Cubs

Bryce Harper reaches seven times but does little damage, just like Cubs planned

Bryce Harper reaches seven times but does little damage, just like Cubs planned

The Cubs put the reigning National League MVP on base seven times Sunday. But they weren’t going to let him beat them.

Bryce Harper walked an incredible six times during Sunday’s game, three of those intentional passes and two of those loading the bases. But with all the time Harper spent at first base, he touched home plate just once.

So the Cubs’ bold strategy — one that harkened back to the days when teams would do anything to take the bat out of Barry Bonds’ hands — worked like a charm. The Nationals scored just three times during Sunday's 13-inning marathon, a 4-3 Cubs win, a number that would’ve almost certainly been higher had Harper been allowed to put his bat on the ball.

“You know how good he is, and why tempt fate right there?” manager Joe Maddon said. “Now if the other guy gets you, that’s fine, you have no problem with that whatsoever. I know he’s not been as hot as he can be coming into this series, but you don’t want to get him hot. I’ve been part of that in the past. So we did what we thought we had to do today, and it happened to work.”

Harper walked in his first two plate appearances, motoring around from first on Ryan Zimmerman’s double off Kris Bryant’s glove at third base in the third inning. But that was the last time Harper’s incredible skill would hurt the home team.

After Jake Arrieta loaded the bases with two hits and an error to start the fourth, he got two consecutive outs resulting in just one run. But with two runners still in scoring position, the Cubs elected to give Harper first base with four intentional balls. Zimmerman struck out to end the inning in the ensuing at-bat.

After Harper was hit by a pitch in the sixth to reach first for the fourth time — again resulting in no scoreboard damage — and walked harmlessly in the eighth, the Cubs again intentionally walked him to load the bases with two outs in the 10th. Zimmerman flew out to right field to end that inning.

Once more, with two down in the 12th, the Cubs gave Harper an intentional free pass. That one came the closest to biting them, as Zimmerman tapped a grounder to third that required a nice pick and a rocket throw from Javier Baez to barely nab a sliding Zimmerman at first and end the inning. Perhaps the outcome had been different had the Nationals not exhausted their challenges earlier in the game.

But all in all, it was a winning strategy, arguably the difference in a game where any one run would’ve changed the result.

“It’s part of our job. Maybe there’s going to be a guy in their lineup and maybe we don’t like the matchup, we’d rather pitch to the guy that’s on deck,” Arrieta said. “We have faith in all our guys here. It showed today the way they all threw out of the ‘pen, really picked us up.”

Harper walked a ridiculous 13 times in the weekend’s four-game series, a sign of his terrific on-base abilities as much as the Cubs’ decision to take the bat out of his hands. But with all those trots down to first base, Harper didn’t do much damage. He had just one hit, scored three runs and drove in only one.

Considering Harper led the NL with 42 homers and 118 runs scored last season and led all of baseball with a .649 slugging percentage, it looks like the Cubs’ made the right move.

“It’s something we go over before each series, the guys that we’re not going to allow to beat us throughout a series. That’s kind of the situation that came up, and we handled it accordingly,” Arrieta said. “It worked out. 4-0 against them at home is something that we’ll take any day.”

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

The Cubs didn't wait long to make Joe Maddon's words come true.

Roughly 5 hours after Maddon said the Cubs are definitely in the market for more pitching, the front office went out and acquired Jesse Chavez, a journeyman jack-of-all-trades type.

It's a minor move, not in the realm of Zach Britton or any of the other top relievers on the market.

But the Cubs only had to part with pitcher Class-A pitcher Tyler Thomas, their 7th-round draft pick from last summer who was pitching out of the South Bend rotation as a 22-year-old.

Chavez — who turns 35 in a month — brings over a vast array of big-league experience, with 799 innings under his belt. He's made 70 starts, 313 appearances as a reliever and even has 3 saves, including one this season for the Texas Rangers.

Chavez is currently 3-1 with a 3.51 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 56.1 innings. He has a career 4.61 ERA and 1.38 WHIP while pitching for the Pirates, Braves, Royals, Blue Jays, A's, Dodgers, Angels and Rangers before coming to Chicago.

Of his 30 appearances this season, Chavez has worked multiple innings 18 times and can serve as a perfect right-handed swingman in the Cubs bullpen, filling the role previously occupied by Luke Farrell and Eddie Butler earlier in the season.

Chavez had a pretty solid run as a swingman in Oakland from 2013-15, making 47 starts and 50 appearances as a reliever, pitching to a 3.85 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 8.2 K/9 across 360.1 innings.

"Good arm, versatile, could start and relieve," Joe Maddon said Thursday after the trade. "I've watched him. I know he had some great runs with different teams. 

"The word that comes to mind is verstaility. You could either start him or put him in the bullpen and he's very good in both arenas."

It's not a flasy move, but a valuable piece to give the Cubs depth down the stretch.

There's no way the Cubs are done after this one trade with nearly two weeks left until the deadline. There are more moves coming from this front office, right?

"Oh yeah," Maddon said. "I don't think that's gonna be the end of it. They enjoy it too much."

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Expecting Jason Heyward to carry a team offensively would be thought as foolish just a few short months ago. But here in the middle of July, Heyward has turned into the offensive firestarter the Cubs have been seemingly missing since Dexter Fowler left. 

Heyward walked away from Thursday night's 9-6 win over the Cardinals tallying three hits, two RBI, two runs scored and his first stolen base of the year, as the 28-year-old outfielder continued to poke holes in the Cardinals defense. 

Twice Heyward was able to slip a ball between the 1st and 2nd basemen that off the bat looked like neither had a chance to make it through the right field side. Later, Heyward would battle through a lengthy at-bat, finally being rewarded with an opposite-field hit that drove in the game-tying run. 

"It just happened," Heyward explained. " [Carlos Martinez] is not going to give you a whole lot to do damage on throughout the game. I was able to get one pitch there and get a guy home." 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon mentioned Heyward and his ability to move the ball around the field and how it's helped him become an effective piece to this Cubs offense. So effective Heyward's batting average crept up to .290 after today's three-hit performance. 

Heyward credits his quick hands as the major tool he's utilized to create so many successful at-bats lately, which has allowed him to take advantage of certain pitches and punch them through for hits.

He's certainly not driving the ball for consistent power, but the approach has put Heyward on pace to match the 160 hit total he amassed with the Cardinals in 2015. 

"I feel like Joe's mindset on moving the ball is putting the ball in play when you got guys on base," said Heyward. "It keeps the line moving, regardless of the result." 

It might be crazy to think that Heyward's incredible turnaround this season might simply be attributed to putting the ball in play. But even just taking a look at Heyward's contact rates shows he's increased his contact on pitches outside the zone by roughly three percent.

Not a massive difference, but if Heyward's hands are truly giving him an edge at the plate, making contact with pitches that may not be a strike but are hittable pitches could explain the increased offense we are seeing now. 

"That's kinda the biggest thing," said Heyward. "The more good swings you take, the more hits you have a chance to get." 

Shooters shoot, and Heyward continues to shoot his shot and keep the Cubs offense chugging along.