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.”

As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

Before Pedro Strop served up the game-winning homer to former top prospect Eloy Jimenez in the ninth inning Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, the Cubs got some good news on their bullpen as Craig Kimbrel took another step forward.

Kimbrel threw a perfect seventh inning in relief for Triple-A Iowa Tuesday, needing only 8 pitches to get his job done.

As he continues along the path to join the big-league bullpen, the Cubs also know they can't put too much stock in him to be the savior. After all, he can't help the offense and even had he been available Tuesday night, there's no guarantee he would've pitched in the ballgame.

"We want him to come in and join us and help us win," said Cole Hamels, who was once again brilliant for the Cubs in the 3-1 loss as he also notched his 2,500th career strikeout. "If we're not winning right now, then it's just one little small piece. I think we all want to be a large piece and have him just fit right in and make it easier on him.

"I don't think we all the sudden want to turn to him hoping that he'll save us at the end of the day. We know who he is, what talent he is and what he's going to provide, but I think we all want to be a part of htis team and helping win."

The Cubs have not been winning lately, as they are now 10-15 in their last 25 games. That has dropped them to 39-33 on the season and in second place behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.

Who knows how many save opportunities Kimbrel will have once he arrives in Chicago, but there's no doubt he will give the team a shot in the arm whenever he does walk in the clubhouse. The Cubs aren't saying what that will be, as they haven't set forth an exact plan on what his next steps are, instead deferring to see how he feels after Tuesday's outing.

He will probably throw another outing in Iowa Thursday or Friday.

"He's trending in the right direction," GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday evening at Wrigley Field. "Obviously he's feeling good, but we're not gonna rush him or make judgment on any one outing. We're just gonna take this process as we planned it out and try to get him ready for the remainder of the season."

This was the first game action of any kind for Kimbrel since Oct. 27 when he appeared in Game 4 of the World Series for the Boston Red Sox. He signed with the Cubs nearly two weeks ago now and threw his first bullpen at Wrigley Field on June 8 before going to Arizona to throw another bullpen and face hitters in live batting practice.

As dominant as Kimbrel was in the one inning — Hoyer joked Kimbrel may have to purposely walk a guy next time out just to get more extended time in the rehab game — don't expect the Cubs to get aggressive and push him now. It's still hard to see any scenario in which he's in the big-league bullpen on this current homestand (that runs through June 27).

The Cubs didn't sign Kimbrel to rush him and risk injury when they want him to lock down the back end of the bullpen down the stretch in September and then in what they hope is a long playoff run in October. The original plan called for Kimbrel to throw in back-to-back outings in the minor leagues, and the Cubs haven't indicated any change to that.

"[I'm just looking for] good health," Joe Maddon said. "He felt good, velocity was there, the break on the breaking ball was good, the velocity on the breaking ball was very good. It's just about health. If the guy's healthy and ready to rock and roll, you put him in the ninth inning. That's pretty much what we're looking forward to."

Elsewhere in Cubs bullpen news, Brandon Morrow is still throwing as he works his way along the comeback trail that is approach the one-year mark.

Morrow — the former Cubs closer — has been out since last July, going on the shelf at that point with what was originally described as biceps tendinitis. It was later revealed to be a bone bruise and he actually had to undergo a minor surgery on his right elbow over the offseason. 

The Cubs knew they'd be without Morrow for at least the first month of 2019, but the veteran then experienced a setback and still hasn't gotten back in a game. But he's been throwing from about 135 feet, Hoyer said, and feeling OK at the moment.

"With Brandon, we've been down this road a few times where he feels good and he has a setback, so I don't want to be overly optimistic," Hoyer said. "I don't want to be pessimistic. This is where he is. Obviously getting him back would be such an incredible bonus for us at this point. 

"We just want him to be healthy. I feel awful for him. No one is more disappointed or more frustrated than he is. Hopefully this time through, it works for him.

"...It's hard — you have to build your way back up. You don't really get a true sense of what it's gonna be like until you throw in games or throw in live bullpens because that's when the real stress pitches come in."

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

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AP

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

Kyle Hendricks' shoulder injury isn't opening the door for Adbert Alzolay to make his way into the Cubs rotation.

Not initially, at least.

The Cubs will hand Tyler Chatwood the ball in Hendricks' normal spot Thursday evening against the Mets at Wrigley Field, keeping Alzolay in the minors for the time being. 

When Hendricks hit the injured list over the weekend, many speculated it could be the Cubs' top pitching prospect who gets the call, as Alzolay has been on fire in Triple-A (1.93 ERA, 40 K in 28 innings over his last 5 starts). But the Cubs have two veteran starting pitching options hanging out in their bullpen in Chatwood and Mike Montgomery and it would send a bad message inside the clubhouse to pass over those guys and call up a starter from the minors to take a turn in the rotation.

The Cubs also felt like Chatwood has earned the chance to start after dealing with last year's struggles and having a resurgent season out of the bullpen and in his one previous spot start.

"He's been pitching a lot better," Joe Maddon said of Chatwood. "We believe he's earned this opportunity to pitch in the situation. ... It's an earned situation."

The Cubs made sure Chatwood was stretched out, as they held him back in case of extra innings Sunday night in Los Angeles and then had him throw in the bullpen after the game to help build his stamina back up to join the rotation.

But even if Alzolay won't be joining the rotation this week, that doesn't mean his opportunity isn't right around the corner. The Cubs have been discussing the potential for a six-man rotation in the near future, as they just began a stretch of 17 games in 17 days before their next break on July 5. 

"That's been something we've talked about a lot," GM Jed Hoyer said. "This is really the third time we've had 2-3 weeks in a row [of games]. No doubt, the starters wear down after 2-3 times through the rotation on four days rest and we're aware of their age and mileage on some of these guys. We want to make sure we take care of them. In general, getting extra rest is something we've talked about going into the break."

The Cubs have gone to a six-man rotation before and after the All-Star Break in past seasons and it makes sense to do so again this year, even with Hendricks on the shelf. Montgomery and Alzolay are both options and then Chatwood, of course, though Maddon insisted the Cubs have not come up with a concrete plan for the rotation beyond Thursday's outing.

The big question looming over the rotation is how long Hendricks will be out. He was in some kind of groove before experiencing shoulder issues in his last start against the Dodgers.

"All the test confirmed what we thought — he's kinda dealing with an impingement," Hoyer said. "I feel like we got ahead of it. We're not sure how much time he'll miss. We'll try to take it slowly and take the length of the season into account."

It's still only mid-June and the Cubs are hoping they're going to be playing baseball for another four-plus months, so they know how important Hendricks is to the overall goal of a second championship. 

They'll practice patience with him in his recovery, but right now, they can't say whether or not Cubs fans will be able to see him pitch again before the All-Star Game.