Cubs

Jake Arrieta and a Cubs playoff rotation look a little shaky as clinch party waits another day

Jake Arrieta and a Cubs playoff rotation look a little shaky as clinch party waits another day

ST. LOUIS – “Woof,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said when asked how comfortable he feels about this rotation heading into the playoffs compared to last year’s World Series group. “Let’s (see) Jonny Lester getting back to normalcy and that Jake (Arrieta) is well.”

Popping champagne bottles and toasting another National League Central title is still only a matter of time. But what are the Cubs going to do once they get there and have to game plan for an explosive Washington Nationals lineup and match zeroes in a five-game series where Max Scherzer can start twice?

Not trying to be a buzzkill here, but Arrieta didn’t erase all the doubts after Tuesday night’s 8-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, admitting that the right hamstring he strained on Labor Day is still not 100 percent and lingering as a potential glitch in his carefully wired mechanics.

“I’ve had to adjust a couple things in my delivery,” Arrieta said. “It’s still there a little bit. But I’m fine. I’m plenty healthy enough to go out there and compete and pitch at a high level. I just wasn’t able to do that tonight, unfortunately.”

Arrieta – whose transformation into a Cy Young Award winner really started the run of clinch parties in 2015 – couldn’t get it done this time. The magic number remained stuck at one with the Milwaukee Brewers closing out a 7-6 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Miller Park, where Arrieta looked sharp five days ago against a playoff contender in his first start in 18 days.  

Arrieta watched St. Louis leadoff guy/old college buddy Matt Carpenter launch his fifth pitch over the center-field wall. That first inning came unglued when Mike Freeman – a bench player starting at shortstop with Javier Baez resting his sore right knee and Addison Russell taking a scheduled day off – committed an error that led to two unearned runs.

As the Cardinals desperately try to stay alive for the second wild-card spot – now 2.5 games behind the Colorado Rockies with the Brewers still in front of them – Tommy Pham launched a 92-mph Arrieta pitch 426 feet into the second-deck, left-field seats in “Big Mac Land” for a two-run homer in the second inning.

Already capped by a conservative pitch count, Arrieta got pulled after 67 for a pinch-hitter in a bases-loaded situation in the fourth inning, a reality check before the Cubs can party in a visiting clubhouse covered in plastic.     

“I don’t have the drive that I do at 100 percent, but it’s still plenty enough to be effective,” Arrieta said. “The velocity’s really good tonight. Stuff’s not an issue.”

This comes at a time when Lester is searching for answers (4.79 ERA since the All-Star break) and trying to get into rhythm after spending two-plus weeks on the disabled list with left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue. Maddon also sees Kyle Hendricks “throwing the ball as good as I’ve seen him” and Jose Quintana thriving amid the pennant-race pressure.   

But the playoff rotation could revolve around Arrieta, the NL pitcher of the month for August and perhaps the best pitcher on the free-agent market this winter. Before Game 1 in Washington, the Cubs are planning to start Arrieta in Game 162 on Sunday against the Reds in what could be his final start at Wrigley Field.

“You’re just trying to get to October,” Arrieta said. “And then the guys that we have can pitch in big games in October. They have done that for a long time. Regardless of what the regular-season stats are, we’ve got three, four-plus guys that can go out there and pitch really well in October. I think we’ve shown that in the past.

“But, yeah, we still got to get there. We need one more win. And we’ll figure that out after that.”

'This is who we need to be': Cubs offense spurs win

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USA TODAY

'This is who we need to be': Cubs offense spurs win

The same offense that was shut out the day before turned around and scored eight runs rather handily in Wednesday's 8-4 win over the Brewers. The Cubs put together this offensive explosion with both power and timely situational hitting, and that's the kind of offense that manager Joe Maddon believes is capable of emerging on any given day.
 
But since the All Star break, the Cubs had put together a -28 run differential on their way to a middling second half record, so the hope is that a big win over a division rival in a close race is the catalyst for the production the Cubs are looking for.
 
"I mean that’s who we need to be. We need to be that group. We need to be tougher to strike out. We need to not pull off pitches or expand or give the other team some escape hatches," Maddon said after Wednesday's game. "We got to get away from that. Every team wants it, but we were doing that, and now we got to get back to that."
 
Unlike so many of the past games this season, the Cubs were the first to score, putting together a mini-rally with two outs in the first inning. David Bote singled to left, and then Anthony Rizzo—bumped to the cleanup spot after spending much of this season leading off—homered to the opposite field in left center.
 
This is the kind of hitting that Maddon looks for, when his batters go to the opposite field. It means they're seeing the ball deeper into the zone, he has often said, and that usually yields better results. 
 
Along with Rizzo's opposite field home run in the 1st, Javy Baez went the other way in the 3rd inning when he tripled to right field. This put him in position to score on Jason Heyward's double.
 
In all, the Cubs had 13 hits against Brewers pitching. Maddon has on many occasions called this a "swarm offense" because of the way they string together timely hits and can easily overwhelm an opposing pitcher and his defense. 
 
The swarm offense was particularly effective in the 4th inning, when they rallied to score three runs and bulk up their lead to 7-2. In that inning, they benefited from a couple of bloop singles that landed just beyond the range of second baseman Travis Shaw, who is playing out of his natural position since the Brewers traded for Mike Moustakas. 
 
Albert Almora, Jr., who has struggled for much of the second half, chipped in an insurance home run in the 7th. He spoke to the frustrations of an offense that struggled to score in the previous game.
 
"The game of baseball is so unfair at times. You could have good at bats, and you’re out at the end of the day," Almora said. "I think we’re doing a really good job of putting together good at bats, and that’s all we really can control."
 
The approach worked in part because the offense as a whole does not allow themselves to get rattled by a dry stretch. They go to the plate each day with the belief that a run is always just around the corner.
 
"We just believe that we can get it done. It’s not always going to happen, it’s not easy," Heyward said after Wednesday's win. "We try to give ourselves more opportunities. The more we get, the more I like our odds."
 
The Cubs still have a lot of games against division opponents, nine against the Brewers and Cardinals in September, but they're not living and dying with each win or loss at this point.
 
"We’ve played a lot of meaningful games, so we know not to hang our hat on one," Anthony Rizzo told reporters after his 2-4, 3 RBI day. 
 
This attitude is a product of three straight years of postseason appearances and a World Series title, and it comes from the top.
 
"You can’t overreact. If you want to ride the emotional roller coaster, man, it will wipe you out," Maddon said. 
 
He lauded the pitching of Kyle Hendricks and the defense that featured dazzling catches in the outfield from Heyward and Ian Happ and a bare-handed grab and throw at third from Bote, but Maddon said that for the best results, pitching and offense need to work in tandem more consistently, like they did Wednesday.
 
"For us to really get on that road that you’re looking for, you’ve got to see them simultaneously," Maddon said.
 
The hope is that this kind of win becomes contagious and propels the Cubs into a much-needed winning streak to put some distance between them and the rest of the NL Central. 

Albert Almora leaning on perspective to push through struggles

Albert Almora leaning on perspective to push through struggles

These are commonly called the dog days of summer, and after having played through roughly two-thirds of the season, especially so for baseball players. For Albert Almora, Jr. batting fifth in Wednesday's lineup, this tough stretch of the year has been made even tougher thanks to a prolonged slump.

Almora is hitting just barely above .200 over the last thirty days. August has been even worse, at .185 going in to Wednesday's game against the Brewers. But despite these struggles, Almora is working to keep it all in perspective so that he can turn things around.

"The mental grind of it is obviously overwhelming at times, but if you’re struggling a little bit or seem not to be having a lot of luck, you just think of the positives day in and day out of what you go through," Almora said.

Admitting that this is sometimes easier said than done, Almora said that it helps being on a team that does a very good job of turning the page when things go badly. 

A big help in not letting his struggles at the plate weigh on him too heavily, Almora said, has been his family. Almora and his wife Krystal have a son, AJ, who was born late in the 2016 season, and she is pregnant with their second child. A health scare for her took Almora away from the team for a couple of days in mid-July. Thankfully all turned out well, but it's the kind of thing that puts anyone's life into perspective.

"You rely on family. Obviously my son’s a big part. He’s at a point where he just wants to play with Dad, and we have a lot of fun," Almora said. "He doesn’t really care, and that puts it into perspective for me. I go home, at the end of the day it’s just a game."

All the same, the task of preparing day in and day out and trying to stay productive in the midst of a period of struggle isn't easy when the hard contact he's making lands in gloves rather than grass or among the bleacher faithful. 

"You always try to think about it as a game," Almora said. "This is a game we’ve been playing since we were kids, but it does get away from you at times. You press for a little bit, so it does wear on you a little bit if you aren’t doing what you’re supposed to."

But there are positive signs for Almora. After striking out in a pinch-hit appearance on Tuesday, he drew two walks and hit a homer the next day. And whether the slump continues or not, he hasn't lost faith in himself.

"I have confidence in myself that I’m pretty good at this," Almora said. "And I’ll be alright."