Do Cubs have enough pitching to finish the pennant race?


Do Cubs have enough pitching to finish the pennant race?

For all the talk about rookies hitting the wall — and how a young and inexperienced group will handle pennant-race pressure — the biggest issue facing the Cubs might be the rotation that put them in a playoff position.

Forget Jon Lester’s yips for a moment and his control-alt-delete performance in Wednesday night’s 15-8 loss to the Detroit Tigers at Wrigley Field. It happens, even to a $155 million pitcher with two World Series rings and three All-Star selections on his resume.

The Tigers knocked out Lester in the third inning, blasting three home runs and jumping out to a 7-0 lead. The issues are bigger than Lester when outfielder Chris Denorfia is pitching in the ninth inning of a two-game interleague series sweep that saw Detroit generate 25 runs and 40 hits.

Take a wide-angle look, and there’s Jason Hammel admitting he’s been out of sync after a hamstring injury, failing to finish six innings in seven starts since the Fourth of July.

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There’s Kyle Hendricks watching old Double-A video, trying to diagnose the problems that have led to a 5.29 ERA in six starts after the All-Star break.

There’s Dan Haren in what are probably his final weeks before retirement, getting by with guts and intelligence near the end of a long and distinguished career.

“If there was health issues, I’d be more concerned,” manager Joe Maddon said. “There’s no health issues. That would be my greater concern, if it was something like: ‘My shoulder’s barking a bit.’

“During the course of a year, guys are always going to go through some struggles. I think Jason’s very fixable. I think Kyle’s very fixable. Danny Haren ... this guy is a tremendous competitor, so I have a lot of faith in him, too.”

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The Cubs are on pace for around 90 wins and a wild-card spot because their rotation has been so reliable, beginning the day with a 3.51 ERA overall.

The Cubs will have to lean on their pitching infrastructure and come up with some answers, because they don’t have the stockpile of young arms that helped Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays teams win 90-plus games five times between 2008 and 2013.

“The only thing with Kyle — from my mouth to his ears — is to trust yourself and pitch to contact because that’s who you are,” Maddon said. “Let our defense play. I’ve always talked about him staying in better counts. I know when he stays in better counts and works his stuff off of that, he’s pretty effective.

“Hammer, he’s probably throwing the ball harder than he has in awhile. And I think that actually works against him. I think he needs to back off and make better pitches with less velocity, more effective velocity. When he does that, he’s going to be fine.

“Again, if they were injured, I’d be concerned. But they’re not.”

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Even Jake Arrieta’s evolution into one of the game’s best pitchers comes with a warning label: The 29-year-old power right-hander has already reached a career-high 162 innings, and there are still six-plus weeks left in the regular season.

“You try to monitor it, but the guy’s like such a freak when it comes to working out and strength levels,” Maddon said. “I watch it all the time. (But) with him, he’s a little bit older (and) he’s been around, so I don’t have as great of a concern with him. But (we) definitely want to keep an eye on it.”

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."

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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.