Cubs

Jake Arrieta doesn’t see fractures forming in Cubs clubhouse

Jake Arrieta doesn’t see fractures forming in Cubs clubhouse

WASHINGTON – An erratic, distracted, disconnected Cubs team got a pregame Moment of Zen at Donald Trump’s White House on Wednesday afternoon, a smaller group of players, staffers and executives going back to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for the second time in less than six months to celebrate their World Series championship.    

The Cubs showed up at Nationals Park and of course had new Joe Maddon T-shirts folded all over the chairs in the visiting clubhouse: “Embrace the Suck” superimposed on the Captain America shield. Miguel Montero’s locker was completely empty after injecting some truth serum into the group media sessions where the Cubs almost always insist that everything is fine and will be all right in the end.

But the Cubs are at an awkward, sensitive point here, 39-39 after an 8-4 loss to a first-place Washington team that saw reigning National League MVP Kris Bryant leave the game with a sprained right ankle and veteran pitcher John Lackey give up all eight runs as his ERA ballooned to 5.24.

Paying $7 million to make Montero go away won’t magically solve the problems. Even the guy who Montero targeted late Tuesday night after the Nationals stole seven bases didn’t really have a problem with the message or the messenger. 

“I’m sad to see him go,” Jake Arrieta said. “I love Miggy. As you guys know, he’ll say some things from the heart, the way he feels. He’s open and honest. That’s the way Miggy is. He regretted what he said. He felt bad about it. I told him that I’m not upset or mad at him. I didn’t even really see the comments, and I don’t care what they were. 

“I know what it was about – and there was a lot of honesty there. I didn’t do him any favors. I was slow to the plate and (Trea) Turner’s one of the fastest guys in baseball, so it just makes it look worse than it was. It’s unfortunate it had to happen that way, but it is what it is.”

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Arrieta took his teammates along for the ride when he transformed into a Cy Young Award winner in 2015. Montero had trouble hiding his frustrations with Maddon and diminished playing time, not exactly pumped about the idea of wearing a onesie on an overnight flight from the West Coast. Montero wound up catching Arrieta’s no-hitter that unforgettable night at Dodger Stadium.    

The clubhouse vibes now aren’t necessarily awful – to use a Maddon term to downplay the injuries that have decimated the roster – but something is clearly off here.  

“It’s been slightly different, honestly, just because we’ve been up and down so frequently this season,” Arrieta said. “As soon as we get on a roll, we kind of hit the skid. We win two, lose two, win one, lose one. It’s just been this back and forth sort of rollercoaster that we’ve been dealing with. 

“As far as the guys in here, everybody gets along great. We got good relationships. Sometimes, there can be a lull in the dugout from time to time. That’s just kind of the nature of the back and forth that we’ve had, ups and downs. 

“But we’re all on the same page. We know that we need to tighten some things up. And it’s not just in one area. We’ve pitched well at times. We’ve swung the bats well at times. 

“Obviously, last season we were able to kind of collectively do all of that at the same time. That’s what we’re searching for. We’re trying to find that consistency on both sides of the ball.” 

The ironic part is that Montero clung to the idea of being Arrieta’s personal catcher last season, hoping that connection would prevent him from getting bumped off the playoff roster, and now it got him designated for assignment.        

“I don’t think either way it would have fractured the clubhouse,” Arrieta said. “There are certain things that are handled behind closed doors, but Miggy wears his heart on his sleeve. That’s one of the main reasons we all liked him. But we’re going to move forward from this and embrace the guys that are here.”

Cubs camp observations: Wrigley's home-field advantage without fans

Cubs camp observations: Wrigley's home-field advantage without fans

Four days into the Cubs’ training camp restart, we’ve only begun to get acquainted with the new normal of baseball rhythms and routines that we can only hope will result in a 2020 season of 60 games.

If the league can fix some of its early testing issues and keep enough players on enough teams healthy enough to start the season, what might come into play for the Cubs and the actual baseball.

Early observations after about a dozen Zoom sessions with team personnel and two intrasquad scrimmages:

NUTS: Home cooked?

The Cubs, who draw so reliably in one of the unique ballparks in the majors, might have more to lose than most teams without fans allowed to attend games when the season starts July 24.

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Just how much of the Confines’ home-field advantage is lost will be a matter of “wait-and-see,” manager David Ross said.

“There’s always an advantage to playing in your own park,” he said Sunday. “You feel more comfortable you woke up in your own bed. You’re not staying in a hotel room, which especially now, where you feel like outside spaces just aren’t comfortable as they used to be, probably [gives] a slight advantage in your city.

“There’s no substitute for fans,” he added. “There’s probably a slight advantage, but I don’t know if it’s as great as it used to be.”

What Ross didn’t mention were the rooftops across Waveland and Sheffield, which are planning to operate at 25-percent capacity when games start, suggesting at least a few hundred fans within cheering and booing distance.

“You’re going to hear them loud and clear, too,” pitcher Tyler Chatwood said. “I promise you that.”

BOLTS: Taking the fifth

All you need to know about Alec Mills’ ability to adjust and immediately step into an important role is what he did in an emergency start against the first-place Cardinals at Wrigley last year with the Cubs a half-game out and barely a week left in the season.

He hadn’t started anywhere in a month — and that was in the minors. But the guy who pitched out of the bullpen just three times in the four intervening weeks, pitched two outs deep into the fifth inning that day and didn’t allow a run (the bullpen took care of that, in a loss).

No wonder when Ross talks about Mills replacing the injured Jose Quintana (thumb) in the rotation, he says, “I’ve got a ton of confidence.”

He’s not the only one. “I’ve always had the mindset of doing whatever I can to stay ready and help in any way,” said Mills after pitching a strong three innings in a simulated game Sunday. “Obviously, with an unfortunate injury like this, I think it’s just even more heightened.

“I’m ready to do whatever, whether it needs to be maybe a start here or there, a couple more starts, long guy out of the pen — just whatever I need to do I pride myself on being ready to do that.”

CHATTER: The mask at hand

“It’s a little different. You leave the house with a phone, your keys, your wallet and your mask.”

—Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo on his and his teammates’ new daily normal.

“Everybody is thinking about it, but we try to get here and understand this is our safe zone and we’re trying to create that [within] the things that we’re going to do on and off the field.”

—Ross on players weighing the risk of playing during the pandemic against the safety precautions and protocols the team has built in and around its Wrigley Field bubble.

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2020 Cubs schedule features six games against White Sox: 'It’s exciting, right?'

2020 Cubs schedule features six games against White Sox: 'It’s exciting, right?'

Imagine it’s late September. The Cubs have already hosted the White Sox for three unforgettable games at Wrigley Field — fans packed the rooftops (at 25 percent capacity) around the ballpark. Now, it’s time to head to the South Side for the final series of the season, rife with playoff implications.

If the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t derail the 2020 MLB season, that scene very well could become a reality.

The Cubs regular season schedule, which MLB released Monday, features six Crosstown Classic games. The first of two series between the Chicago teams runs Aug. 21-23 at Wrigley Field. The second is penciled in for Sept. 25-27 at Guaranteed Rate Field. Both three-game series include Friday and Saturday evening games, and end with a Sunday afternoon game.

The Crosstown rivalry consumes 1/10 of the Cubs schedule this shortened season.

“It’s exciting, right?” Cubs manager David Ross said.

And quite convenient. That’s the point of a regionally-based schedule, which has the Cubs facing only NL Central and AL Central teams. While trying to limit the spread of COVID-19, that convenience becomes especially important.

“We get to sleep in our own beds at night,” Ross said of the Crosstown Classic. “We can set up things where if we need to we can work out here and drive over like you would in an Arizona spring training. There’s a lot of options that we have for us that we can do with an in-town team. I feel like that’s definitely a luxury.”

Some of those same advantages apply to the Cubs’ games at Milwaukee as well. As is the case with all their division rivals, the Cubs are scheduled to play the Brewers 10 times, including opening day at Wrigley Field on July 24.

As for their mid-September series at Milwaukee: “Players have the ability to drive up day of the game, drive back afterwards or get a car back,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of freedom and comfort in sleeping in your own bed, especially in the scenarios we’re in this year.”

The Cubs’ setup with the White Sox is mirrored over in Missouri between the Cardinals and Royals; they will also play each other six times. The Cubs will play three or four games against each of the four other teams in the AL Central. The White Sox are expected to be a stauncher opponent than the Royals, automatically giving the Cubs a tougher route through their interleague schedule.

But that’s a small price to pay for six rivalry games in Chicago.