Cubs

Another win over D-backs sends Cubs back to Wrigley riding wave of momentum

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Another win over D-backs sends Cubs back to Wrigley riding wave of momentum

PHOENIX — The wall of sound will keep building and building once Cubs fans get their first Wrigley Field look at this team since last year’s National League Championship Series.

Any disappointment from that four-game sweep by the New York Mets quickly disappeared. It didn’t sting a franchise used to heartbreak because nobody predicted 97 wins — and everyone saw how much talent would be in place for years to come.

After being anointed as a preseason World Series favorite, the Cubs haven’t quite played 4 percent of their 2016 schedule yet, but the early returns make them look as good as advertised.

The Cubs packed up after Sunday’s 7-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field and will ride a wave of momentum into a brand-new, state-of-the-art clubhouse and their 101st Wrigley Field home opener.

Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta punctuated a 5-1 road trip where the Cubs had a one-run lead with two outs in the eighth inning of the only game they lost.

After throwing seven scoreless innings against the Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels on Opening Day, Arrieta showed off a different kind of power by crushing a two-run homer off Shelby Miller in the second inning, again showing that this lineup really doesn’t have any breaks.

“Felt like hitting it off the sweet spot on a 7-iron,” Arrieta said.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs should give Kyle Schwarber his moment at Wrigley Field opener]

Within his last 22 regular-season starts, Arrieta has now hit three home runs while allowing only four, according to Comcast SportsNet Chicago stats guru Christopher Kamka.

Arrieta set impossible standards after last year’s breakthrough season and admitted he didn’t have the same stuff to attack the Diamondbacks (2-5) with surgical precision. But he did manage to navigate a dangerous Arizona lineup, giving up three runs on eight hits across seven innings.

Maybe the Cubs will feel the pressure and expectations by September and play tight in October. But this is an extremely loose group that welcomes the hype.

Before the game, David Ross and Anthony Rizzo sung along with the Justin Bieber song (“Love Yourself”) playing on the clubhouse sound system. Hitting consultant Manny Ramirez bounced around the room, playfully tapping one reporter on the shoulder and hugging another. Justin Grimm asked who sang “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (Whitney Houston) and explained how it would be an awesome walk-up song out of the bullpen.

The only what-if image would be Kyle Schwarber walking to his locker in crutches after suffering season-ending damage to his left knee. The Cubs still outscored the Angels and Diamondbacks, 42-15, combined.

“Relentless at-bats,” manager Joe Maddon said. “There’s nobody giving up anything. It’s bleeding up and down the lineup. It’s really fun to watch that part of it. We’re accepting our walks. We’re seeing a lot of pitches. Everybody’s feeding off the other guy.

“It’s a nice vibe to be riding back home.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Jorge Soler — the gifted-but-inconsistent player the Cubs hope will grab the left-field job and run with it — responded by hitting the go-ahead home run off Miller in the sixth inning and driving in an insurance run with a sacrifice fly in the seventh.

“It’s really tough to replace a guy like (Schwarber),” Arrieta said. “But when you have a young guy with the talent that Soler has, it makes you feel pretty good about where you stand.

“That’s what I expect from our guys — top to bottom, we’re going to see contributions from (everyone). All the way up and down our lineup — that’s kind of going to be a theme of our year. We’re going to be a tough team to face — regardless of who you are.”

By late Sunday afternoon, the noise at Chase Field became a mixture of boos and the “Let’s go Cubbies!” chants from the crowd of 33,258. The Cubs will be an attraction everywhere they go this season.

The playing-for-tomorrow Cincinnati Reds have to know it will be cold and loud on Monday night at Clark and Addison, with Jon Lester taking the ball and a booming lineup ready to get the bleachers rocking again.

“It’s going to be an atmosphere that we’ve seen before,” Arrieta said. “We’ve seen some pretty incredible turnouts. Our fans are locked in from the start until the very end. That’s something you don’t see everywhere.

“Everybody’s going to be excited and ready to get after it.”

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?

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USA TODAY

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.