Cubs

Cubs: Jake Arrieta gearing up for 20 wins, Cy Young case and playoffs

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Cubs: Jake Arrieta gearing up for 20 wins, Cy Young case and playoffs

PHILADELPHIA – Jake Arrieta took care of the worst team in baseball inside a quiet stadium that had entire sections of empty seats.

Joe Maddon’s Cubs have embraced the idea of trying to play the same game all the time, whether it’s March 7 in the Cactus League or Oct. 7 in the National League’s wild-card playoff.

That’s where this surprising season appears to be heading, as the Cubs moved another step closer with a 5-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 1 of Friday’s doubleheader at Citizens Bank Park.

“I think about pitching in October every day,” Arrieta said. “But it’s really not going to be any different. I know it’s a different stage, people are waving towels. (But) it’s the same (game).

“It’s a crazy atmosphere. But whether there’s 45-, 50,000 – or 10,000 – it doesn’t make what I have to do any different.”

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon remembers the friend he lost on 9/11

Arrieta notched his 19th win in a dead atmosphere, handcuffing the Phillies for eight innings and only allowing Aaron Altherr’s solo home run, cutting his ERA down to 1.99.

“It is good, but that’s what I expect,” Arrieta said. “That’s what the team needs, so that’s what I try and give us.”

After that no-hitter at Dodger Stadium, 20 wins would be yet another sign that Arrieta is one of the game’s elite pitchers.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Arrieta said. “After the season’s over, you look at your line and you can kind of appreciate it then. But it’s just really not even where my mind’s at right now.”

Arrieta will go for No. 20 on Wednesday on Comcast SportsNet against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, where the Cubs could return for the wild-card matchup next month against Gerrit Cole.

The Cubs have already settled one debate internally – Arrieta or Jon Lester? – so the next one for fans and media types will be whether or not there’s a home-field advantage in the wild-card game.

“It’s all about the starting pitcher – both sides – on that particular game,” Maddon said. “I think you want it for your fans, as much as anything. But to say it gives you an advantage or disadvantage actually playing the game – I don’t know that it does.”

It’s been 16 straight quality starts for Arrieta, the longest stretch for a Cubs pitcher since Lon Warneke (17) in 1933. The last time Arrieta didn’t finish six innings was against the Cleveland Indians on June 16, the same night the Golden State Warriors won the NBA Finals.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

In his next start, Arrieta threw a complete-game shutout against the Minnesota Twins, beginning the run that would launch him into the Cy Young Award conversation with Los Angeles aces Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

“I definitely believe our guy deserves it, no question,” Maddon said. “I really thought everything kind of jumped from that moment. I’ve always believed that when a young starter pitches a complete game like that, it can really propel them. It’s kind of like they taste blood in the water.

“My vote’s for Jake. The other guys are really good. It’s going to be an interesting conversation, no question. It’s good for baseball to have all that discussion and it’s going to be hard to argue against any of the trinity.”

Arrieta notched his 200th strikeout in the second inning, freezing Cody Asche with a curveball. It looks like Arrieta’s peaking at the right time, his focus, swagger and execution reaching another level on the way to October.

A cynical way to look at it would be a young team might actually benefit from going on the road, sharpening the focus for the wild-card game and minimizing certain distractions.

It would mean getting away from the Wrigley Field fishbowl, where there is so much history and the potential for wild mood swings if the Cubs get down early.

“It’s possible,” Maddon said. “I don’t really apply myself there that much. I just know that it would come down to the two starting pitchers on that particular day: Who pitches the better game?

“That’s what it’s going to be. It’s all about that all the time. So I’m not concerned either way.”

Especially if Arrieta gets the ball in a win-or-else situation and stares down the Pirates.

“Nothing fazes me,” Arrieta said.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Nightmare weekend at Wrigley

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: Nightmare weekend at Wrigley

Fresh off the heels of the Cubs’ worst series at home in nearly two years, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki tackle the most important topics surrounding this team right now.

 

0:30 – CubsTalk Podcast from an alternate universe where Nicholas Castellanos’ 10th-inning fly ball was actually a walk-off.

 

2:00 – A tale of two offenses.

 

5:00 – What’s the cure for what ails the Cubs lineup?

 

7:00 – Cole Hamels looks to be rounding into form.

 

9:00 – The Mets are shaping up to be another formidable matchup for the Cubs this week in New York.

 

11:00 – An update on Anthony Rizzo and his back injury.

 

13:30 – The Cubs badly need Javy Baez to get hot.

 

15:00 – Wrapping up with some positives, including Craig Kimbrel and the Cubs defense.

 

Listen here or in the embedded player below: 

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Situational hitting, Javy Baez's slump and where the Cubs offense goes from here

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USA TODAY

Situational hitting, Javy Baez's slump and where the Cubs offense goes from here

It's going to be awfully difficult for the Cubs to win the division with their lineup still flashing their Jekyll and Hyde ways.

After Wednesday's "season-defining" 12-11 win over the Giants, the Cubs managed to score just 1 run in Thursday's win, couldn't score until the ninth inning of Friday's loss, were unable to mount a comeback against the worst bullpen in the NL in Saturday's defeat and had to rely too much on the home run in Sunday's loss. 

The end result was a three-game sweep at the hands of the red-hot Washington Nationals — the first time the Cubs were swept in a three-game series at Wrigley Field in nearly two years (September 2017). 

All weekend, the Nationals lineup served as a perfect example of what the Cubs want to be offensively.

Both teams hit three homers over the three games, but the Nationals scored 23 runs while the Cubs managed just 10. Washington struck out just 21 times and drew 16 walks while the Cubs whiffed 33 times and worked only 11 free passes.

"The big difference is they weren't chasing out of the zone and we were," Joe Maddon said. "That's the difference in the series, primarily."

The Cubs deserve credit for never giving in Sunday, fighting back from a deficit three different times throughout the course of the game. But they were too reliant upon the home run and never led throughout the entire series.

Saturday's game was particularly troublesome as the offense had its chances, but failed to cash in during prime chances. They had runners at second and third with nobody out in the fourth inning of a 5-1 game, but both Kyle Schwarber and Victor Cartaini struck out and after a walk, Ian Happ did the same on a controversial pitch.

The next inning, after Jonathan Lucroy had doubled home a run to draw the Cubs closer at 5-2 and posit runners on second and third with only one out, the lineup failed to capitalize once again (Javy Baez struck out and then Schwarber popped out). 

"Even if there's nobody out and a runner on third, I like that first guy to get it done," Maddon said. "Sometimes in the back of your mind, it's like, 'oh, there's zero outs, if he doesn't do it, the next guy will.' It's been my experience when the first guy doesn't get it done, it probably does [trickle down] in some way to certain people, impact them differently. But I always want the first guy that gets the chance with zero outs to get this run in and take it from there. 

"But it's nothing new. We've had this problem in the past. [Saturday] was not a unique moment for us. It's something we have to continue to work at, to move the ball, score runs with outs. There was second and third, nobody out — a ground ball to second base, you score a run and get the other guy to third base. Scoring runs with outs is an art form that we have to accomplish, too."

Sure, those are huge momentum swings — particularly the Happ at-bat — but the game was far from over at that point against a group of Nationals relievers that came into the day sporting a 6.00 ERA (only the Baltimore Orioles had a worse mark). 

Instead, here's the result of each Cubs plate appearance to end the game:

Strikeout
Strikeout
Walk
Walk
*inning ended when Kyle Ryan was thrown out trying to advance to third on a wild pitch*
Strikeout
Strikeout
Strikeout
Strikeout
Groundout
Groundout
Flyout
Strikeout
Double
Strikeout

The Cubs failed to even put a ball in play for more than two innings and eight of the 14 plate appearances resulted in strikeouts.

Maddon has continually said the Cubs' best chance at going on a strong run down the stretch will hinge on the offense's ability to put it all together on consistent basis for an extended stretch.

The manager, ever the optimist, thinks there is still time to do that. 

"Oh yeah. I absolutely believe that to be true," Maddon said Sunday morning. "And then you have some guys coming back, which is gonna make that better. Javy's just been in a little bit of a slump. Javy's not gonna be that way the rest of the season. I really believe that, 100 percent. 

"I think Happer looks better right now. I think Lucroy, like he came off the bench [Saturday]. The ingredients are there. We just obviously gotta go do it. But yeah, I've been involved in teams that all the sudden click at the right time of the year and everything takes off. I do anticipate that happening, but it's only gonna happen if you keep pushing and believing. If you don't, it's not gonna happen."

Maddon's right — the Cubs do have all the necessary ingredients to settle into an offensive groove and getting guys like Willson Contreras and Ben Zobrist back from the injured list and restricted list will help.

But with only five weeks left in the season and the gap with the Cardinals widening, now would be the perfect time for this lineup to find that groove, especially over the next week — facing Marcus Stroman, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard in New York before the Brewers come to town for a three-game series.

There are many reasons to point to for why this offense — even with the red-hot Nicholas Castellanos in town — is so inconsistent, but one of the biggest issues lately has been Baez's slump.

Baez finished second in NL MVP voting last season and earned the nod as the starting shortstop for the All-Star team this summer. However, he's struggled since the break.

Entering Sunday, here were his season splits:

First half: .289/.324/.556 (.880 OPS)
Second half: .261/.288/.471 (.759 OPS)

He's been particularly cold over the last couple weeks, without a homer since Aug. 5 and slashing .213/.246/.295 (.541 OPS) in that time with 6 RBI in 17 games.

But he isn't slumping in the way you'd think. Baez is a free-swinger who often chase pitches out of the strike zone, which can lead to a huge spike in strikeouts, especially during cold streaks.

However, he's striking out just 24.3 percent of the time since the All-Star Break and that number is only 21.5 percent since Aug. 5. 

His season strikeout rate is 27.3 percent, so he's making contact more lately than he has all year, but to worse offensive results.

"It's just missing his pitch and really, he's gonna be out of the zone anyways, but a lot of times when he's out of the zone, the ball still gets on the fat part of the bat," Joe Maddon said. "That just hasn't been as frequent. ... He's just been off a little bit. It's just not getting to the barrel as often, but it will. 

"When I see a situation like this with a guy like that, I believe we're gonna benefit when it really matters moving forward. But otherwise, I think he's playing really well."

Maddon also believes the downturn could be related to Baez simply being worn down, playing essentially every inning of the Cubs season. He always plays hard, but this year, he's had to contend with a heel injury suffered in late-May while also playing shortstop full-time for the first time in his big-league career and ranging all over the outfield grass as the central figure in the Cubs' shifting techniques.

They were able to get him out of the second half of the game in Saturday's blowout for a half-day off and then he will get a rest Monday for the team's off-day.

"More than anything, the guy can definitely use a rest and I gotta make sure we stay on top of that," Maddon said. "It's just him playing hard. Man, he hit some weak ground balls, but he ran hard to first base and I really appreciate that. His defense has been outstanding in spite of all that."

Baez's defense has been elite (FanGraphs credits him with 16 Defensive Runs Saved so far this season), but rest will be hard to come by down the stretch (the Cubs only have one off-day after Sept. 4) and this lineup needs him in top form if they're going to put it all together and achieve the consistent production they're striving for.