Cubs rebound behind another dominant outing from Jake Arrieta

Cubs rebound behind another dominant outing from Jake Arrieta

Let's paint the scene: It's July 25, 2015 and Jake Arrieta is one pitch away from getting out of the top of the third inning against the Philadelphia Phillies. 

Ryan Howard has other ideas, however, and sends an Arrieta offering into the Wrigley Field bleachers for a three-run homer.

Most people may remember that as the day Cole Hamels no-hit the Cubs, but it was also the last time Arrieta gave up a run at Wrigley Field in the regular season.

Arrieta dazzled Saturday, tossing eight shutout innings as the Cubs beat the Colorado Rockies 6-2 in front of 41,702 fans at Wrigley Field.

The reigning National League Cy Young winner surrendered just five hits and one walk while striking out eight against a lineup that came into the game leading Major League Baseball in homers, total bases, average and OPS. 

"He's the reigning Cy Young for a reason," said David Ross, who caught Arrieta Saturday. "He's really good. Made great pitches. Great fastball command. Threw the ball really well. It's typical Jake. ... It's a really good lineup over there and he made it look easy."

His scoreless streak at home now sits at 48.2 innings, which is the longest streak in Wrigley Field history and longest around Major League Baseball since 1974.

The mind-boggling stats just keep rolling from there:

–It was the 23rd straight quality start Arrieta has turned in, the longest such streak since Bob Gibson three an MLB-record 26 straight quality starts from 1967-68.

–The Cubs have won 16 straight Arrieta decisions, the longest streak in franchise history. In those 16 games, the Cubs have outscored their opponents 81-20.

–Arrieta now has a 1.94 career ERA at Wrigley Field (227.2 IP), the lowest mark in Cubs history.

–The outing lowered Arrieta's season ERA to 1.23 and WHIP to 0.77 over the first three starts of 2016. He also boasts a ridiculous 20:2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. For perspective, in his Cy Young season last year, Arrieta had a 1.77 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 4.92 K:BB ratio.

"He is impressive," Ross said. "I think we're a little spoiled around here because you come to expect greatness out of him and all our staff."

Arrieta looked like he could go the distance Saturday, rolling a double play ball immediately after walking the leadoff hitter in the eighth inning and then getting a fly out to center on his 100th pitch of the afternoon. But manager Joe Maddon made the call to let Arrieta hit for himself in the bottom half of the eighth inning and then go with Travis Wood and Pedro Strop to close out the game in the ninth.

It's all part of the organization-wide plan to make sure to save some bullets in Arrieta's right arm for late in the season as the Cubs hope to make a run deep into October.

Regardless of all the accolades and records, Arrieta has maintained his tireless work ethic between starts.

In a way, it's not just that he's picked up where he left off in that unbelievable second half. He's almost outdoing himself.

"This game will humble you and it can do it in a heartbeat," Arrieta said. "Remaining humble and working hard, regardless of your success and failures is the most important way to approach it. Not taking anything for granted.

"That's why I try and work the way I do between starts, to prepare as well as I can. When I take the mound, that's the fun part. Just kinda let everything fly and let the results speak for themselves."

After looking lackadaisical at the plate and in the field Friday, the Cubs went out and proved manager Joe Maddon right - 24 hours really does make a huge difference.

The Cubs mashed on their way to support their ace, hitting three home runs - back-to-back solo shots on back-to-back pitches by Anthony Rizzo and Jorge Soler in the fourth inning and then a two-out, three-run blast by Dexter Fowler in the seventh inning.

Javier Baez made his season debut, starting - and playing stellar defense - at second base while also collecting two hits, scoring a run and striking out twice.

But the story of the day was all Arrieta, who continues to astonish the baseball world.

If Ross had to step into the box against Arrieta, how would he approach the at-bat?

"You're asking the wrong guy," Ross said. "I don't know what I'd do. Get in the box and pray?"

The Cubs will never go with a set lineup, but it's time to accept the reality of this offense

The Cubs will never go with a set lineup, but it's time to accept the reality of this offense

There is no quick fix for what ails the Cubs offense.

Manny Machado would certainly help. That much is certain.

But dropping one of the game's elite hitters into any lineup would help boost that team's offensive profile. The only question is: Would the long-term cost be worth it for a short-term gain?

Because Machado wouldn't cure everything with this Jekyll and Hyde Cubs offense.

After hammering Reds pitching in Cincinnati last weekend, the Cubs managed to score just 1 run against the Indians in 18 innings and they didn't even have to face Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco.

They went a combined 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position.

It was also the 42nd different lineup the Cubs have rolled out this season in 46 games.

That's been a point of contention for many, many fans wishing Joe Maddon would stick with one set lineup from 1-through-8 in the order. 

But that will never happen. 

For starters, this way does work. The 2016 Cubs boasted 130 different lineups throughout the course of the season and we all know how that year finished.

A set lineup also won't work because this isn't 1970 and some players are better than others for different matchups against opposing starting pitchers (like Albert Almora Jr. vs. left-handed pitchers and Jason Heyward vs. right-handed pitcher). Also, players need rest to ensure they'll be fresh for the stretch run in August and September and the postseason after that.

"It's such a non-sophisticated conversation," Maddon said. "I don't know how it begins. I've heard it from old baseball dudes — I think fathers pass it down to sons on occasion. It's like teaching your kid how to drive a stick shift; it just gets passed along.

"I try not to comment on it, because really, it's such a poor discussion. There's no sophistication to it whatsoever. It makes zero sense. It doesn't belong in today's game and actually it never belonged in anybody's game."

So what can the Cubs do to find more consistency on offense?

Honestly, not much beyond just continuing to develop. Remember, this is still a very, very young and inexperienced core of position players and growing pains are inevitable.

It's also the nature of the game right now with strikeouts way up and basehits down. 

Offense is naturally an ebb-and-flow, up-and-down kind of thing. Words like "feel" and "confidence" are thrown around so often because they matter.

But with the way baseball has gone, the peaks and valleys have become as prevalent as ever. Try to point to other teams right now that have had no trouble scoring runs on a consistent basis this season.

The Yankees are close, but that's one team. The Braves and Red Sox are the next two closest, but they're not without flaws.

Atlanta has scored just 3 runs in their last 3 games as they dropped a series to Jake Arrieta and the Phillies this week. The Red Sox haven't score more than 6 runs in a game since April 30.

It may seem like the Cubs are on a roller coaster all on their own, but that may just be because of HOW they go through valleys. 

The Cubs still struggle with runners in scoring position, ranking 26th in baseball in that area (.222 AVG). They rank 24th with runners in scoring position and 2 outs (.194 AVG).

But delve deeper and you'll see the Cubs actually rank near the top of baseball in RUNS in such situations. 

With guys in scoring position, they sit 5th in MLB wiith 168 runs. With guys in scoring position and 2 outs, they rank 6th in runs, ahead of the Yankees.

So they're giving themselves plenty of opportunity by getting guys on base and in scoring position often.

Another elite hitter would help things, sure. You could say that for any team in baseball.

But the simple fact of the matter is the Cubs are 4th in MLB in runs scored, 2nd in OBP, 3rd in OPS and 5th in SLG.

They do feast on poor teams and have trouble scoring against better opponents, but every team has that issue to some degree.

Getting Anthony Rizzo — whose 2018 OPS (.661) is almost 200 points below his career mark (.842) — back to his standard MVP-candidate level would certainly help matters, too.

The Cubs are on the right path — trying to use the whole field, hit the ball on a line more, make more contact — but it's not something that will become consistent parts of their respective offensive profiles overnight.

Maddon was actually OK with where his team was at before being shut out Wednesday night.

"I think a lot of guys are doing pretty well right now," Maddon said ahead of the Cubs' 1-0 loss. "...Overall, I kinda like what I'm seeing on the offensive side. I just think that OK, are we doing a better job of not chasing? I think so.

"Are we utilizing the opposite gap a little better? I think so. Strikeouts, I don't think anybody's overtly striking out too much right now. So I kinda like what we're doing with the bats. I kinda do. ... I think a lot of guys are starting to get it."

But there is still one area Maddon will never be satisfied with — getting runners home from third base with less than 2 outs.

"Of course," Maddon laughed, "I'm gonna talk about that for the next 10 years and I'm not gonna like it, probably."

Theo Epstein on Manny Machado rumors: 'It's honestly something we're looking at and just rolling our eyes at'


Theo Epstein on Manny Machado rumors: 'It's honestly something we're looking at and just rolling our eyes at'

Despite the MLB trade deadline being two months away, rumors of the Cubs potentially acquiring Orioles' shortstop Manny Machado have intensifed recently. Regardless, Cubs president Theo Epstein made his point on the rumor frenzy quite clear Thursday.

"I can say with regards to this particular spasm of media frenzy, it is outrageously outsized when you compare it to the reality of the situation," Epstein said Thursday on 670 The Score.

Machado is having an unbelievable season with the Orioles, hitting .328 with 15 home runs and 43 RBIs entering Thursday. If traded, he would undoubtedly provide a boost to any ballclub, but that is a big "if."

Of course, the MLB season is not even two months old yet, which Epstein pointed out as being a big factor in the situation.

"It's May," he said. "We're still figuring out who we are as a team this year. We're still figuring out our place in the division.

"There's an atypical amount of trade discussion in May this year, which is essentially nil."

Rumors of the Cubs being a potential player in acquiring Machado make sense. At 15-34, the Orioles have the worst winning percentage (.306) in the MLB. With their current positioning, trading Machado could start a rebuild that the Orioles might just need. The Cubs have a 24-year-old shortstop in Addison Russell that the Orioles could acquire to a) replace Machado and b) use as the face of their rebuild.

Be that as it may, Epstein said the rumors are something that the Cubs are "just rolling our eyes at."

"I understand it's natural for people to connect the dots and there to be this kind of frenzy from time to time, but it's honestly something we're looking at and just rolling our eyes at," he said. "It's not like July, where every now and then there's lots of coverage on deals that are actually being discussed or actually might happen.

"This one is just out there in fantasy land at this point."