After another win over Cardinals, Cubs out to change balance of power in rivalry

After another win over Cardinals, Cubs out to change balance of power in rivalry

ST. LOUIS — Ben Zobrist stood at his locker inside Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse, holding his new World Series ring in his right hand.

Zobrist had already posted a video showing off his bling on Instagram and joked about using it for fist bumps before batting practice to keep the Cubs hungry.

Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore had personally delivered the ring to Zobrist, recognizing the way he helped glue the team together after a midseason trade from the Oakland A’s and performed in the clutch throughout last year’s playoff run.

It became another reminder that the Cubs now have championship-or-bust expectations. This group shows no fear of The Cardinal Way, shrugs off how St. Louis fans treat Jason Heyward and plans to be a force in October for years to come.

The Cubs won’t say they now have a psychological edge over the Cardinals, because they can let their play on the field speak for itself and then blast the music again after Tuesday’s 2-1 victory.

The Cubs have won 11 of their last 15 games against the Cardinals, including last year’s first-ever playoff matchup in a rivalry that stretches all the way back to 1892 and might never be the same again.

“Now we know we can compete with these guys,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Listen, they’ve been a great team for a long time. That’s a testament to them. The steadiness of this organization is really remarkable. We’re obviously trying to get to that point.

“But at least now when we come in here, we feel like these are two really good teams. We have to execute our pitches and make plays and get hits. But it’s not a sense that we don’t have that ability anymore. We certainly have that ability.”

The Plan bet on hitters, with most of the early buzz about an American League-style lineup, but this Cubs rotation has been quietly effective, the starting pitchers going at least six innings in each of the team’s first 14 games this season.

Jason Hammel (2-0, 1.00 ERA) put up the 13th quality start and came through with the key hit in the fourth inning, knocking a two-out, two-run single into left field off Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia.

“This is (April), and it’s already heated,” Hammel said. “It’s the best rivalry in baseball."

Hammel also benefitted from Heyward’s Gold Glove defense and sense of the moment in the fourth inning. Heyward understood where Yadier Molina often hits the ball (right field) and accounted for the runner at third base (Matt Holliday) and wouldn’t be caught by surprise.

Heyward positioned himself underneath Molina’s flyball, caught it in rhythm and made an accurate one-hop throw to catcher Miguel Montero at home plate for the inning-ending double play.

“It’s just a huge momentum swing,” Heyward said. “Games like that are the ones you’re going to have to win against great teams (in) a playoff series.”

That’s why the Cubs saw Heyward as a game-changing talent — even when he goes 0-for-5 and gets booed before every at-bat and sees his batting average drop to .170 — and wanted to steal him away from the Cardinals.

“That’s the unheralded part of his game,” Hammel said. “He’s hitting laser beams right now right at people, so you feel for him, but they’ll start falling for him. He brings it every day, on both sides of the ball.”

With professionals like Heyward and Zobrist, the Cubs are developing a serious side to balance out manager Joe Maddon’s circus, which seems to bother the sensibilities of The Best Fans in Baseball.

Hoyer worked in Theo Epstein’s front office when the Boston Red Sox finally toppled the Evil Empire. Hoyer sees the parallels with the New York Yankees and understands what Cubs-Cardinals could become, two teams fighting over big-name free agents, playing in front of raucous crowds and trying to ruin each other’s seasons.

“Yankee fans would probably say this has been the best 10 or 15 years of the rivalry,” Hoyer said. “They got the Red Sox in ’03. We got them in ’04. The Red Sox won a World Series in ’07. They win one in ’09. That’s a great thing for a rivalry. And hopefully we can get to that point here.

“It’s the best (when) it’s a real rivalry with two really good teams going at it. This has been a rivalry sort of in name only.”

Not anymore, not when the Cubs (11-3) have the best record in baseball, the Cardinals are a 7-7 team and there are still 17 more rivalry games left this season.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?


2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.