Cubs' struggles continue vs. Brewers with another loss

Cubs' struggles continue vs. Brewers with another loss

MILWAUKEE — Brewers catcher Martin Maldonado let out a scream and pumped his fist. If you didn't know any better, you'd think this was a playoff game in mid-October.

Instead, it was just a mid-May game in which the rebuilding Brewers again took down baseball's best team with a 5-3 win over the Cubs at Miller Park.

Maldonado's eighth inning reaction after Jorge Soler struck out with two runners in scoring position embodied how teams with no plans for the playoffs will still give the Cubs everything they've got.

In a way, this is the Brewers' October — playing a division rival that boasts the best record in baseball for three games in front of their home fans.

Even with Dexter Fowler's leadoff homer and Miguel Montero's second-inning RBI single Thursday, the Cubs still led for less than three innings total in the series against a team six games under .500.

Jason Hammel got the start for the Cubs and looked on track for another quality start before Kirk Nieuwenhuis deposited a ball off the facing of the right-field bleachers for a two-run shot in the sixth inning.

It was the second homer Hammel surrendered on the afternoon, following a monster blast from Chris Carter in the fourth that was clocked at 115 mph off the bat.

"For whatever reason, I just couldn't bury sliders on those pitches and that put us behind," Hammel said. "It's hard to fight from behind.

"You have to continue to push forward. It's disappointing, obviously, to come here and lose two of three, but you move on to the next game."

Hammel finished with four runs on five hits and two walks in six innings, striking out seven. It is the only start in which he's allowed more than three earned runs this season, watching his ERA jump from 1.77 to 2.31.

"Unfortunately, we made a couple bad pitches and they were able to hit it to where nobody actually plays," Montero said. "Other than that, he threw the ball good. Unfortunately, today was a tough game."

On the other side, Brewers starter Junior Guerra struck out 11 Cubs in seven innings, including Addison Russell on all three matchups.

"We haven't been swinging and missing like that in a bit, so you gotta give them credit," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He had a really good splitter goin' on.

"They just beat us. We had opportunities and we could not cash in."

Guerra gifted the Cubs their third run in the seventh when he threw a wild pitch to score Montero from third base with two outs.

The high-powered Cubs offense that came into Thursday's game leading the National League in runs scored couldn't do much with the Milwaukee pitching staff in the series, scoring five runs off little-known starters Chase Anderson, Jimmy Nelson and Guerra in 23 combined innings.

Things got a little interesting for the Cubs in the ninth inning when Addison Russell and Montero led off with back-to-back walks. But Javy Baez struck out swinging, Dexter Fowler flew out to the wall in right field and Jason Heyward struck out.

The Cubs continue on their road trip, now heading to San Francisco for a matchup with the Giants after escaping Milwaukee with just one win.

"It was a well-played series," Hammel said. "They pitched pretty well against us. Obviously three tight ballgames.

"You can't win all of them."

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?


2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.