Anthony Rizzo's ninth-inning walk an example of Cubs learning 'how to win'

Anthony Rizzo's ninth-inning walk an example of Cubs learning 'how to win'

To better grasp what Joe Maddon means when he talks about his team learning how to win, look no further than Anthony Rizzo’s ninth-inning walk on Tuesday.

While there were many critical components to the Cubs’ stunning four-run rally on Tuesday night, one which lifted them to a 6-5 win over the San Francisco Giants in Game 4 and clinched the National League Divisional Series, Rizzo’s six-pitch plate appearance was as significant as any.

Stuck in a series-long slump, Rizzo overcame those struggles to provide his club with a big moment when it was needed most. The Cubs pulled ahead for good four batters later and spent Thursday afternoon participating in a light workout at Wrigley Field to stay fresh for the upcoming National League Championship Series instead of playing in a potential NLDS elimination game.

“At the end of the day you learn how to win,” Maddon said. “What does that mean? It’s something you have to participate in daily. There’s a support system within the group and the confidence you show up and play with. You know something bad is going to happen and you fight through it. We’re at that point.”

The scenario Rizzo had to engage in late Tuesday had an extremely high degree of difficulty. Not only had he entered Game 4 without reaching base in 13 at-bats, Rizzo was tasked with keeping the line moving against San Francisco’s Javier Lopez, one of the best postseason situational relievers of the 21st century. Since joining the Giants, Lopez had allowed one run in 24 postseason appearances with only seven of 28 batters he faced reaching base.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

But as general manager Jed Hoyer noted Thursday, Rizzo realized the situation he faced and put on “a great at-bat against a lefty.” With no outs, a man on first and the Cubs down three runs, Rizzo tightened up his strike zone and took a 3-2 pitch for ball four. The free pass set up an RBI double by Ben Zobrist and the Cubs were off to the races.

Rizzo, who belted 32 home runs and finished the regular season with a .928 OPS, said in an ESPN 1000 radio interview Thursday he simply tried to do too much in the first three games of the NLDS. But he shook it off in enough time for the Cubs.

“Honestly, the walk there in the ninth was more important than any hit I got all year,” Rizzo told ESPN’s David Kaplan.

Maddon didn’t think any of Rizzo’s struggles were because of a mechanical issue. He simply though his three-time All-Star first baseman had expanded a strike zone that has helped him produce an average of 75 walks the past three season and a .386 on-base percentage.

“What it comes down when guys aren’t hitting well, it’s normally because their strike zone becomes unorganized,” Maddon said. “That’s it. When you start chasing pitches out of the zone, you get in bad counts, the pitcher gains an advantage. That’s why guys don’t hit. It’s not because there’s anything mechanically flawed.”

Rizzo attributed his Game 4 success -- he also walked in the first inning and later singled -- to his teammates. Rather than focus on his mini-slump, Rizzo stayed confident and focused with encouragement from his elders.

Their theme: “It doesn’t matter what (you’ve done before),” Rizzo said. “It’s the next at-bat. It doesn’t matter if you get four hits and we lose. What are the four hits worth? You just got to keep fighting and keep grinding.”

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.