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Jake Arrieta gives Cubs the confidence to beat Pirates in October

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Jake Arrieta gives Cubs the confidence to beat Pirates in October

PITTSBURGH — Jake Arrieta is obsessed with pushing himself and finding different ways to improve, but he hasn’t been fixated on 20 wins the way the media has zeroed in on that magic number.

Arrieta says he thinks about pitching in October every day. That will remain his focus — not 20 wins or a Cy Young Award or his next contract — until he goes home to Austin, Texas, this winter and looks back on an unbelievable season.

The Cubs have bigger things in mind, cutting their playoff magic number to 10 with a 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates that took 12 innings on Wednesday night at PNC Park.

“We’re going to be really tough (to beat),” Arrieta said. “We have a lineup that consists of a lot of young players who are playing maybe beyond their years, which is something that I don’t think surprises a lot of us here.

“These guys can really play. And learning how to grow up in this atmosphere is something that’s only going to accelerate their careers.”

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez making a playoff statement with his defense]

Arrieta has already taken the huge leap forward, notching 19 wins, passing the 200-innings mark for the first time and dazzling a national-television audience with that no-hitter at Dodger Stadium.

Arrieta threw 117 pitches and accounted for eight innings, allowing only two runs (one earned) and finishing with five strikeouts against one walk in a no-decision that again showed why the Cubs will be a dangerous playoff opponent.

“It’s unbelievable how that guy handles those kind of games,” Starlin Castro said. “If we score a run, with that guy on the mound, we got a lot of confidence and a lot of trust that we can win that night.”

Arrieta has been remarkably consistent throughout the season — 17 straight quality starts now — and particularly good against the Pirates (87-58). He has given up only three earned runs across 29 innings to the team he will likely face in the National League’s wild-card game on Oct. 7.

“I feel comfortable against anybody,” Arrieta said. “The team that I’m facing on any given day isn’t really something I put a lot of thought and effort into. I just try and scout and do my homework as well as I can. And then kind of go from there.

“Three games in the series thus far, three one-run games. (The Pirates) play very sound, fundamental baseball. They’ve got guys at the top of the order who can manufacture things (and guys who can) drive them in. They’re very balanced. They’ve got a lot of weapons. And we play them tough.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs expecting Jorge Soler back for Cardinals series]

Arrieta (1.96) is trying to become the first qualifying Cubs pitcher to finish with a sub-2.00 ERA since Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1920. That kind of sustained dominance should prevent the kind of epic collapse it would take for this team to miss the playoffs.

But knowing the stakes, Arrieta couldn’t believe his throwing error with two outs in the sixth inning (near the end of a season where we’ve devoted so much bandwidth, airtime and newspaper ink to Jon Lester’s yips).

Arrieta fielded the ball Starling Marte hit back to the pitcher’s mound, sort of hopped twice and lobbed a high throw to first base that bounced off the top of Anthony Rizzo’s glove. Marte didn’t seem to be running all that hard down the line, quickly accelerated and pushed Rizzo as he turned away from the base. Gregory Polanco kept running and scored an unearned run before Marte got thrown out at second.

“I made an inexcusable mental mistake (that) could have ended up potentially costing us the game,” Arrieta said. “That’s my one takeaway.

“Even though we won the game, that’s going to bother me for awhile. That’s just kind of personally the way I am. Luckily, we were able to pull it out and come out on top. I’ll just use that for future reference and not let it happen again.”

[MORE CUBS: This is nice for Cubs, but Jon Lester signed up to win World Series]

The Cubs got contributions from all over, Kris Bryant’s RBI double off the left-field wall followed by Castro driving in another run with a bunt in the sixth inning. There was Javier Baez throwing out a runner at the plate in the eighth inning and a defense that turned four double plays. Pedro Strop and Fernando Rodney became the bridge to Hector Rondon, who threw two scoreless innings to earn the win.

The Cubs manufactured the winning run in the 12th inning with back-to-back singles from Chris Denorfia and Austin Jackson. Pinch-runner Quintin Berry scored on Rizzo’s sacrifice fly to left field, moving the Cubs to within three games of the Pirates for home-field advantage in the wild-card game.

The Pirates seem to be more concerned with catching the St. Louis Cardinals and closing their four-game gap within the division. But after watching Lester’s complete-game performance here on Tuesday night, the Cubs know they can do some damage.

“On the mound, we’re extremely confident,” Arrieta said. “Obviously, Lester is a proven ace who can handle the pressure and handle the big situations in October. We’re in a good spot.

“Lester and I and the other guys know what we have to do to extend our season.”

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more rehab starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half showed that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well.

“We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

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Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is one step closer to becoming the unquestioned face of Major League Baseball.

For the next year, El Mago will be the cover boy for video-game-playing baseball fans, as Baez announced on his Twitter Monday morning he is gracing the cover of MLB The Show 2020:

On the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, Playstation released a video depicting why they chose Baez as the new face of the game:

Last year's cover featured Bryce Harper, announced before he even signed with the Phillies. 

Baez also joins the likes of Aaron Judge, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz as cover athletes for the PS4 game.

The 26-year-old Baez has become one of the most recognizable figures in the game, playing with a flair and swag that includes mind-bending baserunning maneuvers and impossible defensive plays. 

Case in point:

Baez missed the final month of the 2019 season with a fractured thumb, but still put up 29 homers and 85 RBI while ranking second on the team in WAR. In 2018, he finished second in NL MVP voting while leading the league in RBI (111) and topping the Cubs in most offensive categories. 

Theo Epstein said he never deems any player as "untouchable," but Baez is about as close as it gets for this Cubs team right now. He made the switch to shortstop full time this year and wound up with elite defensive numbers to go along with his fearsome offense and an attitude and mindset the rest of the Cubs hope to emulate.

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