Cubs

After 23 wins in a row, Cubs finally lose a Jake Arrieta start, and it takes a Dodgers' one-hitter

After 23 wins in a row, Cubs finally lose a Jake Arrieta start, and it takes a Dodgers' one-hitter

Even as Jake Arrieta defends his Cy Young Award, makes a case to start the All-Star Game and keeps the meter running toward a potential $200 million megadeal, he can talk about not quite having the precise feel he wants, that in his mind he can be 9-0 with a 1.72 ERA and still searching. 

The Cubs are surrounded by those enormous expectations, and so much of that involves Arrieta’s evolution into the bearded face of the franchise and one of the best pitchers on the planet. Which makes it a breaking-news alert when the Cubs actually lose when Arrieta pitches.

Until Tuesday night’s 5-0 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field, that hadn’t happened in a regular-season game since July 25, 2015, when it only took Cole Hamels throwing a no-hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies.

This time, Scott Kazmir and two Los Angeles relievers combined for a one-hitter. The Dodgers didn’t so much beat Arrieta as they outlasted him, taking advantage of the softer spots in the Cubs bullpen.

“Well, I don’t know if I got outdueled,” said Arrieta, who threw seven scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 1.56. “But Kazmir was good.”

The Cubs had won Arrieta’s last 23 starts, tying the major-league record since 1913, first set by Kris Medlen with the Atlanta Braves between 2010 and 2012. Arrieta is now 20-0 with a 1.01 ERA across his last 24 starts, an unconscious stretch that helped transform the Cubs from a young group learning how to win last summer into a legitimate playoff contender last October and the team with the best record in baseball this year (35-15).

Arrieta ran his pitch count up to 107, ending the possibility to go back out for another inning with three straight two-out walks in the seventh. Arrieta then fired three pitches clocked at 94, 95 and 94 mph, striking out pinch-hitter Justin Turner looking, escaping the bases-loaded jam and causing an eruption from the crowd of 34,681.

“I didn’t want to make a mistake in the middle of the plate,” Arrieta said. “I made some good pitches. Borderline. Didn’t go my way. I pitched around some walks, got into a situation where I had to make a big pitch, and I was able to do so.”

After four Cubs relievers combined to throw seven perfect innings against the Dodgers on Memorial Day, manager Joe Maddon turned the game over to Clayton Richard. The lefty gave up three consecutive singles to the left-handed top of the Los Angeles lineup — Chase Utley, Corey Seager and Adrian Gonzalez — to begin the eighth inning.

Richard walked off the mound without getting an out and the Cubs trailing 1-0. After getting charged with a second run, Richard has now given up eight earned in nine innings this season, and Theo Epstein’s front office will probably have to make upgrading the bullpen a priority at the trade deadline.

“That was the perfect slot for (Richard),” Maddon said, “to attempt to not beat up the rest of your bullpen. It was a tie ballgame. It couldn’t have been lined up any better for him.

“I have a lot of faith in him. We just need to get him more work. But that’s the kind of a moment he’s here for, and it just didn’t happen.”

Arrieta truly burst onto the national scene with that no-hitter at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 30 last year. This time, after a 24-minute rain delay, Gonzalez ended the no-hitter suspense with a two-out single in the first inning. Against Arrieta, the Dodgers (28-25) only managed another Seager single in the third inning.

“Of course, we’ve gotten used to winning when he pitches, but it’s not going to last forever,” Maddon said. “That’s the nature of the game. And he pitched well enough for us to win tonight. But their pitcher was really good, too.”

Kazmir — the All-Star lefty who pitched for Maddon’s 2008 Tampa Bay Rays team that went to the World Series and wound up in independent ball four years later — only allowed a Dexter Fowler single across six innings and finished with seven strikeouts against one walk.

Seager — the 22-year-old shortstop who could become a star at Dodger Stadium — put the game out of reach in the ninth inning when he blasted a three-run homer off Trevor Cahill onto the right-field party deck.

It takes extraordinary circumstances. But Arrieta is, in fact, beatable.

“You play this game long enough, you’re going to lose a game here and there,” Arrieta said. “That’s just kind of part of it. But it was a good streak, and we’ll get started on something else.”

Chili Davis after being ousted by Cubs: 'There were multiple players in there I didn't connect with'

Chili Davis after being ousted by Cubs: 'There were multiple players in there I didn't connect with'

Chili Davis didn't go all scorched earth on the Cubs in a recent interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, but he had quite a lot to say after being ousted by the organization after just one year as the hitting coach.

The Cubs made Davis the scapegoat for an offense that faded down the stretch, struggling for the entire second half and scoring just 1 run in three of the final four games of the year.

When he was hired a year ago, Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon talked up Davis' impressive resume that includes a 19-year MLB career, two separate stints as a successful hitting coach with the Oakland A's and Boston Red Sox and a philosophy that they hoped would withstand the test of time in the game today, preaching more contact and using the opposite field.

Throughout the 2018 season, Maddon often commended Davis for his ability to communicate with players, particularly in the area of mental approach to each at-bat.

Now that the dust has settled a bit on his firing, Davis felt he had some issues getting through to some Cubs players.

I learned a lot this year," Davis told the Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer. "I learned that the next situation I get in, before I say yes to a job, I need to make sure I know the personnel I'll be dealing with in the clubhouse. I hope the next guy connects better with the players, because I felt that there were multiple players there I didn't connect with. It wasn't that I didn't try; it just wasn't there.

The Cubs hired Anthony Iapoce as their new hitting coach Monday afternoon. Iapoce comes over from the Rangers and has a direct link to John Mallee, who was the Cubs' hitting coach for three seasons before being let go when Davis became available last winter. 

Iapoce also spent three seasons with the Cubs as a special assistant to the GM, overseeing the organization's minor-league hitting from 2013-15. Presumably, he found a way over those years to connect with the Cubs' top young hitting prospects — guys like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras that are now leading the big-league lineup.

Hopefully he has better success at this than I did," Davis said of Iapoce in the Sun-Times article. "But regardless of who's there, certain players there are going to have to make some adjustments because the game's changed and pitchers are pitching them differently. They're not pitching to launch angles and fly balls and all that anymore. They're pitching away from that. They're going to have to make that adjustment whether I'm there or not.

Davis had a whole lot more to say on the matter and I encourage you to read the full interview with Wittenmyer over at ChicagoSunTimes.com.

A healthy Bryant very likely could've changed everything for Davis and the Cubs' 2018 lineup. Contreras hitting like he's capable of in the second half would've made a huge difference, as well.

But the end result is a finish to the 2018 campaign that was viewed universally as a disappointment — particularly in the offensive department — and the Cubs are left with their third different hitting coach in three seasons.

What caused Willson Contreras' downturn in production in 2018?

What caused Willson Contreras' downturn in production in 2018?

There was plenty of "Willson Contreras: Future MVP?" discussion during spring training.

Any time a player in his age-25 year season hits 21 home runs with a .276/.356/.499 slash line at a premium defensive position (catcher) despite missing about a month with a hamstring injury (as Contreras did in 2017), the baseball world takes notice. The notion that he might one day garner MVP recognition was nothing to be laughed at.

Through the first few months of 2018, Contreras did much of the same. He had a small drop off in power, but he still had his moments and was solid overall. Over a three-game stretch in the beginning of May, he went 10-for-15 with three doubles, two triples, three home runs and 11 RBIs. He was the first Cubs catcher with five triples before the All-Star break since Gabby Hartnett in 1935. He even started the All-Star Game — and became the second player in MLB history (after Terry Steinbach) to homer in his first career All-Star at-bat after having homered in his first career MLB at-bat (back in 2016).

But instead of cruising along at a performance level about 20 percent better than league average, something happened.

Here are Contreras' Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) numbers from the past three seasons  (100 is league average, any point above or below is equal to a percentage point above or below league average):

Here’s that breakdown in terms of batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage:

But what caused the downturn in production? 

There were some underlying characteristics of his work, particularly a mixture of significantly higher ground-ball rate, lower average exit velocity and bad luck on balls in play which led to the decrease in production.

Also notable is that after the Midsummer Classic, the hits stopped coming on pitches on the outer third. Dividing the strike zone into thirds (this doesn’t include pitches outside the zone), this is what his batting average and slugging percentage looked like:

Granted, it’s not a significant sample, but it’s there.

One non-offensive thing that sticks out is his workload.

*missed 29 games in August and September with hamstring injury

It was the most innings caught by a Cubs receiver since Geovany Soto logged 1,150.1 innings in his Rookie of the Year season in 2008. Three other catchers besides Contreras logged at least 1,000 innings behind the plate in 2018: Jonathan Lucroy, Yasmani Grandal and Yadier Molina. While they combined to fare better prior to the All-Star break, it wasn’t nearly as precipitous a drop as Contreras suffered.

Lucroy, Grandal and Molina combined to slash .255/.322/.416 before the All-Star Game and .239/.317/.405 after it.

That could possibly have a little something to do with it though.

There’s no way to be entirely sure and to what extent each of the things listed above affected Contreras last season. Could it have been something completely different? Could it have been a minor nagging injury? A mental roadblock? Too many constant adjustments throughout the season? The questions remain. A new voice in newly appointed hitting coach Anthony Iapoce might be just what Contreras, who is entering his age-27 season, needs to get back on track and reestablish his spot among the best catchers in the major leagues.