Cubs

Extreme high and low for Kris Bryant as Cubs can't close out Reds

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Extreme high and low for Kris Bryant as Cubs can't close out Reds

With his mesh camouflage hat turned backwards, Kris Bryant sat down inside the Wrigley Field interview room/dungeon as the don’t-worry-be-happy face of the franchise.

The Cubs still have a roadmap to the postseason with Bryant as a Rookie of the Year frontrunner, Anthony Rizzo in the MVP race, two frontline starting pitchers for October, a strong back end of the bullpen and the perfect manager for the Wrigleyville circus.

But Wednesday’s 7-4 loss to the Cincinnati Reds — losing a series to a last-place team already mathematically eliminated from the division race — showed why Cubs fans will be on edge and angry on Twitter even as Joe Maddon’s group tries to play loose, naive and carefree.

“It’s tough,” Bryant said. “Obviously, you’re on cloud nine when you hit a game-tying homer and then you blow it the next inning. Sometimes baseball works that way. It’s a crazy game. It gives you everything and then takes everything away.”

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon won’t put ‘injury-prone’ label on Jorge Soler]

The Cubs have math on their side, with FanGraphs (96.8 percent) and Baseball Prospectus (95.9 percent) making their playoff odds that morning look like a sure thing. But like Bryant said, crazy things happen.

Like Bryant delivering in the clutch with two outs in the eighth inning and 101-mph flamethrower Aroldis Chapman waiting in the bullpen. Bryant launched J.J. Hoover’s first-pitch curveball into the left-field bleachers for the game-tying two-run homer.

And then Bryant committed the kind of error that would haunt this team in October.

With two outs in the ninth inning, Bryant couldn’t stop a ball that went between his legs for an error. Hector Rondon then threw Joey Votto three straight fastballs between 96 and 97 mph. Votto crushed the last one out to left-center field for a three-run homer.

Maddon always defends his players, and the manager pointed out the angle and degree of difficulty for the third baseman with Jay Bruce at the plate.

“Listen,” Maddon said, “if you’re on the opposite corner on an infield (and) a lefty hits a bullet like that at you, it’s not like he’s not ready. He’s ready. That ball just was on him so quickly and that’s why it got through. I have no issues.

“There’s nothing to point fingers at there. He’s been playing really well.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs awaiting results on Kyle Schwarber’s MRI]

No doubt, the Cubs wouldn’t be here without Bryant, who now has 22 homers and leads the team with 84 RBIs and talked about how he felt so good he wished Thursday wasn’t an off-day.

“He hit it hard, but there’s no excuses for that. I got to keep the ball in front,” Bryant said. “It was a tough play, but I made that play plenty of times in my career, so I’m looking forward to the next one.

“There’s a lot of positives from the game, personally and as a team, so there’s nothing to really hang my head about. I wish I had blocked the ball or just tried to put a body part on it. But I was unable to do that.”

The Cubs are going to be tested, beginning with the news that game-changing rookie Kyle Schwarber would be a late scratch to the lineup with right rib soreness and getting an MRI.

And the Cubs are pretty much hoping to squeeze five innings at a time from 60 percent of their rotation.

Jason Hammel started this game by giving up a leadoff home run to Jason Bourgeois — who had four homers through 651 career plate appearances in The Show — on his way to another non-quality start (giving up four runs in five innings).

“You got to set a better tone,” Hammel said. “Obviously very frustrated with the way things are going. But I’m not looking to try and prove myself at all. Ever. I could care less about proving myself. I know what I can do.”

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez returns to Cubs with something to prove]

The Cubs still held a six-game lead over the San Francisco Giants for the second wild card heading into the defending champs' showdown against the Los Angeles Dodgers late Wednesday night on the West Coast.

The Cubs also have their 1-2 punch lined up for Friday and Saturday against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Wrigley Field: Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta.

This is what meaningful baseball in September feels like.

“I think we just got to approach each game like we’ve been doing and not really get too high or too low,” Bryant said. “I don’t think we should treat this one any different.”

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?

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USA TODAY

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.