Zack Greinke

Strasburg? Scherzer? Kershaw? Cubs still have the pitching to be unstoppable in October again

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USA TODAY

Strasburg? Scherzer? Kershaw? Cubs still have the pitching to be unstoppable in October again

Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer got all the hype leading into this National League Division Series – and took no-hitters into the sixth and seventh innings in Games 1 and 3 – and yet the Washington Nationals are still in crisis mode.    

The rain that poured onto Wrigley Field on Tuesday night could have changed everything, with Strasburg theoretically available to start a postponed elimination game on Wednesday afternoon on normal rest.

The Strasburg shutdown rules now apparently have an “under the weather” section, with manager Dusty Baker revealing the $175 million ace/former No. 1 overall pick will be saved for an if-necessary Game 5 on Thursday night at Nationals Park.

Washington will stick with Tanner Roark (13-11, 4.67 ERA) as planned. Whatever is going on behind the scenes with the Nationals, the Cubs get some of the blame, because their playoff rotation has been that good, with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta still waiting to throw the first pitch in Game 4 at 3:08 p.m.

“Listen, they have spectacular pitching, the Nationals do, but our guys have matched them inning for inning,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s why we won. Their pitching’s been great, so has ours. You have to pitch better than really good pitching – great pitching – to win. And we have. It comes down to that. Our starters have permitted us to be in this position.”

That’s one win away from a third straight trip to the NL Championship Series where the talk will be about Clayton Kershaw and if the Cubs can match up with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Every starter from the Opening Day rotation got injured at some point this season – remember Brett Anderson? – and the Cubs still headed into October with questions even after a 15-4 burst to close the regular season.

Kyle Hendricks doesn’t have the velocity or ego of a standard Game 1 starter. Jon Lester got shut down with left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue in late August/early September. Jose Quintana didn’t have any playoff experience. Arrieta was recovering from a Grade 1 right hamstring strain.

[MORE: Respect this: How Anthony Rizzo owns October]     

Yet in a postseason environment where Chris Sale went 0-2 with an 8.38 ERA (one start) for the already-eliminated Boston Red Sox and Zack Greinke (7.27 ERA) didn’t win either of his two starts with the gone-fishin’ Arizona Diamondbacks, the Cubs have come up aces.

Combined, Hendricks, Lester and Quintana have allowed two runs (one earned) in 18.2 innings, limiting the Nationals to a .094 batting average and a .324 OPS. To put that in perspective, the Cubs have contained a Washington lineup that scored 800-plus runs to the point where its OPS is basically what Lester has done as an NL hitter (.318).         

“You win with pitching – pitching and defense,” Hendricks said. “If your starter can get you six, seven innings into a game, it takes a lot off your bullpen.

“In this day and age, we’re lucky to have the rotation we have and rely on that.”

Washington’s 1.96 rotation ERA ranks a distant second behind the Cubs (0.48) in a 10-team playoff field, another validation of the pitching infrastructure/game-planning system overseen by coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode and run prevention coordinator Tommy Hottovy.

“It’s really been interesting to watch all the runs being scored against some really good pitching,” Maddon said. “I don’t know the reason. There’s no good reason. But I do know how good the National pitching staff is versus our hitters. And then Washington has a very good offensive team, and our pitchers have done a nice job.

“It’s been the classic 60s-70s kind of series, as opposed to everybody’s looking for the offense these days.”

This is the seventh playoff round of the Maddon Era in Wrigleyville and the Cubs are coming off a championship run where they heard all about the legend of Madison Bumgarner and the even-year San Francisco Giants, Kershaw wanting to rewrite his legacy in October and The Klubot, Corey Kluber, waiting to start three World Series games for the Cleveland Indians.  

This rotation isn’t unbeatable – and the picture looks different if Arrieta suddenly hops off the mound in pain – but the Cubs are unflappable and that could make them unstoppable.   

“Each individual handles it differently, and you’ve got to figure out what works for you,” Lester said. “I just know from our clubhouse and being around these guys the last three years, you could see the nervousness and the anxiety in 2015. Last year was more kind of like: ‘We’re not going to let that happen again’ and more of a calmness in the clubhouse.

“The more you play in these situations, the more you can kind of separate all the other stuff that goes along with it, and just go and worry about what your job is that day.”

In the Wednesday schedule released to the media on Tuesday night, Strasburg was listed as TBD in the Wrigley Field interview room.

Riding another hot streak, Jake Arrieta named NL Pitcher of the Month

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USA TODAY

Riding another hot streak, Jake Arrieta named NL Pitcher of the Month

Jake Arrieta isn't quite making history the way he did in the second half of 2015, but the Cubs pitcher has been on another incredible roll.

Major League Baseball awarded Arrieta the National League Pitcher of the Month honor Sunday morning after he went 4-1 with a 1.21 ERA in six August starts, striking out 37 batters in 37.1 innings.

Arrieta had a superhuman stretch in the second half of 2015, setting an MLB record with an 0.75 ERA as he went 12-1 and only allowed 78 baserunners in 107.1 innings to key the Cubs' surge into the playoffs. He also beat out Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke for the NL Cy Young Award and was named PItcher of the Month in both August and September that season.

This season, Arrieta has a 1.59 ERA in the second half and is 6-1 with a 0.97 WHIP. But he's having the same effect on his team as the Cubs have found their rhythm since the All-Star Break and look poised to make another run into October.

Arrieta, meanwhile, has succeeded in shutting up doubters as he has risen above a dip in velocity and found his consistency as he gears up for what he hopes will be a monster contract in free agency this winter.

On the season as a whole, the 31-year-old Arrieta is 14-8 with a 3.36 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 27 starts. The Cubs are not utilizing him like they did in 2015, however, when he ran into a wall in the NLDS and NLCS. After back-to-back deep postseason runs, Joe Maddon is thinking big picture and taking out Arrieta earlier in ballgames, as he's only surpassed 100 pitches six times in 27 starts.

Arrieta will also get an extra day in between outings with Mike Montgomery staying in the rotation for another start Sunday against the Atlanta Braves.

Corey Kluber, whom the Cubs faced three times in the World Series last fall, won the AL Pitcher of the Month award after winning five games with 54 strikeouts and a 1.96 ERA in August.

White Sox fall to Diamondbacks in series opener

White Sox fall to Diamondbacks in series opener

PHOENIX -- The red-hot White Sox ran into Zack Greinke on Monday night.

He cooled them off in a hurry.

Greinke struck out 12 hitters and Daniel Descalso blasted a three-run home run off Miguel Gonzalez as the Arizona Diamondbacks sent the White Sox to a 5-1 loss in front of 18,333 at Chase Field. The loss snapped a three-game win streak for the White Sox, who had scored 24 runs in their final two games against the Seattle Mariners.

“(Greinke) keeps the ball down out of the zone a lot,” manager Rick Renteria said. “It’s kind of enticing. He keeps the ball in the hitter’s area and it ends up falling out. It’s one of those things that you’ve got to try to get him up. Our approach was to try to make him throw a lot of strikes. He ended up hammering the strike zone early and then finally he just came into a groove.”

Descalso’s three-run shot off Gonzalez was one of two pitches the White Sox right-hander would have liked back. After Gonzalez walked Chris Owings with two outs in the fourth inning, his only free pass of the night, he left the curveball over the middle and Descalso deposited it in the right-center field stands to break a scoreless tie.

He also left a pitch up to Paul Goldschmidt in the sixth inning and the All-Star first baseman ripped it for a solo shot.

But overall Gonzalez rebounded from his previous two starts when he walked nine batters. He was sharp for three innings as he faced one over the minimum. He just missed to Owings in the fourth, which brought up Descalso.

Gonzalez allowed five runs (four earned) and seven hits in five innings.

“You see what happens when you walk guys,” Gonzalez said. “That wasn’t in a good situation to walk the guy. You have to keep grinding, keep making my pitches. Really two pitches were the ones that hurt me tonight. A lot of positives. Nothing to worry about. Keep working hard and things are going to go my way.

“Sometimes things don’t go your way. Those two pitches, if I take those back, you never know. It’s a different ballgame.”

Not only did Greinke strike out a dozen hitters, he limited the White Sox to four hits in 8 2/3 innings.

Omar Narvaez had two hits, the first coming after Greinke opened the game by retiring seven straight batters. Leury Garcia homered off Greinke with one out in the fifth inning to break up his bid for a shutout.

It was quite the turnaround from when the White Sox bashed Yovani Gallardo and Chris Heston on consecutive days in Seattle. The White Sox scored a combined nine first-inning runs in winning three of four against the Mariners.