composure while Maddon got ejected for the second time in four NLCS games.

Maddon flipped out at home plate umpire Jim Wolf – and really the entire crew – when what was initially called a swinging strike three on Granderson got overturned and ruled a foul tip.

“Wade doesn’t care about any of that,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “That’s the right guy to have on the mound. With the mentality he has, he’s going to strike the guy out on the next pitch. Obviously with the replay, it’s not easy to keep your composure. But he’s just different. He’s a different animal.”

While the fans at Wrigley Field got loud and turned angry, Davis chatted with catcher Willson Contreras: “I was just trying to think of the next pitch I was going to throw if he ended up staying in the box.”

Davis got Granderson (0-for-4, four strikeouts) swinging at strike four, walked Yasmani Grandal and then blew away Chase Utley with a 95.1-mph fastball, needing 34 pitches to finish the eighth inning. Davis wasn’t finished, using a Kris Bryant bat to hit against Dodger lefty Tony Cingrani, fouling off five pitches before striking out looking at a 94.9-mph fastball.

“Yeah, I gave up there after a little bit,” Davis said with a look that sort of resembled a smile. “He was bringing it pretty good, and I hadn’t seen a baseball in a while coming in like that.”

If the Cubs are going to match the 2004 Boston Red Sox – the only other team to come back from an 0-3 deficit since the LCS format expanded to seven games in 1985 – they are going to need the offense to generate more runs, a great start from Jose Quintana on Thursday night and someone else to run out of the bullpen. Not that Davis is ruling himself out for Game 5.

“Go get some sleep and then come in tomorrow and start getting ready,” Davis said.

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

It’s not Jake Arrieta getting greedy and the Cubs being cheap when he holds up another jersey in a different city this winter, smiling for the cameras while super-agent Scott Boras watches the press conference unfold, marketing an ace to a new audience.

Even Arrieta admits that if he had Theo Epstein’s job, he would do the exact same thing, letting it play out until a 30-something pitcher hits the free-agent market. And Epstein wouldn’t have left the Boston Red Sox and taken over baseball operations at Clark and Addison if he didn’t believe in the need for change, to get outside the comfort zone and test yourself.

It’s just business, but this still felt very personal on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Arrieta probably making his last start in a Cubs uniform while the defending World Series champs survived an elimination game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Three straight trips to the National League Championship Series might have spoiled Cubs fans to the point where standing-room-only Game 4 tickets were selling for $60 on StubHub less than an hour before the 8:01 p.m. first pitch.

By 10:13 p.m., the crowd of 42,195 started booing when manager Joe Maddon popped out of the dugout in the seventh inning to take the ball from Arrieta after 111 pitches. It turned into a standing ovation as Arrieta walked off the mound and tipped his cap, his shaved head set against a mountain-man beard.

“Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye,” Arrieta said after a dramatic 3-2 win, surrounded by reporters at his locker. “It’s a thank you, obviously. I still intend to have another start in this ballpark.

“If that’s where it ends, I did my best and I left it all out there. But we’ve won four in a row plenty of times this year. And there’s no reason we can’t do it again.”

So many times, Arrieta has been worth the price of admission, must-see TV through two no-hitters and those two World Series games he won on the road last year against the Cleveland Indians. None of this would have been possible without the Cubs finding a winning lottery ticket in that Scott Feldman flip deal with the Baltimore Orioles on July 2, 2013.

“I took a little bit of extra time in between pitches,” Arrieta said, “just to look around, foul pole to foul pole, behind home plate, just to relish it and take it in. You got the fans on their feet, pulling on the same side of the rope. It breeds some added energy.

“I had that mindset of I’m going to do everything in my power to get it to tomorrow.”

Arrieta’s pitches dart and dive in directions that even he can’t always control, but he has guts, swing-and-miss stuff (nine strikeouts) and the ability to work through traffic. He gave up five walks, hit Chase Utley with a pitch and watched as Cody Bellinger hammered a ball off the video-board ribbon in right field for a third-inning homer.

But lefty reliever Brian Duensing backed Arrieta up with two outs and two runners on in the seventh inning, forcing Bellinger to lift a flyball into shallow left field, keeping it a 3-1 game and setting the stage for a two-inning Wade Davis save.

“Jake was amazing,” Davis said. “He was throwing Wiffle balls, it looked like. Guys were just swinging at balls that started in on the zone and finished a foot off the plate. He’s just got some amazing stuff.”

For perspective on how far this franchise has come, just look at the lineup from Arrieta’s first spot start as a Cub, the second game of a July 30, 2013 doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field:

David DeJesus, CF
Junior Lake, LF
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Dioner Navarro, C
Luis Valbuena, 2B
Starlin Castro, SS
Cody Ransom, 3B
Cole Gillespie, RF

The Cubs actually sent Arrieta back to Triple-A Iowa for two more starts that summer, part of a mental/mechanical reset and the service-time calculus that would delay his free-agency clock by a year.

By 2015, Arrieta’s raw talent and natural confidence converged with a young, inexperienced team that caught fire in the second half, his Cy Young Award campaign fueling 97 wins and the momentum for chairman Tom Ricketts to authorize a spending spree on free agents that almost totaled $290 million.

"That was pretty special,” Maddon said. “I've never witnessed on the field that kind of consistent performance from a pitcher. It was other-worldly, right down to the wild-card game.

“My God, you pretty much knew if you scored one or two runs, you're going to win that night somehow. I don't know how this is going to look moving forward. But I know one thing, man, that one year of watching him play was different. It was a throwback to the ‘60s kind of pitching (I watched) as a kid.

“He's special – his work ethic and who he is and how he goes about his business. He's a very special young man.”

But Arrieta really isn’t in the mood to wonder if this is the end scene to this chapter of his life.

“There’s a little thought of that, yeah, because you never know,” Arrieta said. “But at the same time, now that the game’s over, it’s out of sight, out of mind. The thought process for me now is to be ready if I’m needed.”