Cubs trust Willson Contreras can handle Jake Arrieta down the stretch

Cubs trust Willson Contreras can handle Jake Arrieta down the stretch

In spring training, the Cubs made sure to give their veteran pitchers a scouting report on Willson Contreras, telling them this is the catcher of the future, maybe as soon as the middle of this season, so you better get used to him. Those great expectations for Contreras even influenced how the Cubs coordinated those mundane early-morning drills in Arizona. 

“I could see he was very eager and he was definitely not afraid,” manager Joe Maddon said. “With all respect to everybody he may have to catch, he was not going to be intimidated by it. I love that.”

The Cubs pushed Contreras onto the fast track, and are now phasing out Miguel Montero, watching the rookie catch Jake Arrieta for the first time in The Show during Thursday afternoon’s 9-6 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field. 

With seven walks, Arrieta didn’t look like the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner, but that says more about his command/timing issues this year than the development of Contreras. 

“Really bright,” Maddon said. “Really retains things extremely well and has a good feel and understanding of what’s going on in the game. His mound trips have been great. 

“Of course, he throws. He’s actually blocking and receiving the ball better. I don’t know if that’s just a more comfortable moment for him or not. But all that stuff has gotten better with the year in progress. 

“He’s swinging the bat well. He’s getting good at-bats. But I’ve been really focused on the defensive component, and every part of that has gotten better.”

Arrieta retired the first eight batters he faced, and took a no-hitter into the fourth inning before giving up back-to-back walks to Hernan Perez and Chris Carter, setting up the three-run homer Kirk Nieuwenhuis drilled into the right-center field bleachers.

Arrieta later exited the mound with a 7-4 lead, two outs in the sixth inning and runners on the corners before reliever Spencer Patton walked in the fifth run.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

“Willson and I are pretty comfortable working with each other,” said Arrieta, who’s still an All-Star with a 15-5 record and a 2.75 ERA. “He knows what I like to do. I know his catching style from behind the plate. That really wasn’t an issue. It was really just (bad) execution, not hitting spots in a couple key situations.”

How the relationship between Arrieta and Contreras evolves could become a major storyline across the season’s final six weeks. 

“The game plan from the beginning has been a good one,” Maddon said. “Now you’re seeing it actually being carried out, (while we’re) getting close to September. But there was stuff that we had talked about in February (that’s) playing out right now.”

Cubs map out next steps for closer Craig Kimbrel

Cubs map out next steps for closer Craig Kimbrel

Craig Kimbrel is one step closer to joining the Cubs bullpen.

According to Patrick Mooney of The Athletic, Kimbrel will join Triple-A Iowa and make his first appearance on Tuesday, against the Sacramento River Cats.

While the Cubs officially signed him on June 7, Kimbrel has yet to pitch in actual games. The 31-year-old has been in a condensed spring training program at the Cubs' Arizona complex, throwing live batting practice on both Thursday and Saturday.

The Cubs haven't revealed an official timeline for Kimbrel to join the 25-man roster, as they are basing things off of how he feels. The expectation is he will pitch in about five games with Iowa before joining the Cubs. However, both Theo Epstein and Kimbrel acknowledged how the goal isn't to rush the closer back into MLB action.

"We're not gonna rush it," Epstein said. "It's gonna be tempting to get him here as soon as possible, but we're trying to plan this thing the right way so that he could be in a position to succeed not just immediately but in October. That's gonna be our guiding principle as we go."

"We sat down and put a gameplan together — something to work off of," Kimbrel said. "But at the end of the day, it's based off how I recover, how I get ready. This isn't about getting back on the field as fast as I can. This is about being the best that I can be in October and down the stretch and doing what I came here to do for this team."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.

Yu Darvish and Cubs pull off dramatic comeback win over Dodgers

Yu Darvish and Cubs pull off dramatic comeback win over Dodgers

There were some added stakes to Saturday night’s Cubs-Dodgers matchup. Darvish made his first start at Dodger Stadium since his infamous Game 7 loss in the 2017 World Series, looking for a great effort in front of a fan base that had their up-and-downs in terms of their relationship with him. He (maybe) took a small jab at the Dodgers before the game had even started, telling the Los Angeles Times that he wasn't worried about being booed because “the Dodgers don't have many fans here in the first three innings, so maybe it will be on the quieter side.”

Well Dodgers faithful certainly got the message and made sure to let Darvish hear it.

However, Darvish got the last laugh on Saturday night. He pitched a stellar seven innings. Over those seven innings, Darvish gave up 1 ER on 2 hits and also notched 10 strikeouts.

Darvish has been hitting his stride as of late, maintaining a 2.96 ERA over his last four starts.

All of that being said, it would be remiss of me not to mention the contributions of Darvish’s teammates. His great outing helped keep the Cubs in the game, but the gutsy performances of Anthony Rizzo and Pedro Strop are what won the contest.

Dodgers All-Star relief pitcher Kenley Jansen had a 10-game scoreless streak coming into Saturday night, but one swing of Rizzo’s bat was all that was needed to restore balance to the everlasting battle of pitcher versus hitter. After Jansen hit Kris Bryant with a pitch to put him on base, Rizzo activated “clutch mode”, mashing a 400-foot bomb out to right field.

Though small, Saturday night’s homer gives Rizzo a three-game hitting streak, perhaps forecasting that things are trending  upwards for the first baseman as the Cubs look to close out the series against the Dodgers with a win on Sunday night. And not to be left out of the fun, Pedro Strop came in to face the Justin Turner, MVP hopeful Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Matt Beaty to nail down the save.

Never afraid of high-pressure moments, Stop came through big time.

Strop got a ground out from Turner, struck out Bellinger and Beaty in his 15-pitch save effort. This was a much-needed win for the Cubs, who have well-documented struggles on the road. As they look to split the four-game set with the Dodgers on Sunday night, the Cubs can be pleased with their fight this week.

Saturday’s win over the Dodgers was the Cubs first win of the season after trailing through six innings, as they were 0-23 in such situations prior to the victory. Amid a season that has been fraught with injury and general roster construction concerns, it was wonderful to see the Cubs pull out a tough win lead by the much-maligned Darvish and the never-quit attitude of his teammates.