Consistency continues to elude Jake Arrieta as Cubs' fortunes, future contract hang in balance

Consistency continues to elude Jake Arrieta as Cubs' fortunes, future contract hang in balance

Ask any baseball player, any athlete what the key to success is, and the odds are that the word “consistency” will come up.

Consistency has eluded the Cubs halfway through this follow-up campaign to last year’s curse-smashing World Series championship, an effect of consistency personally eluding many of the guys who fueled the 103-win regular season and the run to the title.

Jake Arrieta has perhaps been the most conspicuous of that group of underachievers, to borrow a word Kris Bryant used Friday. Arrieta has turned in good starts this season, but he’s rarely strung multiple ones together.

Saturday, Arrieta finished his first half with another so-so performance in a 4-2 Cubs loss to the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates. He allowed four runs, only three of which were earned, and couldn’t make it out of the sixth inning after getting knocked around for three runs in that frame. Arrieta gave up six hits, walked two batters and hit two more.

“The team did a good job of getting the lead,” Arrieta said, referencing the back-to-back homers off the bats of Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber that put the Cubs in front of the Pirates by a 2-1 score. “I put up a zero in the top of the fifth. (Pirates starter Ivan) Nova did the same thing in the bottom of the fifth. And then the mindset is just to hold the lead, and it’s upsetting for me to not be able to do that in that situation. But that’s the way it worked out.”

That sixth inning featured a leadoff double to Josh Bell before Gregory Polanco absolutely smashed a two-run homer to center field. After Francisco Cervelli singled, Jordy Mercer doubled him home to cap the evening’s scoring.

“It unraveled so quickly. I think (Arrieta) missed the location pretty badly to Polanco,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He was doing well. I have no real explanation for how quickly it happened because I thought he was throwing the ball pretty well.”

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Saturday wasn’t exactly a glaring step backward, but Arrieta failed to carry over the momentum from what might’ve been his finest outing of the season, when he gave up just one hit in seven shutout innings against the Cincinnati Reds last Sunday.

It’s the latest example of Arrieta’s up-and-down 2017. Prior to the dazzling effort against the Reds was the seven-steal fiasco against the Washington Nationals that ended up costing Miguel Montero his spot on the roster. Prior to that, Arrieta was great in seven innings against the Miami Marlins. But in the two starts before that he couldn’t get out of the fifth inning.

A small yet emblematic snapshot of Arrieta’s first half, one Maddon called a “roller coaster” on Saturday night.

“Below average for me individually and honestly for the team,” Arrieta said when asked for an assessment of his first half. “It just took a while for me to get it going. I felt like I was battling with some mechanical adjustments throughout the first part of the season. A couple inflated outings that have kind of led to the numbers being what they are.

“That being said, for me now that the first half is over as far as starts go, I’m just going to reevaluate some things and really focus on what I need to get better at, especially for the team. The individual numbers are great, but if my numbers are what they are but we win the games I start, I’m still OK with that. That’s the key. Every starter wants to win the game for the team. Whether you give up no runs or you give up three or four runs, winning the ballgame is obviously the most important factor at the end of the day. So whatever the numbers are, it is what it is. But moving forward I’d really like to be more consistent with innings for the team, conserve our bullpen because we’re going to need those guys in August and September.”

Of course, Arrieta isn’t alone in this heretofore fruitless search for consistency. The whole team seems bitten by that bug, hence the constant hovering around .500 this season. Maddon makes the need for consistent starting pitching a daily talking point, necessitated not only by the performance of Arrieta but by those of Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey and back-up plans Mike Montgomery and Eddie Butler, as well.

Earlier this week, team president Theo Epstein said the solutions for the middling Cubs would be coming from inside the clubhouse not outside around the trade deadline. But you’d have to imagine that the front office will have starting-pitching solutions on its wish list even if it doesn’t end up making a blockbuster deal.

Maddon’s right in listing consistent starting pitching as the team’s greatest need. It’s been the most obvious difference from last season’s yearlong domination, and should it continue at this clip — from Arrieta, Hendricks, Lackey or whomever — then it’s possible the long-awaited turnaround never comes.

Arrieta obviously has his own high stakes, too. After a Cy Young Award in 2015 and another stellar season in 2016, he was expected to score a huge payday this winter. But in this contract year he’s failed to replicate the results that made him one of baseball’s best over the past two seasons. While that kind of monster contract could still be on the way even if this trend does continue — professional sports team aren't exactly famous for frugality — and while it might not be on Arrieta’s mind as he takes the mound, it’s still something that lingers over every start Arrieta makes.

We shall see what the second half has in store for the Cubs and Arrieta, in particular. Remember back to 2014, when Arrieta put up a 2.01 ERA in his final eight starts of the season. During his Cy Young campaign in 2015, he wasn’t even a National League All Star at midseason. And the Cubs as a team used a spectacular late-season surge to fly into the playoffs and all the way to the NL Championship Series in 2015.

These second-half turnarounds are possible. For the Cubs’ sake and for his own, Arrieta is hoping for one.

Brandon Morrow lands on DL after hurting back while taking his pants off

Brandon Morrow lands on DL after hurting back while taking his pants off

Remember that one time Sammy Sosa threw out his back while sneezing? Well, Brandon Morrow may have topped that on the Cubs all-time list of wacky injuries.

The 33-year-old closer was placed on the 10-day disabled list prior to Wednesday's game after hurting his back while taking his pants off upon returning from the team's road trip to St. Louis. It's being labeled as "lower back tightness."

"It's frustrating any time you can't get out there, and especially when you can't go because of something stupid like taking your pants off," Morrow told reporters on Tuesday.

And that's put the Cubs pitching staff in a tough spot for the rest of the week, given Wednesday's series finale against the Dodgers is the third game in a little more than 24 hours for the Cubs.

"I don't want to downplay anything," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "Obviously he had back spams, he had the same thing in spring training. We'll start treating it the same way we did in spring training; I think he was out about a week to 10 days. If things go as we hope, I think it'd be the kind of thing where he'd probably be able to be throwing before the 10 days is up.

"But we felt like it wasn't going to be something where he was ready this weekend and if he's not going to be ready all weekend, we can already backdate it three days so it made sense to put him on the DL."

Morrow is tied for fifth in the National League with 16 saves and owns a 1.59 ERA is 26 relief appearances this season. Justin Hancock, who served as the 26th man during Tuesday's doubleheader, stayed with the team as a result.

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching


That's how a smiling Theo Epstein described Yu Darvish's simulated game at Wrigley Field Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, in the bowels of the "Friendly Confines," the Cubs' clubhouse was getting used to the idea of closer Brandon Morrow on the disabled list.

Such is life for the current state of affairs for the Cubs pitching staff with their two biggest additions from the winter now on the shelf at the same time.

Darvish threw roughly 50 pitches in his sim game against hitters Ian Happ and Tommy La Stella. He worked in all his pitches and liked the way his fastball and slider felt, but needs to refine his curveball and splitter with more work.

"I feel good," Darvish said through a translator. "There was some anxiety beforehand, but I think it turned out to be better than I expected."

Darvish said the anxiety stemmed mostly from his past elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2014.

"Definitly the elbow aspect," Darvish said. "The anxiety came from whether I could throw at 100 percent condition."

This is the second time Darvish has mentioned his past elbow injury is in the back of his mind as he's worked through the current triceps issue. He said the same thing last week in Milwaukee after his first bullpen session.

Remember, too, Darvish was concerned about the possibility of cramps in his arm in his Cubs debut in Miami in late March.

It appears as if he has some mental hurdles to work through with his history of elbow problems, but he hasn't reported pain in weeks now and the MRI showed no structural damage in late May.

The Cubs do not yet have a set plan for Darvish after this sim game and will evaluate how he feels Thursday. If the reports are all good, he could head out on a rehab assignment shortly.

Darvish said he would only need one rehab start before he'd be ready to rejoin the Cubs rotation.

Meanwhile, Morrow's back tightened up on him in the wee hours of Monday morning after the Cubs made the trip back from the night game in St. Louis. He hurt his back taking off his pants, he said, and was unavailable Monday and Tuesday before the Cubs put him on the disabled list Wednesday morning.

"It's just one of those freakish things," Maddon said. "People bend over and hurt their backs all the time."

The Cubs have been uber cautious with Morrow all year with his injury history and now that they're in the midst of a stretch of 14 games in 13 days thanks to Tuesday's doubleheader, can't afford to not have a fresh arm in the bullpen.

"We thought it would be wise to give him a couple days," Joe Maddon said. "It's like a back spasm, back tightness. We just can't go with one less pitcher right now coming off the doubleheader. 

"...It's for him, too. I don't want him to go out there and pitch coming off that right now. There's really no reason to rush it back. Prefer him getting 100 percent well, getting him back out there when it's right and then moving on from there."

In Morrow's absence, Maddon will play matchups with the closing options as he did in Game 1 Tuesday. Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson and Pedro Strop all have experience closing.

The Cubs also don't have an update yet on Carl Edwards Jr. as he works his way back from a shoulder injury. He's been throwing from flat ground and looking "outstanding," Maddon said, but the team doesn't have a finish line yet. Edwards would probably need a short rehab stint before returning, too.

Then there's Brian Duensing, who is currently on the bereavement list due to the passing of his grandfather. The Cubs expect to have their left-handed veteran back by Friday.

All told, the Cubs are without Morrow, Edwards, Duensing, Mike Montgomery (rotation) and Eddie Butler (DL - groin) from their Opening Day bullpen. Only Cishek, Strop and Wilson remain from the group.

In their stead are Luke Farrell, Justin Hancock, Randy Rosario, Rob Zastryzny and Anthony Bass — all 5 of which have been pretty successful during their time in Chicago.

As if there wasn't already enough complications with the Cubs pitching staff, here are three more:

—The weather in Cincinnati this weekend
—Tyler Chatwood's wife is about to have the couple's first child
—Monday's rain/light-out at Wrigley Field pushed Chatwood back a day, so he cannot start Saturday's game

Let's start with the weather. As of Wednesday afternoon, there was a 100 percent chance of rain all day in Cincinnati on Thursday, where the Cubs begin a four-game series. The forecast doesn't look much better for Friday, either.

Even if the Cubs are able to play every game as scheduled, who will start Saturday? It can't be any of the current rotation members given none would be on regular rest. 

Chatwood would be in line to start Sunday's series finale in Cincinnati, but that's only if his wife isn't given birth at the time.

So right now, the Cubs don't know who's going to start either game this weekend. They could call somebody up from the minor leagues or give the ball to Farrell, who is still stretched out enough to give them 4-5 innings or so.

"It's totally by ear," Maddon said. "This is absolutely seat of the pants. We have Farrell, of course. By not using Farrell [Thursday or Friday], he would be a consideration, no question. 

"But other than that, we got a baby on the way, we got all kinds of stuff going on, so we're just gonna have to play that by ear."

With the pitching shortage, it makes what Jon Lester (7 shutout innings Wednesday) and Mike Montgomery (6 innings in Game 2 Tuesday) even more important to the overall health of the unit, eating up innings at a desperate time.

The Cubs' next off-day won't come until July 2, barring any weather delays. So this stretch will be huge for how Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff/front office handles the pitching staff.

But hey, at least it's only June and not October.