Cubs: Jake Arrieta already feels locked in after Cy Young season


Cubs: Jake Arrieta already feels locked in after Cy Young season

MESA, Ariz. – Jake Arrieta took his game to a completely different place last season, putting the Cubs on his shoulders and winning the National League Cy Young Award.

Arrieta etched his name into the record books with a dominant run that echoed Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson and Doc Gooden in their prime. His 0.41 ERA in his final 12 starts (11-0) is the lowest for any pitcher from Aug. 1 through the season’s end since that became an official stat.

That doesn’t include the physical demands and emotional drain from three postseason starts that nearly pushed Arrieta’s innings total to 250. Mentally, he tried to visualize everything and eventually figured out what worked — and what didn’t — after a disappointing start to his career with the Baltimore Orioles.

Now the question becomes: Can Arrieta get back to that almost unconscious state?

“I am locked in like that,” Arrieta said without hesitation on Saturday afternoon, standing inside the Sloan Park clubhouse. “I’m right there.”

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Arrieta had just thrown five scoreless innings against a Colorado Rockies Triple-A team that didn’t really make any hard contact against him (which makes those hitters like just about any lineup that faced him after the All-Star break last season). 

“It’s a record in all of baseball — ever,” Arrieta said. “So to say I’m going to have those numbers again is probably not realistic. But they’re going to be good. I know that.”

Anything seems possible at Cubs camp, where a motivational speaker used a sledgehammer to break a cement brick over manager Joe Maddon’s chest during the team meeting.

The Cubs weren’t trolling the White Sox when they had RBI teams (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) from Chicago and Arizona join them in their team stretch. (This trip had been planned in advance, long before all the Adam LaRoche drama.)

Addison Russell then did his Michael Jackson impression during the daily dance session/mosh pit that leads into the start of the workout.

Arrieta — who brought a sense of swagger to this team — fits perfectly in this environment. So in tune with his body and his mechanics, he estimated he exerted around 80-percent effort while giving up two hits and one walk and getting four strikeouts.

Everything looked sharp to Miguel Montero, who caught 24 of Arrieta’s starts last season (22-6, 1.77 ERA), plus three more in the playoffs, including that complete-game shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the wild-card round.

“That could be the best year of his career,” Montero said. “It’s tough to repeat. (But) if he wins 18 games with an ERA (around) 2.20 or 2.30 or 2.50, it’s a really good year. That’s Cy Young numbers right there.

“And people will be maybe a little bit disappointed because of that? I don’t think you can be disappointed. I remember playing with (Paul) Goldschmidt (in Arizona and he) hit 30-something homers, .320/.330 (average), 130 RBIs. Can you do it again?

“That’s tough to repeat. It doesn’t matter who you are. (But) I don’t see why not. He’s got the potential to do it.”

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Arrieta — who will make his next start on Thursday against the San Francisco Giants in an ESPN game — certainly won’t argue that point. He believes this stuff would play on April 4 at Angel Stadium of Anaheim against Mike Trout and Albert Pujols.

“I could have started Opening Day today,” Arrieta said. “I threw 60 pitches with very little effort. I could have easily gone 20 or 30 more.”

After silencing the blackout crowd at PNC Park, Arrieta knows what it’s like to feel invincible. It didn’t matter that this was March 19 on Field 6.

“It gets to a point where you don’t even realize that,” Arrieta said. “It’s just me and the catcher. I kind of see the umpire and the hitter in the box. But I think (it’s) just getting locked in and focusing mentally.

“Go back to Pittsburgh in the wild-card game — I was able to pretty much drown out the entire atmosphere and focus on Miggy behind the plate.”


Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Joe Maddon needed Mike Montgomery to get through at least six innings given the circumstances presenting the Cubs' manager before Game 2 of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Not only were the Cubs short a man in the bullpen (thanks to Brandon Morrow’s pants-related back injury), but Maddon had to use four relievers — including Pedro Strop for two innings — after Tyler Chatwood managed only five innings in Game 1 earlier in the afternoon. 

So when Montgomery — who had only thrown over 100 pitches once in the last two and a half seasons before Tuesday — saw his pitch count sit at 40 after two innings, and then 63 after three, he knew he needed to regroup to avoid creating a mess for the Cubs’ bullpen. 

What followed was a start that, statistically, wasn’t the most impressive of the five Montgomery’s made since re-joining the Cubs’ rotation earlier this year. But it was an important start in that the 28-year-old left-hander didn’t have his best stuff, yet didn’t give in to a good Dodgers lineup. And holding that bunch to one run over six innings was exactly what the Cubs needed in what turned out to be a 2-1 extra-inning win. 

“Especially when you don’t have have your best stuff, you always gotta — that’s when you really learn how to pitch,” Montgomery said. 

It’s also the kind of start that could be a major point in Montgomery’s favor when Maddon is presented with a decision to make on his starting rotation whenever Yu Darvish comes off the disabled list. Knowing that Montgomery can grind his way through six innings when his team needs it the most without his best stuff only can add to the confidence the Cubs have in him. 

Montgomery didn’t have his best stuff on Tuesday, issuing more walks (four) than he had in his previous four starts (three). He threw 48 pitches between the second and third innings, and only 25 of those pitches were strikes. Of the nine times the Dodgers reached base against Montgomery, six were the result of fastballs either leading to a walk or a hit. 

Even though the Dodgers were able to bother Montgomery a bit on his fastball, Maddon said that’s the pitch of his that’s impressed him the most over the last few weeks. 

“He never got rushed,” Maddon said. “In the past he would seem to get rushed when things weren’t going well, when he spot-started. Overall, fastball command is better — even though he was off a little bit tonight, the fastball command still exceeds what I’ve seen in the past couple of years on a more consistent basis. The changeup, really, good pitch. He got out of some jams but I think the fact that he knows where his fastball is going now is the difference-maker for him.”

Darvish will throw a simulated game on Wednesday after throwing two bullpen sessions last week. Maddon still doesn’t have a timetable for the $126 million right-hander’s return, and said he’s not entertaining what to do with his rotation until Darvish comes off the disabled list. But Maddon did mention Montgomery’s relative lack of an innings load — the most he’s thrown in a season in 130 2/3, which he did in 2017 — as a reason to perhaps not rush him into a permanent starting role the rest of the season. Going to a six-man rotation is a possibility, too, Maddon said. 

But the over-arching point is this: Montgomery will remain in the Cubs’ rotation as long as he keeps earning it. That can be the product of strong outings in which he has good stuff, or games like Tuesday in which he shows the Cubs the kind of resiliency most starters need to get through a full season. 

“I pitch well, good things happen,” Montgomery said. “I’ve always thought that. Opportunities, you just gotta make the most of them.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers 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.

For the second time in 1998, Sosa went back-to-back games with multiple home runs. After going yard twice on June 19 of that season, Slammin' Sammy again sent two balls into the bleachers on June 20.

He singlehandedly beat the Phillies that night, driving in 5 runs in a 9-4 Cubs victory.

But that wasn't the most impressive feat of the day from Sosa. His second homer was actually measured at a whopping 500 feet! It was the longest of the season, but not the longest of his career. On June 24, 2003, Sosa hit a homer at Wrigley measured at 511 feet.

The back-to-back big games raised Sosa's season OPS to 1.083 with a ridiculous .685 slugging percentage. He began June 1998 with a .608 slugging percentage.

Fun fact: Kerry Wood struck out 11 batters in 7.1 innings on June 20, 1998 to pick up his 7th big-league victory. As Wood marched to the National League Rookie of the Year that season, he finished with a 13-6 record and 233 strikeouts in only 166.2 innings for a career-high 12.6 K/9 rate.