Cubs

Cubs: All-Star or not, Jake Arrieta already knows he’s elite

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Cubs: All-Star or not, Jake Arrieta already knows he’s elite

Whether or not Jake Arrieta took it as an All-Star snub, the Cubs still have a top-of-the-line pitcher they would feel comfortable starting in Game 1 of a playoff series.

That dream is closer to reality than anyone could have expected two years ago, when the Cubs acquired Arrieta from the Baltimore Orioles in the Scott Feldman sign-and-flip deal.     

Arrieta dominated the White Sox on Sunday, closing out the first half in style with a 3-1 complete-game victory that stopped the Cubs from being swept out of Wrigleyville.

Arrieta allowed only two hits all afternoon, striking out the side in the first inning and the ninth inning while giving up zero walks. He also hit his first career home run, driving Jose Quintana’s 90 mph fastball over the left-field wall in the fifth inning.

At a time when so many other teams that won the offseason look like trade-deadline sellers, Joe Maddon’s Cubs scattered for the All-Star break with a 47-40 record and legitimate playoff expectations, holding a one-game lead over the New York Mets for the National League’s second wild card.

“We’ve seen a lot of positives,” Arrieta said. “There’s a lot of things that have been obvious weaknesses throughout the course of the first half that we know we have to get better at, but that’s just the way the season is.

[MORE: Cubs keeping Kyle Schwarber in the picture for second half]

“Joe’s alluded to it several times in the past that we’re going to stink for certain periods of time, and we’re going to be incredible for certain periods of time. How can we minimize those times where we’re not very good?

“It’s easy to kind of hang your head and let the frustration set in … I think we’ve shown the ability (to) not let something linger for too long of a period of time, and come together as one.”

Good starting pitching creates that sense of momentum. Arrieta has backed up all his big talk and is now 10-5 with a 2.66 ERA, a 0.99 WHIP and 123 strikeouts in 121-plus innings. 

Maddon watched Arrieta up close when he managed in the American League East. The Tampa Bay Rays saw Arrieta as a guy who couldn’t control his fastball, driving the pitch count up to around 100 and waiting for him to break by the fourth or fifth inning.

Arrieta needed only 106 pitches to slice through the White Sox (41-45) in a quick game that lasted two hours and 18 minutes. It was a great all-around performance to end a three-game series that drew big crowds (124,854 total) but didn’t generate all that much buzz.

Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer will keep looking to add at least another starter by July 31, but Arrieta continuing to pitch like a Cy Young Award vote-getter will be key to any second-half surge.

“I intend to go out there and pitch at an elite level and have some dominant performances,” Arrieta said. “My mindset is not on wins or ERA or innings. I want to go out there and throw a shutout every time.

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“If I keep (that) killer instinct, have that aggressive mentality from the first pitch to the last pitch, I feel like I’ll be pretty deep into the games with some pretty good numbers to show for it.

“I know if I do that…we’re going to come out ahead quite a bit.”  

Maybe because it’s been such a long process after spending time on the Triple-A level in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013, Arrieta didn’t want to make the All-Star Game about himself and looked forward to watching teammates Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant in Monday night’s Home Run Derby.  

“Those individual accolades are great,” Arrieta said. “But I know my teammates can count on me to come up big for us when the moment arises. I thought about that stuff a little bit several days ago, but it’s out of sight, out of mind now. I’m actually looking forward to having a couple days off and doing some things with the kids.”

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.