Cubs

Arrieta struts his ace stuff as Cubs go for the Giants' 'jugular'

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Arrieta struts his ace stuff as Cubs go for the Giants' 'jugular'

Talk about going for the jugular.

After the Cubs' third straight win over the San Francisco Giants Saturday evening, manager Joe Maddon preached the importance of never being satisfied and going for the 'jugular.'

The Cubs did just that Sunday behind another ace performance from Jake Arrieta, finishing off the defending World Series Champions with a 2-0 win to complete the four-game sweep in front of 39,939 fans at Wrigley Field.

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"They're really good. That's what makes this such an impressive four games," Maddon said. "The fact that we played against such a good team.

"And they do have a heart of a champion. You see how they battled in that last inning. I've always respected that."

Every fan was on their feet for the ninth inning, as Cubs unofficial closer Hector Rondon loaded the bases with nobody out.

But with the intensity cranked up to 11, Rondon struck out Hector Sanchez, Angel Pagan and Gregor Blanco in succession to escape the jam and pick up his 19th save of the season.

 

 

Are these young Cubs ready to win on a bigger stage as they make their playoff push?

"I think we have been ready," Arrieta said. "It's just a matter of figuring out, necessarily, how to do that. How to close out a series when we have things in our favor.

"I feel like, in the past at times, we maybe let a game like that slip away. Which, from time to time over 162 games, that's going to happen. But at this point in the season, where we're at, who's in front of us, the games we have remaining, if you have the opportunity, you've gotta close those out.

"Hector was able to bear down. ... That was just an incredible job by him not to let the magnitude of the situation get to him and continue to make good pitches."

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Almost 164,000 fans came out for a playoff-esque atmosphere on Chicago's North Side to watch an inexperienced Cubs team prove they belong in the playoff race this season.

The Cubs have won 10 of 11 and are now 3.5 games up on the Giants in the race for the second National League wild card.

To a man, the Cubs stayed on message after the game, stressing the need to focus on one day at a time and not get too caught up in any sort of statement made from this series.

"I'm not really into statements," Arrieta said. "I think we're just playing really good baseball. We're good at turning the page now. Not worried about yesterday or the series before. Each game is big for us.

"Because of the division we're in, the two teams that are ahead of us, we know they're not slowing down and we don't intend to, either.

"So what we have to do now is to continue to make it difficult for the guys ahead of us. Continue to show that we're going to put pressure on and not let up."

After allowing a two-out infield single to Matt Duffy in the eighth inning, Arrieta walked off the field to a deafening ovation from the crowd. Justin Grimm came on and immediately allowed a single to Buster Posey before Hunter Pence flew out deep to the warning track in center field to end the threat.

Arrieta said it was the best ovation he's heard from the crowd since his near no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park last season.

"It's a special feeling," he said. "That's why you play this game, for moments like that. I'm sure we're going to be fortunate enough to be in those types of situations even more often as the season continues to progress.

"It's kind of a position where you're speechless. You just try to enjoy it and take it in as much as you can."

Arrieta finished with six strikeouts, allowing only four hits and two walks in 7.2 innings.

The Cubs have won seven of Arrieta's last eight starts and he's surrendered just 10 earned runs in 73.1 innings since June 21, good for a 1.23 ERA.

Arrieta showed off his pitching prowess in back-to-back innings, striking out the side in the fifth and then pitching to contact and escaping the sixth with only six pitches thrown.

Even at 103 pitches and laboring through the seventh, Arrieta hit for himself (and struck out) and then came back out for the eighth inning. He finished with 117 pitches, his second-highest total of the season (he threw 122 pitches in a complete game in Minnesota June 21).

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Arrieta even contributed to the offense, legging out a stand-up triple in the second inning and coming around to score on Addison Russell's sacrifice fly.

Arrieta said he was thinking three all the way out of the box.

"Yeah, I dunno," Arrieta said, shrugging. "Just put a good swing on it, I guess. Giving some of my teammates a hard time, telling them I got more pop than they do and that I can hit it into the wind.

"[Bryant's] got all this pop and Rizzo and they're hitting fly balls to shallow right and I go, 'It's not that hard.'

"Anything I can contribute on the offensive side is a bonus."

Arrieta was so good, he was getting praise from the starting catchers from both teams (Miguel Montero and Posey).

"He was OK..." Montero said to laughs. "He was outstanding. He was filthy. All his pitches were perfect. Sometimes, he just did a little bit too much; that's where he would get out of control.

"But other than that, you can't ask for more. Buster told me that he was one of the nastiest right-handers that he ever faced. I told him, 'He's fun to catch.'"

A reporter asked Arrieta what the key has been to his dominance over the last 10 starts.

Arrieta leaned back in his chair, wiped his arm with a towel and answered simply:

"Locked in."

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.