Cubs

Freakout avoided...for now: Cubs receive good news on Kris Bryant's hand

Freakout avoided...for now: Cubs receive good news on Kris Bryant's hand

UPDATE: X-rays came back negative on Kris Bryant's finger and the Cubs can breathe a huge sigh of relief for now.

*****

The good vibes didn't even last a week for the Cubs.

After five straight wins to open the second half of the 2017 campaign, Kris Bryant was removed from the Cubs-Braves game after the top of the first inning.

He slid headfirst into third base and his left hand hit the shoe of Braves third baseman Johan Carmago.

Here's the full play:

Bryant remained down on the field for some time in between innings and was immediately replaced by Tommy La Stella:

Here is the slow-mo of the play. You can see the pain flash across Bryant's face immediately:

Bryant had doubled with one out in the inning.

The reigning NL MVP was not named to the All-Star roster last week, but is hitting .275 on the season with a .401 on-base percentage and .528 slugging. His .929 OPS ranks 22 in baseball and 16th in the NL.

If he's forced to miss time, that would be a huge blow to the reigning World Series champs.

Hand/finger injuries have been sweeping across baseball this year, knocking out the game's top players. Angels outfielder Mike Trout missed nearly two months with a torn ligament in his thumb and Astros star shortstop Carlos Correa just hit the disabled list Wednesday with the same injury and figures to be sidelined until at least mid-September.

With no move on the horizon, Carl Edwards Jr. still the key to Cubs bullpen

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USA TODAY

With no move on the horizon, Carl Edwards Jr. still the key to Cubs bullpen

As currently constructed, the biggest X-factor in the Cubs bullpen isn't Brandon Morrow or even Pedro Strop.

It's Carl Edwards Jr. 

Maybe that all changes in a couple weeks if the Cubs join the Craig Kimbrel sweepstakes or acquire an impact arm via trade. 

But the season is only about one-quarter of the way completed and Theo Epstein admitted Monday it's probably too early to see any major deals take place. So right now, it's Edwards that looms as the potential key to the much-maligned Cubs bullpen.

Edwards was called on in the seventh inning to protect a 1-0 lead Tuesday night, but managed to get only two outs before leaving with runners on second and third. Brandon Kintzler came on to face Andrew McCutchen, who promptly singled home both runners, saddling Edwards with a blown save. He has now allowed 9 earned runs in 7.1 innings on the season.

"Getting Carl right is large," Joe Maddon said before Tuesday's game. "If we get Carl right, that really fills a big gap right there."

Many have drawn the parallels between the 2019 Cubs and the 2016 Cubs and like that World Series team, this year's squad seems destined to acquire a closer (or at least a high-leverage impact reliever) this summer.

In 2016, Hector Rondon had a successful run as the team's closer, but it was pretty clear the Cubs needed an impact arm at the back of the bullpen to make a World Series run and they got it in the form of Aroldis Chapman.

It's too early to talk about World Series runs right now, but it's once again clear that the Cubs would be best served making an impact addition to the bullpen.

The Cubs got good news on the Morrow front Monday as he threw from flat ground and reported everything OK, but the 34-year-old has already suffered one setback in his recovery and at this point, he's a complete unknown. The Cubs can't bank on him returning at all this year and have to approach the situation with the idea that any contribution Morrow lends to this bullpen is a bonus.

Strop could be nearing a return after throwing a successful bullpen Monday. But his health — especially with his now-problematic hamstrings — will obviously be a big factor in the overall success of the bullpen, as we can see right now with the way this unit has been set up in his absence. 

With both Morrow and Strop down, Steve Cishek has been the next man up in the closer's role, but he was asked to work 2.1 innings Sunday night to close out the Cubs' win in Washington and was thus unavailable for the series opener against the Phillies.

So Brad Brach got the call for the ninth inning Monday night at Wrigley Field and wound up getting charged with the blown save. The Cubs then lost the ballgame the next inning when Kyle Ryan served up a home run to Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto.

That bullpen breakdown led to another round of sky-is-falling panic in the fanbase, calling for relief reinforcements like Kimbrel.

The Cubs are tied for second in baseball with 9 blown saves, though they actually came into Tuesday's game with the second-best bullpen in the league (2.72 ERA) since that rough 2-7 start to the season.

But now this unit has become a big concern once again. Getting by without Morrow is one thing, but between losing Strop to the IL and Edwards still not performing up to his potential, suddenly this bullpen is on some seriously unstable ground.

"This year to this point, we've lost some games late that we normally haven't lost in the past," Maddon said. "If we had just pitched somewhat up to our standards, our record would be crazy good right now. But I like the stuff that we have, I like the resiliency that we have. Like I said, Carl's a linchpin to this and I think Stroppy is, too."

Even with the shaky moments from the bullpen and the fact they're onto their backup backup closer (or is it the "backup to the backup closer?"), the Cubs still entered Tuesday's game with a 27-18 record and in first place in the National League Central.

They've managed to do all that with very little in the way of contribution from Edwards, who has the best stuff and the highest ceiling of any pitcher currently on the roster. 

The Cubs already sent Edwards down to the minor leagues for a month to fine-tune his mental and physical mechanics and though the 27-year-old has been back in the big leagues for the last couple weeks, he's still not quite himself.

Prior to Tuesday's hiccup, Maddon thought Edwards might be getting close to that level — he was dialing his fastball up to nearly 96 mph Saturday as he retired the only two batters he faced on 11 pitches.

"He threw well the other day," Maddon said. "[On Saturday], the fastball was better, better command of it, better finish on it. I think with Carl, it's just a confidence thing. I just gotta keep putting him out there. He has a couple successful moments and I think he can turn it around.

"But stuff-wise, I saw the better velocity, I saw the cut and I saw the really good curveball."

Sure, adding Kimbrel or another proven, high-leverage arm would give the Cubs a better bullpen. 

But no such move appears to be on the horizon and Morrow's future is still a giant question mark, so the Cubs have to work with what they have and Edwards pitching like he's capable of would change the entire complexion of the bullpen.

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Jake Arrieta full of appreciation in return to Wrigley mound: ‘I’ll never forget this city’

Jake Arrieta full of appreciation in return to Wrigley mound: ‘I’ll never forget this city’

The last time Jake Arrieta pitched at Wrigley Field, his night ended with Cubs fans giving him a rousing standing ovation. The former Cubs right hander tossed 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball, leading the Cubs to victory in Game 4 of the 2017 NLCS—their only win against the Los Angeles Dodgers that series.

Arrieta returned to Wrigley Field as a visitor on Monday night, making his first start against the Cubs since joining the Philadelphia Phillies last season. Ironically, Arrieta’s counterpart for the night was Yu Darvish, who ultimately replaced Arrieta in the Cubs starting rotation.

Despite now donning Phillies red, Cubs fans once again showed their love for Arrieta, giving him a lengthy standing ovation ahead of his first plate appearance. Darvish even stepped off the mound in respect for the moment.

“I loved it, absolutely loved it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said to reporters postgame. “[I’m] very happy that our fans would acknowledge him like that. Yu stepped away from the mound nicely. Jake deserved it.”

Arrieta tipped his helmet in appreciation for the crowd, taking in the moment for more than 30 seconds before stepping into the batter’s box. After the game, he told reporters that moment brought back memories of his time with the Cubs.

“That was something that really brought back great memories of getting that same sort of ovation pretty much on a nightly basis,” Arrieta said. “[I’m] very appreciative of that. I can’t say thank you enough to the city of Chicago, I really can’t.”

Arrieta took fans back to his Cubs tenure on Monday, throwing six innings of one run ball in the Phillies’ 5-4 10-inning win. Although the 33-year-old didn’t pick up the victory, he matched Darvish—who threw six innings of three-run ball—pitch by-pitch.

Phillies manager Gabe Kapler noted how well Arrieta handled his emotions throughout the night.

“I thought he handled the emotions really well. I thought he was in control of the game even when we were down,” Kapler said to reporters. “He always maintained his poise and he just got stronger as the outing went on and that’s why we were able to have him take down the sixth inning for us.”

It’s well-documented how Arrieta’s career improved for the better after the Cubs acquired him in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles in July 2013. When the Cubs acquired him, Arrieta held a career 5.46 ERA in 69 games (63 starts). He finished his Cubs career with a 2.73 ERA in 128 regular season starts. He also won five postseason games with the Cubs, including Games 2 and 6 of the 2016 World Series.

Despite moving on in free agency, Arrieta spoke highly of his time with the Cubs, their fans and the city of Chicago.

“Cubs fans all across the country, all across the world, they really respect and appreciate what guys are able to do here for them,” he said. “It means a lot, it really does.

"I’ll never forget this city, the fan base, the organization, everything that they did for me. It was 4 1/2 incredible years of my career.”

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