Cubs starting to look lost when Jake Arrieta is off his game

Cubs starting to look lost when Jake Arrieta is off his game

PITTSBURGH – If Jake Arrieta’s legendary wild-card performance seems like a long time ago, silencing the Pittsburgh Pirates and the blackout frenzy here last October, well, that’s an eternity in a game built around daily rhythms.

The same goes for the 25-6 start to this season that had Cubs fans, the Chicago media and national outlets feeling so giddy, at least until this blah 27-27 stretch slowly made people realize this team wouldn’t be crowned before the All-Star break.

That set the scene for Friday night at picturesque PNC Park, where Arrieta walked off the mound stone-faced and got booed by a black-and-gold crowd (35,904) that didn’t forget his cocky attitude leading up to that National League one-game playoff. Which is exactly what the Cubs needed then – and might be missing now.

Arrieta couldn’t protect a one-run lead or get a single out in the seventh inning, leaving a 4-4 game in the hands of a shaky bullpen with two runners on. Travis Wood got a groundball, but Anthony Rizzo threw it away when the lefty reliever ran to cover first base, allowing Josh Bell to score the go-ahead run from second.

It unraveled from there in an 8-4 loss, the Cubs looking a little dazed without Arrieta as their stopper, now having lost four games in a row, eight of their last nine and 14 of their last 19. It tested Arrieta’s remarkable patience with the media, turning from insightful to sarcastic when asked where his frustration level is at now.

“I don’t know where low-A is, but maybe I can go there and work on some stuff,” Arrieta said. “I’m good. It’s not ideal. But I like what I do in between starts. And the stuff’s fine. Just got to be better.”

The 2016 team is banking on the idea Arrieta will be turn-out-the-lights dominant. Otherwise, the foundation begins to crack and take on more stress. Since the beginning of June, their ace has a 4.81 ERA and has thrown more than six innings just once, the Cubs winning only three of those seven starts.

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Arrieta isn’t deceiving and freezing hitters the same way and doesn’t appear to be in the Pirates’ heads anymore, either, after coming into the game with a career 1.46 ERA against Pittsburgh and only three homers allowed through 80 innings.

This time Arrieta gave up two rockets in the second inning – David Freese drove a pitch onto the right-field deck while Sean Rodriguez hammered another one into the left-field seats – and put the Cubs in a 3-0 hole.

“The best way to describe it is just command,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Last year, we saw him just nailing edges all the time – breaking-ball strike, breaking ball underneath lefties whenever he wanted to.

“This year, he just doesn’t have that same command. The break on the slider/cutter/whatever you want to call it has been more inconsistent. The velocity is close to normal, I think, but it’s just a matter of dotting it up like he did last year.

“It’s not really falling off the cliff regarding stuff. More than anything, it’s about commanding his fastball.”

The Pirates have now won two of their 10 games against the Cubs so far – while going 43-34 versus the rest of the schedule – to edge past the St. Louis Cardinals into second place and cut their division deficit to 7.5 games.

Arrieta at least felt and looked sharper, notching six strikeouts and retiring 10 of 12 before giving up his first and only walk to pinch-hitter Adam Frazier leading off the pivotal seventh inning.

“I got punched in the mouth early,” Arrieta said. “I probably pitched to contact a little too much in certain situations. I just need to find that happy medium of getting ahead, being better on the corners in situations and not letting breaking balls catch too much of the plate.”

Arrieta didn’t quite bring his usual postgame bravado, finding the silver linings on a night where he allowed nine hits and got charged with six earned runs.

“There’s some positives in there,” Arrieta said. “My takeaway is not putting the nail in the coffin when I had the opportunity to do so, and maybe even pitch the eighth. I just let that one get away.”

[MORE: Cubs sign top pick Thomas Hatch out of Oklahoma State]

Arrieta is still 12-4 with a 2.68 ERA, earning his first All-Star selection and deserving that trip to San Diego after all the hard work and perseverance he needed to reach this point.

But Arrieta isn’t back in the zone yet, and let’s be honest: He may never again reach that level of mind/body consciousness he found during the second half of last year’s Cy Young Award campaign. Because those were Cooperstown, all-time numbers, and this game is exponentially more difficult than Arrieta and the Cubs once made it seem.

“I can’t sit here and tell you exactly how that’s going to happen,” Maddon said. “I don’t know exactly what it’s going to take to get him back to close to that performance, because it’s really hard to duplicate what he did last year. But overall, the work’s in there. The dedication’s in there. It’s just not coming out. Good health is still there, so that’s a positive.

“But I’d just be fabricating a reason. I don’t know. It’s just something we have to continually work on regarding the command and feeling good about where he’s throwing his pitches. I don’t have a solid answer.”

Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening


Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening

Is this the offseason that Cubs executive Jason McLeod finally becomes an MLB general manager?

According to Bruce Levine, the Giants are reportedly interested in McLeod, the Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development, for their vacant general manager position.

McLeod joined the Cubs' front office in 2011 alongside Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Before the Cubs, he spent six years in the Red Sox front office and two in the Padres' (with Hoyer, who was San Diego's general manager from 2010-2011). 

Of course, the Giants' reported interest in McLeod doesn't necessarily mean that he will interview for the job. However, it's worth noting that McLeod interviewed for the Twins' general manager job in 2016; he also withdrew his name from consideration for the Padres' general manager job in 2014. 

In addition to the Giants, McLeod's name has been linked to the Mets' general manager vacancy. This is more speculation, but the point is that it seems to be only a matter of time before McLeod is hired as general manager elsewhere.

For what it's worth, though, McLeod is under contract through 2021 and has previously said that he is grateful to be with the Cubs. 

“I’m exceptionally grateful,” McLeod said. “All of us are. Look at where we are at this moment in time with this team," McLeod said in 2016. "I can’t imagine a better environment, a better culture to work at in baseball.

"We’ve been together a long time. We’re friends. We’re good. We embrace the fact that we are good. And we challenge ourselves to be even better.”

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons. The Cubs confirmed the move Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke out of the Rangers camp.

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.