Cubs spin after Cardinals beat Jake Arrieta: ‘I don’t think there’s any reason to panic’

Cubs spin after Cardinals beat Jake Arrieta: ‘I don’t think there’s any reason to panic’

ST. LOUIS – Jake Arrieta has lost the air of invincibility that surrounded him during his Cy Young Award season in 2015. Even Joe Maddon – a relentlessly optimistic manager by nature – doesn’t pretend the Cubs expect to ever see that again.

Arrieta went through stretches last year where he looked unsure and out of sync with his mechanics. He still finished with 18 wins and a 3.10 ERA and beat the Cleveland Indians twice in the World Series.

The story of how a last-place team transformed into a championship organization cannot be written without Arrieta, who infused the Cubs with so much attitude and confidence, his Bob Gibson impression helping fuel 97 wins and a spending spree that approached $290 million after the 2015 season.   

At the moment, Arrieta symbolizes the 18-19 team that quietly packed up after Sunday afternoon’s 5-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

“We would obviously like to be playing better than we are right now,” Arrieta said. “I don’t think there’s any reason to panic. I think that the talent we have here will correct itself and start to turn itself around.

“Yeah, we’d like to win a few more games than we are and tighten things up a little bit. But guys are showing up ready to play and going about themselves the right way. We’re just not necessarily getting the results we would like.”  

Roughly 25 percent into a contract year, Arrieta now has a 5.44 ERA and one quality start since the first weekend of the season. If the velocity doesn’t keep ticking up – and this signals the start of a steeper decline – then the Cubs are in trouble.

The Cardinals (21-15) already have a 3.5-game lead over the fourth-place Cubs after winning this weekend series. Fireworks erupted in the second inning after Yadier Molina drilled Arrieta’s first-pitch fastball 410 feet into the left-field seats for a two-run homer and flipped his bat away with one hand.

Matt Carpenter crushed another Arrieta fastball 414 feet over the right-center field wall for a two-run homer in the third inning, breaking the 0-for-28 against his old teammate from Texas Christian University.

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Maddon, of course, put his spin on the situation and called it Arrieta’s “best stuff” all year. But even Miguel Montero, the blunt-spoken, veteran catcher, felt the same way. Nothing to see here? 

“Honestly,” Montero said, “I think that was the only two bad pitches he made. I said to him after the game: ‘Hey, man, you know what, this could be the turning point for you, because I really liked what I’ve seen. Everything was sharp. That was the best I’ve seen you so far the whole year.’

“The ball was coming out of his hand differently. He has some life to it. I’m happy to see him back pitching that way, because, of course, we’re going to need him.”

The Cardinals did all their damage against Arrieta with those two swings and the Cubs are a team playing without much margin for error right now. Adam Wainwright, who lugged a 6.37 ERA into the game, shut down the Cubs for seven innings. The defense that was supposed to be a constant is no longer playing like the ’85 Bears.

“It’s some bad luck,” Arrieta said. “Right now, it seems like the mistakes I’m making, they’re not fouling them off or taking or swinging and missing. They’re making pretty solid contact. I’m going to continue to be aggressive.

“Obviously, I’d like to not make any mistakes, but the ones I’m making right now are getting taken advantage of.”

There are peripheral numbers – like Arrieta’s strikeout-to-walk ratio (49:13) – and a track record that can be sources of optimism. But at a certain point, the defending champs talking about taking steps in the right direction and trusting the process will get old. This is a bottom-line business.    

“I have so much faith and confidence in him and his methods,” Maddon said. “You’re pretty aware that I don’t get kind of off the bandwagon very easily. I really believe he’s going to be fine. I believe it’s just going to be almost like a snap of the fingers – everything’s going to fall back into place.

“I don’t think you’re going to see this slow method of better, better, better, better, great. I just think you’re all of a sudden going to see something’s going to click and he’s going to be back close to where he had been.

“It’s hard to be where he had been when he won the award. I’m not expecting that, but more like what we had seen last year, a lot more consistency in his velocity. Velocity is probably the biggest (thing).” 

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy is home in Kansas City for a couple rare days during the baseball season. His mom wants to meet him for lunch, and his sister, a grade-school teacher in town, just had a baby that he hasn’t had a chance to see yet.

“How much would I love to go get to see her and my new nephew?” Hottovy said. “Can’t do it. Just can’t.”

Not this time. Not with what’s at stake. Not when possible threats to health and professional purpose lurk in every unfamiliar hallway, byway and unmasked face while the Cubs navigate their first multi-city road trip of the season.

Don’t believe the risk of spread and large-scale COVID-19 team outbreaks are that sensitive, extreme and potentially swift? Just ask the Marlins and Cardinals, whose outbreaks in the first week of play put their seasons on hold and threatened the status of the league’s season.

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“I’m not leaving the hotel. I told my family and friends and everybody [in Kansas City],” Hottovy said. “We all signed up for this, to make sure that for this to work we all have to make those kinds of sacrifices. I love my family to death and would love to get to see them, but right now this is our home.”

The Cubs second trip, which started with a 6-1 victory Wednesday in Kansas City and continues to St. Louis before finishing in Cleveland next week, coincides with stepped-up COVID-19 protocols from Major League Baseball following the Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks.

The Cubs already had protocols in place that exceeded MLB’s original mandates and that are in compliance with the new mandates. And a month into the league’s restart they remained the only team without a player having tested positive for the virus.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

In fact, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant decided on his own to start wearing a protective mask on the bases when the Cubs played last week in Cincinnati, where three Reds players were sidelined either by positive tests or self-reported symptoms as that series opened. And first baseman Anthony Rizzo told ESPN 1000 on Tuesday that he plans to keep a mask in his pocket while in the field in St. Louis and will consider wearing it when somebody reaches base.

“No matter what measures you put in place, when you’re trying to pull off a season that requires travel in the middle of a global pandemic, it ultimately does come down to personal responsibility,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “And everyone is at the mercy of the least responsible person because of the nature of the spread of this disease.”

Nobody knows that more than Hottovy and many of the Cubs who watched their pitching coach deteriorate in real time during daily Zoom sessions in May and June until the worst symptoms of his frightening monthlong bout with the virus forced him to hand off his job duties.

Whether Hottovy’s experience led directly to the Cubs’ more extreme safety policies or the individual players’ apparent hyper diligence, MLB’s recent coronavirus outbreaks and other cases at least raise questions about whether some teams and players — or even the league — respect the potential severity of a virus that has killed more than 158,000 Americans in five months.

“I don’t think people underestimate that aspect of it; I think they underestimated how easy it was to spread,” Hottovy said of the outbreaks — including a Cardinals outbreak that reportedly was traced to one asymptomatic, outside individual familiar with the team.

Hottovy called the highly contagious nature of the virus “the scary part of this,” both in terms of the potential to quickly render an organization unable to field a team as well as the subsequent, inherent risk that poses to family members and others who might, in turn, be among those who then become severely impacted by the virus.

And the hardest part, he said, is not letting down your guard within the team bubble when it’s easy to trust that when it’s only teammates in the room that it’s OK to disregard masks, distancing and other safety measures.

“That’s when it gets dangerous,” said Hottovy, whose team talks often about assuming everyone — including each other — has the virus.

So just like in Cincinnati, neither he nor anyone else in the Cubs’ traveling party plans to go anywhere but to and from hotels and ballparks during their trip.

“Listen, you don’t have to search too far for a reason to take it serious,” Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis said.

“I have three of my close friends who got it, that are over it. But the symptoms are as real as it gets from the sounds of it. And I think you have guys who are risking stuff coming and playing this season, whether it’s Craig [Kimbrel] and his daughter [heart condition] or Anthony [Rizzo] and Jon [Lester] with their [cancer] history.

“You’re paying respect to them and doing your teammate justice by not being the one to kind of go out,” Kipnis added. “It’s one of those years where, hey, you’ve got to buckle down and stay the course. I think everybody’s going through it, so you don’t want to be the one that kind of screws this one up.

The Cubs’ 10-2 start to a 60-game season seems to further incentivize that discipline — some players in recent days even suggesting the discipline in following the protocols has carried into the professionalism on the field.

It’s impossible to know if any of it will be enough for the Cubs to keep their moving bubble secure, much less whether the two outbreaks that MLB seems to have withstood will provide the significant enough wakeup call that MLB and team officials have suggested.

“The vast, vast majority of everyone involved in this enterprise, the players and staff, are doing a solid job so far in making a lot of sacrifices,” Epstein said. “And we just have to get everybody on board. And hopefully these two outbreaks are enough to get everyone to the point where we have essentially perfect execution going forward, because that’s largely what it will take.”


Cubs' David Ross defends Javier Báez, doesn't 'nitpick' baserunning lapse

Cubs' David Ross defends Javier Báez, doesn't 'nitpick' baserunning lapse

Cubs shortstop Javier Báez recognizes he should have run out of the batter’s box.

“It was my mistake,” Báez said after Wednesday’s 6-1 Cubs win over the Royals. “I thought that ball was foul.”

With two on and no out in the fourth inning Wednesday, Báez hit a towering pop fly down the right field foul line. He hesitated in the batter’s box for a few moments, leaving shortly before the ball dropped in fair just inside the line.

“I kind of lost it, but the wind started bringing it back,” Báez said. “Even [Royals catcher Salvador Pérez] was kind of surprised and he was like, ‘I think it’s gonna be fair,’ so I started running.”

Báez wound up with an RBI single, scoring Kris Bryant from second and moving Anthony Rizzo to third with no outs. He likely could have wound up at second base with a double, setting up the Cubs with two runners in scoring position and no outs. 

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The inning ended shortly after, as Willson Contreras grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, scoring Rizzo to take a 2-1 lead, and David Bote struck out two batters later. In the end, the moment didn’t hurt the Cubs, who never trailed after taking that fourth inning lead.

After the game, Cubs manager David Ross defended Báez and said he didn’t talk to him about running that ball out.

“I think that’s a really close play,” Ross said. “If I want to be the type of manager that nitpicks every little thing... These guys go out and play their butt off every single night for me and for this group. 

“If I feel like they’re dogging it, we’ll have a conversation. I feel like that’s a play that he may have assumed was foul. I think Javy’s one of the most exciting players and he plays hard every time I see him out there on the field. 

“So, I don’t have a problem with a guy that brings it every single day.”