Cubs

Chris Bosio breaks down what’s going on with Jake Arrieta in Cubs season with no rhythm

Chris Bosio breaks down what’s going on with Jake Arrieta in Cubs season with no rhythm

The Cubs can’t pinpoint the root cause that led to this system-wide breakdown. It’s not just one element of the defending champs that can be isolated and fixed. Everything’s connected.

But the World Series formula — pitching and defense working in concert while a deep, explosive lineup eased the pressure on everyone — won’t be replicated without Jake Arrieta operating near peak efficiency.

This cut on Arrieta’s right thumb is another X-factor for a pitcher who — just like Kyle Hendricks — relies so much on feel and the ability to manipulate a baseball in different ways. For Arrieta, it can be traced back to a blister issue in spring training, which might explain some of his inconsistencies, from his unique, harder-to-maintain mechanics to the downtick in velocity that super-agent Scott Boras disputed in a free-agent year.

As much as manager Joe Maddon tries to deflect the health questions — reclassifying the tendinitis Hendricks has been feeling in his right hand as a “real injury” after a recent setback — it doesn’t mean the Cubs are in good shape just because they aren’t announcing dates for Tommy John surgeries and the National League Central is such a bad division.

“All I know is that Jake Arrieta was there when we needed him the most, when it meant the most,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “There were a lot of questions about Jake going down the stretch, remember, through August and September (last year). Welcome to being a major-league player. It’s not going to be perfect.”

Arrieta beating the Cleveland Indians twice on the road in last year’s World Series is a source of optimism and will be part of the Boras Corp. binder this winter. But watching the 32-33 Cubs is becoming a daily reminder that there are no push-button starts to the season.

Players aren’t guaranteed to perform like robots, with Major League Baseball digging into Addison Russell’s personal life being the most jarring example of the unchartered waters the Cubs are in now. Even logical, well-meaning plans — like holding back pitchers in the Cactus League to preserve their arms after playing into November — have consequences. April almost became an extension of spring training for a rotation with a 4.66 ERA and 24 quality starts through 65 games.

Maybe PNC Park — the site of his 2015 wild-card masterpiece — will bring out the best in Arrieta during Saturday night’s start against the Pittsburgh Pirates. But the Cubs can’t rely only on muscle memory and been-there, done-that confidence.

“Looking back, here’s a guy who’s had thumb issues going all the way back to spring training this year,” Bosio said. “When you can’t feel the ball, when you can’t command the ball because of a blister or a cut, you’re not on a regular program. I’m not one to cast blame. I’m more one to try to find out why.

“Now he’s got a cut in the same spot on the same thumb. This is what I mean about little things. Little things keep popping up. And with Jake, it’s just trying to get him on a regular throwing program. This is the second turn in a row now where he hasn’t been on a regular throwing program because he’s trying to heal a cut on really the most important part of his body.

“This is where he gains his feel. When you can’t feel the ball, how are you going to command the ball? So you can talk about this or that. To me, it really boils down to that.”

Arrieta has a 4.68 ERA that’s worse than the league average, though the Cubs clearly aren’t playing defense on the same historic level. He’s gone longer than six innings just once in 13 starts, but circumstances sometimes dictate that in the NL.

Arrieta’s groundball percentage (42.5) is almost 14 points lower than what it had been during his 2015 Cy Young Award campaign. His strikeout-to-walk ratio (79:23 through 73 innings) and track record of durability are certainly encouraging signs.

Arrieta’s already given up 11 home runs — that didn’t happen until Aug. 18 last year — at a time when MLB might shatter the single-season record for homers. 

“You’re trying to find: ‘What am I supposed to do in between?’” Bosio said. “And then here comes a side (throwing session) where they don’t want you to pick the ball up, because the trainers want it to heal, and now you’re not getting your regular work in. You get on the mound and you (try to) find your release point.”

Bosio is a physical presence when he walks through the clubhouse or out to the mound. He has credibility and stature after throwing more than 1,700 innings in The Show and helping develop Arrieta and Hendricks into frontline starters. He uses common sense and one-liners to make his points. 

Bosio is a realist who completely understands how hard this game is, from the physical demands to the emotional toll. Friday’s not-surprising news: World Series MVP Ben Zobrist going on the 10-day disabled list with a sore left wrist. The Cubs still began the day only 2.5 games out of first place.

“It’s been one of those seasons,” Bosio said, “where with injury guys can’t get in rhythm, whether they’re hitting, they’re pitching or they’re fielding. If I was going to assess our team – and assess our rotation, because it all goes hand in hand – that’s what I would point to. Luckily for us, this division right now is still up in the air. Nobody has jumped out.

“Let the race begin and may the best team win.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Get ready for an onslaught of Sammy Sosa homers and highlights coming nearly every day over the next month-plus.

After a slow start to his historic 1998 season, Sosa really started heating up in late May. He sent his 9th ball into the bleachers on May 22, beginning a run of 25 longballs in roughly five weeks of action leading up to June 30.

Sosa's 9th homer actually came off Greg Maddux, a solo shot with two outs to give the Cubs an early lead in Atlanta. Chicago reliever Bob Patterson wound up blowing the game wide open late as the Cubs stumbled to an 8-2 loss.

Maddux, meanwhile, tossed 8 stellar innings, allowing only 5 hits and 2 runs - including the 440-foot homer to Sosa.

Fun fact: The Braves leadoff hitter that day was none other than current NBC Sports Chicago baseball analyst Ozzie Guillen, who was in the midst of his first season in the big leagues not in a White Sox uniform.

Fun fact No. 2: Atlanta's No. 2 hitter in the game was Keith Lockhart, who is now a scout in the Cubs organization.

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

It's been nearly 19 months since the Cubs and Indians played what may go down as history as the most important baseball game ever.

Game 7s are always instant classics just because of the win-or-go-home aspect, but the added bonus on that early-November day in 2016 was the fact either one of Major League Baseball's longest championship droughts was going to end. It was just a matter of whether it would be the Cubs' 108-year history or the Indians' 70-year.

Obviously we all know how that played out and for the first time since holding a 3-1 lead in that 2016 World Series, the Indians are returning to Wrigley Field for a brief two-game set beginning Tuesday night.

We're only a little over a quarter of the way through the 2018 campaign so the playoffs are a long way away. But could these two teams be destined for another date in the Fall Classic?

Let's examine the current positions:

STARTING PITCHING

The rotation is the easiest place to look for championship teams. It's really hard to survive a month of high-intensity postseason baseball without a stable of workhorses (even in today's changing world of shorter and shorter outings). 

On paper in spring training, these looked like two of the top rotations in baseball. It hasn't played out that way for the Cubs, though there is clearly reason for optimism with the way Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish pitched over the weekend in Cincinnati.

But the Indians rotation has been absolutely incredible, even including Josh Tomlin who was just bumped to the bullpen with a 7.84 ERA. The Top 4 starters in Cleveland can go toe-to-toe with any in baseball, as Corey Kluber (2.36 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), Carlos Carrasco (3.65, 1.07), Trevor Bauer (2.59, 1.12) and Mike Cleveniger (2.87, 1.16) would create plenty of issues for the opposition in a playoff series.

The rotation is the true strength of the Indians and while the Cubs still boast a starting 5 that could potentially hold its own against anybody in baseball, this one has to go the way of Cleveland.

Edge: Indians

BULLPEN

When you feature Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, it'd be easy to look at that and chalk it up as a Cleveland victory in the bullpen category, but things haven't been so great for the Indians of late.

Miller can't stay healthy and even when he is on the mound, rough outings have dragged his overall numbers (3.09 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) down. We're not used to seeing Miller's ERA even start with a "2" let alone a "3" so this is definitely a cause for concern. Allen, meanwhile, has only blown 1 save in 7 chances, but he also has a 3.32 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, which would be his worst numbers of any season since his rookie year of 2012.

The rest of the Cleveland bullpen is a complete mess, with Zach McAllister (7.16 ERA), Dan Otero (7.47), Tyler Olson (6.08), Nick Goody (6.94) and Matt Belisle (5.06) all struggling.

The relief corps has been an area of major strength for the Cubs in the first quarter of the season. Only Luke Farrell has an ERA above 5.00 in that Cubs bullpen and four different pitchers boast ERAs under 2.00 — Brandon Morrow (1.13), Steve Cishek (1.71), Pedro Strop (1.35) and Brian Duensing (0.61). 

The Cubs' main trick will be managing the workload for all these guys to ensure they don't run full-speed into a wall as they did late last season. But for now, the Cubs bullpen is head and shoulders above the Indians.

Edge: Cubs

OFFENSE

This is the toughest area to evaluate between these two teams.

The Indians' offense is incredibly top-heavy with Francisco Lindor (.933 OPS), Jose Ramirez (.985) and Michael Brantley (.936) providing probably the best Top 3 in an order in baseball. Brantley wasn't around for that 2016 World Series and has missed so much time the last few years with health woes, but he's back and as good as ever right now.

Beyond that, Cleveland is still searching for help. With Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer on the disabled list, the Indians outfield was so desperate for help they had to add Melky Cabrera to the mix as well as needing to rely on 37-year-old Rajai Davis.

Edwin Encarnacion will probably heat up at some point overall, but he's still on pace for close to 40 dingers. Jason Kipnis has been atrocious and Yonder Alonso has also underwhelmed. There's not much in the way of offensive help coming, either, until Zimmer and Chisenhall are healthy.

The Cubs feature a Jekyll and Hyde offense that sometimes looks like the best lineup in the game and at other times, causes their fanbase to pull out hair in frustration. But that's also the way the game has gone in general right now.

That being said, Kris Bryant is making a serious case as the best player in baseball, Willson Contreras is making a serious case as the best catcher in baseball, Albert Almora Jr. is making a serious case as deserving all the Cubs' at-bats in center field and Javy Baez is making a serious case as the starting All-Star second baseman this summer, currently leading the National League in RBI.

Even Ian Happ has utilized a recent hot streak in Cincinnati to bump up his season numbers (now boasting an .870 OPS) and soon-to-be-37-year-old Ben Zobrist has a .382 on-base percentage.

Once Anthony Rizzo gets back to being the hitter we all know him to be and Addison Russell starts depositing baseballs into the bleachers on a regular basis, you'd figure the Cubs offense would stablize.

There's too much potential and talent here to finish anywhere but Top 3 in the NL in runs scored, which cannot be said about the Indians in the AL.

Edge: Cubs

DEFENSE

Another area where the Cubs have been up-and-down, but once again, there is too much talent and potential here not to give Chicago the edge.

Zimmer's return will greatly improve the Indians' team defense and Lindor is still great, but Cleveland still can't match the Cubs' potential Gold Glove contenders at 5+ positions (Rizzo, Russell, Baez, Almora, Jason Heyward).

Edge: Cubs

INTANGIBLES

Both teams have some awesome veteran leadership and even the younger players are plenty battle-tested.

Terry Francona and Joe Maddon are two of the best managers in the game, but Francona may have a longer leash in Cleveland. Maddon's honeymoon period on Chicago's North Side ended the day the Cubs won the World Series, oddly.

The jury is still out on the new Cubs coaching staff, too. Chili Davis looks to be making an impact with the Cubs offense at times and his strategy of using the whole field and limiting strikeouts will take some time to really show strides on a consistent basis. The Cubs pitching staff is still walking FAR too many batters, but that's hardly Jim Hickey's fault.

Both teams should be plenty hungry all summer long as they were bounced from the 2017 postseason in ways that left poor tastes in their respective mouths.

But we'll give this edge to the Indians simply because they are still searching for that elusive championship, so maybe that drive will give them a leg up on the Cubs.

Edge: Indians

OVERALL

The Indians are 22-23, but actually sit in 1st place in the woeful American League Central.

The Cubs are 25-19, yet duking it out with a trio of other teams in their own division.

As such, the Indians' road TO the playoffs seems much, much easier as we sit here in the week leading up to Memorial Day. And the ability to cruise to a division title will allow them to rest and conserve their energy for October, while the Cubs will probably not get to coast to the NLDS like they did in 2016.

That rest and relaxtion may give the Indians an edge, but as of right now, this Cubs roster looks to be better equipped to win it all.