Cubs

Bullpen's ridiculous performance bails out Cubs in win over Dodgers

Bullpen's ridiculous performance bails out Cubs in win over Dodgers

The Cubs' MLB-leading starting rotation has gotten plenty of buzz this season, but the bullpen had their breakout game on Memorial Day.

With Jason Hammel limited to only two innings because of hamstring cramping, the bullpen stepped up big time, tossing seven perfect frames in the Cubs' 2-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in front of 41,470 fans at Wrigley Field.

Hammel allowed just a bloop single with two outs in the first inning on a ball that fell between Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward in shallow right field, wind-aided and sun-aided base hit for Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner.

Hammel walked the next hitter and that was it.

No other Dodger reached base after Adrian Gonzalez walked with two outs in the first inning. 

Hammel and four relievers combined to set down 25 straight to end the game, the first time a Cubs pitching staff has done that since May 15, 1960.

Travis Wood was the standout performer from the bullpen, coming in on short notice in the third inning and tossing four perfect innings with four strikeouts, throwing just 43 pitches.

When Maddon sat down for his standard postgame press conference, he said the Chicago media should really be talking to Wood first.

"Oh my God," Maddon said. "I'm really trying to decide when to take him out of that game. ... My goodness. You throw like 20 pitches after two innings.

"He was so pitch-efficient, he permitted us to do what we did. It comes down to that. Pure and simple. Forty-three pitches in four innings. He was spectacular."

Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon followed Wood in order, each throwing an inning and combining for four strikeouts and only 36 pitches.

"The rest of the guys came in and they were very efficient 'cause they saw Travis go out there and do it," Maddon said. "So then here comes Grimmer and here comes Stroppy and here comes Ronny. 

"They all were really, really efficient. Good pitches, good location, good stuff. But Travis set the tone for the whole day."

"I love our bullpen," said David Ross, who caught the whole game. "Those guys are very impressive to me."

Wood picked up his third victory of the season on a day where he entered the game just seconds after sitting on the couch in the Cubs clubhouse. When he saw Hammel go down, he knew he might be needed, so he dashed out to the dugout and sure enough, he got the call to go into the game.

Maddon and the Cubs always claim Wood has a rubber arm, and he needed only 15 or so pitches to warm up before his four perfect innings. 

"[I was just focusing on] each hitter at a time and try to get the outs," Wood said. "Those are freak situations that happen - a guy gets hurt or in Hamm's case, it was just a cramp.

"So you're just out there to get outs for as long as they want you to. And then take it from there."

The Cubs got on the board in the fifth inning when Zobrist led off with a single and wound up on third after Dodgers right field Yasiel Puig booted the ball.

Heyward plated Zobrist on a 60-foot chopper down the first-base line, reaching safely for an infield single. He then came around to score the game's final run on Anthony Rizzo's double to right field two batters later.

The Cubs have won six straight games and have allowed just one hit to the Dodgers in their last 18 head-to-head innings dating back to last season.

Now the Dodgers have to contend with Jake Arrieta - who no-hit them on national TV the last time he faced them - Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.

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.