Heated Cubs-Cardinals rivalry finally gets playoff spotlight


Heated Cubs-Cardinals rivalry finally gets playoff spotlight

ST. LOUIS – The Cubs had popped all those champagne bottles, smoked their victory cigars, broken out the dance moves and toasted this unbelievable year inside PNC Park’s visiting clubhouse.

The Cubs then went through the motions for Thursday’s workout at Busch Stadium and completed Major League Baseball’s media obligations. A broadcaster asked manager Joe Maddon about the wild-card hangover, “real or imagined.”

“It wasn’t imagined, man,” Maddon said with a laugh during his news conference.

But the Cubs won’t have any problems getting up for this, their first-ever playoff matchup against the St. Louis Cardinals in a rivalry that began in 1892. If anything, it’s whether or not all the emotions will boil over on Friday in Game 1 of this best-of-five National League division series.

[MORE: Showdown with Cardinals: This is why Cubs signed Jon Lester]

“Of course, we’re ready for some kind of a changing of the guard,” Maddon said. “But I don’t expect the Cardinals to go away.”

For a front office that grew up on the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, this is the Midwest version. In Year 4 of this rebuilding project, the Theo Epstein administration produced a team that has won 98 games including Wednesday night’s 4-0 wild-card victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“It’s inevitable,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “They’re a perennial power. They’ve shown it every year. I think we always felt that way in Boston – we had to go through New York to win. And I think given that these guys are always in the playoffs, you know you have to go through (St. Louis).

“We play 19 times. With that many games, there’s bound to be subplots when you have two good teams that are battling all the time.”

[RELATED: Bring it on: Cubs-Cardinals rivalry will escalate to another level]

Back in spring training, Maddon said he doesn’t like his hair to get too bushy on the sides or else he starts to look too much like HBO gangster “Paulie Walnuts.” This is a manager who clearly loves being in the spotlight and stirring up the rivalry.

Maddon made another mafia reference when he wondered if Tony Soprano ordered the hit on Anthony Rizzo from the St. Louis dugout. That was three weeks ago at Wrigley Field, Maddon fuming about the pitch that hit his All-Star first baseman and openly mocking “The Cardinal Way.”

Fast forward to Thursday afternoon, Rizzo standing in Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse and listening to a St. Louis reporter suggest this could be an “an all-out war.”

“An all-out war?” Rizzo said. “No, I look for us to play baseball for up to five games. I wouldn’t include ‘war’ in there. It’s going to be a good test. They’re proven. We aren’t. They have a lot of guys with a lot of experience. We don’t.

“We’re ready for it. We know we can play with them.”

The Cubs showed they won’t back down, pouring out of the dugout and the bullpen after Pirates reliever Tony Watson drilled Jake Arrieta with a pitch as payback in the seventh inning, the wild-card game almost escalating into an all-out brawl.

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“You gotta be real careful trying to wish for a certain team, because one day you just might wish that you didn’t,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “So we just watched (the game) as unbiased as we could and tried to look at it through the eyes of scouting out the team that we’re going to play next. Not necessarily pushing for one team or the other, regardless of all the storylines and excitement that can come from it.”

The Cardinals have 11 World Series titles, one losing season since 2000 and 20 playoff wins with Matheny across the last three years. But now with Maddon running the Cubs – and having the players to back up all this talk – the rivalry may never be the same again.

“There’s an inherent leadership need in this position,” Matheny said. “And without question, he’s been able to provide that. You see a group of guys that truly believe in what they’re doing. They have had a very consistent battle cry that, you know, things are going to change.

“And this is living proof right now that things have changed.”

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?


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.