Cubs

As Cubs take off again, Jake Arrieta rounding into October/Cy Young shape

As Cubs take off again, Jake Arrieta rounding into October/Cy Young shape

The St. Louis Cardinals are the team that didn’t seem to fear Jake Arrieta, puncturing the air of invincibility around the game’s most dominant pitcher, even in losing last year’s playoff series.

It would have been impossible for Arrieta to pitch like that forever, no matter how hard he did Pilates or what he incorporated into his nutrition program. But for all the existential questions leading into the All-Star break, the Cubs appear to be getting their ace back now.

As the rain poured down, Arrieta walked off the mound to a standing ovation during Friday afternoon’s 13-2 win over the Cardinals at Wrigley Field. This is more like it for the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner.

Even if the Cardinals made Arrieta work, driving up his pitch count to 105 and bumping him out of the game with two outs in the sixth inning. A relentless lineup had staked Arrieta a seven-run lead after two innings, and he probably would have pitched deeper if not for two errors by Kris Bryant and Javier Baez.

[MORE: Should Cubs expect payback from Cardinals after Matt Holliday’s injury?]

Still, Arrieta is 14-5 with a 2.55 ERA after limiting the Cardinals to one run on four hits and finishing with six strikeouts against two walks, again looking like someone who can front a playoff rotation.

“You look at the numbers, they’re outstanding again,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You become more hypercritical after a guy’s achieved what he did last year. And (that’s) almost impossible to replicate. That was just like wire-to-wire incredible. But the way he started out today really was reminiscent of that, (with) the fastball pounding of the zone.

“The fastball had that little extra life at the end. The strike-throwing was better. The curveball had great depth. I can honestly say from the side that reminded me of last year.”

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The Cubs (73-41) are taking off again in August, the way they did last year, when Arrieta began transforming from a talented guy figuring things out to the hottest pitcher on the planet, someone in complete control of his game. The Cubs have now won 11 in a row, dropping the Cardinals to 14 games back in the NL Central.

“We know what we’re capable of,” Arrieta said. “Regardless of how many games you win the division by…once you get to October, the slate’s clean. That’s the focus. Obviously, you try and continue to play good baseball up until that point, clinch the division and go from there.

“We want to be playing our best baseball going into October.”

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

There may not be a player in baseball more exciting to watch than Javier Báez.

Whether at the plate, in the field or on the bases, Báez is a human highlight real. He’s one of the most powerful hitters in baseball; he has a cannon for an arm, exemplary defensive range and is a tagging maestro. He’s a dynamic baserunner who uses his elite baseball instincts to go station-to-station while magically avoiding tags along the way.

Yeah, there’s a reason Báez is known as “El Mago.” It’s not a matter of if he’ll make an incredible play each game, but a matter of when. Things come easy for the 27-year-old full of flair who makes the most difficult plays seem routine.

Báez is a career .270/.310/.484 hitter who’s hit 110 home runs in parts of six big-league seasons. One of those long balls came in his big-league debut (Aug. 5, 2014), a go-ahead blast against the Rockies in the 12th inning. The legend of El Mago was born.

Báez is the Cubs starting shortstop, though that hasn’t always been the case. Starlin Castro was the starter in 2014; Addison Russell claimed the title from Castro in the second half of 2015, holding it down until late in the 2018 season. Russell hit the injured list that August as the Cubs simultaneously acquired Daniel Murphy in an attempt to jump-start the offense.

By the time Russell returned, Báez was a clear-cut NL MVP candidate. The latter still bounced around the infield from time-to-time, but with Murphy entrenched at second, shortstop became Báez’s primary position. He’s been the starter ever since.

Báez has played 2,646 2/3 career innings at shortstop compared to 1,856 at second base (and 629 1/3 at third). He’s exclusively a shortstop these days, but the El Mago second base days aren’t forgotten.

Báez was the co-recipient of the 2016 NLCS MVP award (along with Jon Lester) and has started back-to-back All-Star Games (2018 at second, 2019 at shortstop). He was the runner-up for the 2018 NL MVP award, posting career highs across the board: .290/.326/.554, 34 homers, 111 RBIs, 129 OPS+.

And yet, it feels like Báez is only getting started. Nevertheless, his career to date has more than earned him a spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team at second base. With that, we'll leave you with this:

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

You saw this one coming, right?

As the Cubs’ longest tenure player, Anthony Rizzo was a shoo-in for this group. He hasn’t relinquished his starting first baseman job since making his Cubs debut in June 2012. The guy’s longevity alone is impressive.

But besides that, Rizzo has been a model of consistency during his time on the North Side. Since 2012, he’s hit 217 home runs (averaging 27 per season) and hit 32 three times from 2014-17. The lone exception? 2015, when he hit 31. So close…

As a Cub, Rizzo is a .277/.376/.496 hitter with a 132 OPS+. He produces at a high clip each season, whether he’s hitting third, cleanup or leadoff, all while simultaneously playing stellar defense. The 30-year-old is a three-time Gold Glove Award winner (2016, 2018-19).

Rizzo is the guy who comes up huge in key moments but will be there to address the media after tough losses. He’s the de facto captain of the Cubs, the guy who suffered a nasty ankle sprain in September that could have ended his regular season. Instead, he returned four days later for a key series against the rival Cardinals, as the Cubs were fighting to keep their October dreams alive.

When he’s not leading his team on the field, Rizzo is giving back to the community off of it. He’s one of the most charitable athletes in the world and recently raised $1.3 million for children’s cancer research at his “8th annual Walk-off for Cancer” in his home state of Florida.

Rizzo was the first building block of the Cubs core which snapped their infamous 108-year championship drought, but he’ll be remembered for more than that. He’s a leader on and off the field, the clear choice for starting first baseman on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Derrek Lee, Bryan LaHair