Cubs

Jake Arrieta begins contract season by shutting down Cardinals and giving Cubs flashbacks to Cy Young year

Jake Arrieta begins contract season by shutting down Cardinals and giving Cubs flashbacks to Cy Young year

 

ST. LOUIS — Whatever happens from here, Jake Arrieta will always be remembered as a Cub, for the way he lifted the entire franchise during his Cy Young Award season, silenced the Pittsburgh Pirates in that 2015 wild-card showdown and beat the Cleveland Indians twice in last year's World Series.

But Arrieta certainly isn't turning this into a David Ross-style farewell tour or a Boras Corp. countdown to free agency, not when the Cubs have enough blue-chip talent, big-market resources and playoff experience to become the first team to defend a World Series title since the three-peat New York Yankees (1998, 1999, 2000).

As Arrieta struck out five of the first seven St. Louis Cardinals he faced on Tuesday night, he gave manager Joe Maddon flashbacks to when he dominated like Bob Gibson and became must-see TV for the no-hitter possibilities. What might be Arrieta's final season in a Cubs uniform began with a sharp 2-1 victory in front of another sellout crowd at Busch Stadium.

"Jake really looked good from the side," Maddon said. "The ball was moving a lot. It was very reminiscent of a couple years ago, his strike-throwing and the way the hitters reacted to the pitch."

Getting off to a good start is important for a Cubs team that will have to fend off the Cardinals and wants to be well-rested and peaking by October — as well as a pitcher super-agent Scott Boras has compared to $210 million Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer.

"It's not a distraction at all," Arrieta said. "The only thing I'm focused on is the other 24 guys in this clubhouse and the handful of other guys that will be a part of us at some point throughout the season. We got guys like Ian Happ who are waiting in the wings and will probably be a big part of our season this year.

"My contract is an ancillary part of just the game of baseball. It's part of the business side of it. But my focus is just to be here for the guys in the clubhouse and help us win another championship."

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Arrieta retired nine Cardinals in a row and 12 of the first 13 batters he faced before minimizing the damage in the fifth inning. That's when Stephen Piscotty got hit three different times — with an Arrieta pitch, while stealing second base and after hustling on a chopper to the right side of the infield. Arrieta didn't stop the ball. Javier Baez bobbled it and then fired toward home plate, drilling Piscotty's helmet and knocking him out of the game.

The Cubs clapped for Piscotty, who had been facedown in the dirt before walking off the field, the day after the Cardinals announced his six-year, $33.5 million contract extension. Arrieta only allowed that unearned run across six innings before handing the game over to a bullpen built for October. Koji Uehara, Pedro Strop and Wade Davis combined to get the final nine outs as the Cubs got even with the Cardinals after a one-run Opening Night loss that showed this rivalry still has some juice.

Arrieta's transformation into an ace helped swing the balance of power in the National League Central. It's only Game 2, but Arrieta could already feel flashes of 2015 against a strong St. Louis lineup.

"It started out that way, really crisp with everything," Arrieta said. "The sinker was moving a lot, the command of breaking balls was pretty on point. It got a little sloppy in the fifth and sixth. I got ahead of myself. The effort level was too much. I started rotating laterally a little too much versus trying to stay on top of the ball.

"But that's OK. Those are things that I'll continue to work through and try and get those things under control as I progress throughout the season.

"For the first one, it was really good."

 

Cubs still owning second place in the NL All-Star vote standings

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USA TODAY

Cubs still owning second place in the NL All-Star vote standings

One Cubs player is within shouting distance of starting at the 2018 MLB All-Star game. But this time around, as compared to last week, the vote deficit is a bit larger.

MLB updated its second round of All-Star ballots for the National League. Catcher Willson Contreras trails Giants catcher Buster Posey by 90,000 votes. The margin was only 22,000 votes at this time last week.

And for other Cubs players such as Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and others, the margin is a little more substantial.

Rizzo is behind Braves first basemen Freddie Freeman by nearly 870,000 votes. Baez trails Braves second basemen Ozzie Albies by 148,000 votes.

Bryant trails Rockies third basemen Nolan Arenado by 447,000 votes. At shortstop, Addison Russell is in third place, trailing the Dansby Swanson of the Braves and Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford.

In the outfield, Jason Heyward moved up to the seventh spot with 447,359 votes, dropping Kyle Schwarber to eighth with 442,471 votes, and Ben Zobrist ranks ninth with 434,943 votes.

There will be another All-Star ballot update for the NL next Monday, and voting ends on July 5 at 11 p.m. Central.

 

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

ST. LOUIS — Addison Russell is the most polarizing player on the 2018 Cubs.

Now that Jason Heyward has found his groove again at the plate, Ian Happ isn't striking out every other at-bat and Yu Darvish has spent the last month on the disabled list, it's Russell's cross to bear.

Mind you, Russell is still 24 and far from a finished product as a Major League Baseball player.

But he's had such an up-and-down run with the Cubs over the last year and a half, ever since the 2016 World Series. That includes an accusation of domestic violence last spring, though Russell denited it and MLB's investigation into the matter ended when his ex-wife declined to participate with the league.

This is the guy who collected 4 hits in the weekend series in St. Louis, including a pair of doubles, a homer and 2 walks. He's also hitting .333 with a .395 on-base percentage and .882 OPS in June.

But then again, this is also the same guy who had throwing issues in the sixth and eighth innings Sunday night (including not throwing to third base for the force out in the sixth inning) and struck out looking with runners on second and third and only one out Saturday night.

Russell currently boasts career best marks in walk rate, strikeout rate, batting average, on-base percentage, line drive rate and opposite field hit percentage. He's also sporting a 104 wRC+ (which measures runs created per plate appearance and takes into account league and park factors, with 100 being average), which is the best mark of his career.

All told, Russell is in the midst of his best offensive season. 

Then again, he still only has a .744 OPS and is on pace for just 7 homers and 38 RBI, down numbers for a guy who hit 21 bombs with 95 RBI as a 22-year-old in 2016.

Over the weekend in St. Louis, Russell said he feels good at the plate, both mentally and physically. He liked where his head was at and can feel the progression he's made as a hitter since last season.

With or without Javy Baez (who just took a 90 mph fastball off the elbow in Sunday night's game), Russell is one of the Cubs' most important players.

He's so integral to what the Cubs do on defense and currently ranks as the second-best defender in baseball with 13 Defensive Runs Saved, behind only Oakland's Matt Chapman.

Russell also has the power to completely change the landscape of a Cubs lineup that is still searching for consistency on a daily basis.

Right now, he's doing exactly what the Cubs want him to do at the plate: Walking more, striking out less and using the whole field.

"When he came in after that line drive down the right-field line [Friday], I gave him a high five twice," Joe Maddon said. "That's the whole thing with these young hitters that we have. As they learn the opposite field on a consistent basis, they'll be able to sustain high numbers. They'll also be able to sustain high walk rates.

"When you're doing that, you're giving yourself more time to make a decision. Ball inside that you're pulling, you have a longer swing to get to with less time to make up your mind. Ball away that you're gonna go the other way with, you have a shorter swing to get to it with more time to make a decision. 

"It's all part of the equation. As our guys learn the value of the middle and opposite field from a hitter's perspective, their numbers are going to continue to increase."

As it stands right now, Russell is a Gold Glove caliber shortstop with a .277 batting average and .351 on-base percentage. That's a pretty solid player, even with the low power.

With the way the Cubs' roster is currently constructed, Russell will play a huge part in whether or not the Cubs can win their second World Series in a three-year span.

But he will also have to continue to maneuver through the mental hurdle of seeing his name thrown about as part of trade rumors this summer (and possibly beyond). And he'll have to stay mentally checked in during every at-bat or play in the field.

Russell's main takeaway roughly 40 percent of the way through the 2018 campaign?

"That it's a long season," he said. "We had a really good run in 2015, '16 and '17 as well, but this year, I'm really taking my time.

"Patience is the real thing in the clubhouse — on the road, at home, doing my routine, knowing that it's all gonna work out over time."