Cubs

Jake Arrieta hits homer, but struggles with command late as Cubs fall to Pirates

Jake Arrieta hits homer, but struggles with command late as Cubs fall to Pirates

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The way Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon figures it, the list of relievers with better stuff than Pittsburgh's Felipe Rivero is short. Really short. There might be five.

After spending two nights watching Rivero have his way with Chicago's lineup, the list might be getting even shorter.

Barely 24 hours after working the eighth to preserve a Pittsburgh lead only to see it evaporate in the ninth following his exit, Rivero got the final five outs for his third save as the Pirates held on for a 4-3 win on Saturday night.

"He just goes out there, he's doing his job pitching," Pittsburgh center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "Slow heartbeat - no heartbeat at all, actually."

Rivero entered with one out in the eighth and the tying run on second then walked Kris Bryant before retiring Albert Almora Jr. and getting a fabulous play by second baseman Max Moroff to end the threat. Rivero worked a perfect ninth to give the Pirates a boost following their meltdown the night before.

"To get five outs, it's a big save," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's a good save for us, a bounce back game after (Friday) night."

Gregory Polanco broke out of a 3 for 31 slump with a two-run homer and McCutchen hit his 12th home run of the season. Ivan Nova (7-4) pitched seven strong innings, cutting loose after striking out pinch-hitter Jon Jay to end the seventh. His 94th and final pitch was also his fastest, a 97 mph fastball that Jay couldn't get a bat on.

"I said it was smart pitching," said Nova, who has worked at least six innings in all 13 of his starts this season. "I don't need to be throwing 97, 98 from the first pitch. My job is to locate my pitches and pitch 92 or 93. If I need to go harder, I feel good enough to throw."

Jake Arrieta (6-5) hit the fifth home run of his career but struggled with his command late and is now 0-3 with a 7.80 ERA in his last five starts against Pittsburgh. He went 9-1 with a 1.46 ERA the first 13 ties he faced the Pirates. The 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner was removed with two outs in the fifth inning following a sequence in which he uncorked two wild pitches and hit a batter. He blamed the wildness on sweating and not the laceration on his right (pitching) thumb.

"It's a helpless feeling when you can't put pressure on a ball and execute a pitch," he said. "It happens. You hope that you can just find a way to get through the inning a make an adjustment. I really wasn't able to."

Addison Russell hit his sixth home run of the season for the Cubs. Anthony Rizzo led off the game with a single and went 2 for 4 to extend his hitting streak to 11 games, but the defending World Series champions dipped back below .500 (33-34).

The Cubs have been unable to get anything going as their hangover from the franchise's first title in 108 years lingers. It looked like they found something Friday night, when they erupted for six runs in the ninth to rally for a win. The surge came against Juan Nicasio and Tony Watson, who came in when Rivero needed 20 pitches to get out of the eighth against the top of Chicago's lineup.

Nicasio was unavailable on Saturday, and when Daniel Hudson gave up a double to rookie Ian Happ with one out in the eighth, Rivero came in and did it again. Before the game, Maddon raved about Rivero's command and his comportment. Both were on full display as Maddon watched from the dugout and Nova watched from the trainer's room.

"It's amazing that guy that we have here," Nova said. "You can ask him for one inning, he'll throw one inning. You ask him for two innings, he'll go two innings. It looks so easy."

TRAINER'S ROOM

Pirates: Gave 2B Josh Harrison the day off for just the third time this season. Hurdle pointed to a draining stretch for Harrison - who leads the team with a .302 batting average - and a lackluster history against Arrieta (.077 average) as the major factors in the decision.

UP NEXT:

Cubs: Struggling veteran John Lackey (4-7, 5.26 ERA) will look for his first win in a month on Sunday in the series finale. Lackey is 0-4 with a 6.75 ERA in his last five starts.

Pirates: Jameson Taillon (3-1, 2.90) will try to win his second straight start since returning from a cancer scare. Taillon pitched five scoreless innings on Monday just five weeks removed from a procedure to deal with testicular cancer.

Former Cub Mark Prior 'likely' to take over as Dodgers pitching coach in 2020

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USA TODAY

Former Cub Mark Prior 'likely' to take over as Dodgers pitching coach in 2020

Mark Prior's big-league playing career unfortunately fizzled out due to recurring injury woes, but he's making a name for himself in the coaching realm.

With Dodgers current pitching coach Rick Honeycutt transitioning into a new role, Prior is expected to takeover the position starting next season.

Cubs fans know the story of Prior's playing career all too well. The Cubs drafted him second overall in the 2001, with Prior making his MLB debut just a season later. He went on to dominate in 2003, posting an 18-6 record, 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts in 30 starts, a season in which he made the All-Star Game and finished third in the NL Cy Young Award voting.

However, Prior's season ended on a sour note, as he was on the mound during the Steve Bartman incident in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. Prior exited the game with a 3-1 lead, but the Cubs surrendered seven more runs that inning, eventually falling to the Marlins 8-3 before losing Game 7 the next day. 

Prior struggled to stay healthy after 2003, eventually retiring in 2013 after multiple comeback attempts. While many blame his injury-riddled career on former Cubs manager Dusty Baker, Prior does not. 

While we can only wonder what could've been with Prior to the pitcher, it's good to see him still making an impact in baseball in some fashion.

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The Craig Kimbrel Conundrum: Closer a major question mark for 2020 Cubs

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USA TODAY

The Craig Kimbrel Conundrum: Closer a major question mark for 2020 Cubs

The last time Cubs fans saw Craig Kimbrel on the mound, he was staring bewildered at the left-field bleachers after serving up homers to the Cardinals on back-to-back pitches. It was a moment that became the dagger for the 2019 Cubs, even if it didn't officially eliminate them from postseason contention.

That Sept. 21 outing marked Kimbrel's third blown save and fourth loss of the season and the Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong homers were the eighth and ninth longballs the Cubs closer gave up in just 23 outings and 20.2 innings.

Nobody associated with the Cubs saw things playing out quite like this when they signed him in early June. Even Kimbrel's doubters who believed his struggles at the end of his Red Sox tenure were a harbinger of things to come couldn't have anticipated a 6.53 ERA and 1.60 WHIP from a guy who had a career line of a 1.91 ERA and 0.92 WHIP coming into 2019.

So where do the Cubs go from here?

Kimbrel is still owed $16 million for 2020 and 2021 and is the only truly established pitcher the Cubs currently have in their bullpen for next season with Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Pedro Strop and others ticketed for free agency.

The Cubs opted to shut down Kimbrel for the final week of 2019 to get healthy after dealing with knee and elbow issues but neither injury will require surgery this winter, Theo Epstein said.

"He's really determined to have a great offseason and looking forward to a full and legitimate spring training," Epstein said. "He feels awful about the way this year went, recognized that he was in an unusual position, but I think you'll see a really determined individual who will benefit from the full spring training."

The Cubs better hope so.

For a franchise that is going to again have to take their budget into account when building the 2020 roster, that $16 million price tag is an awful lot if Kimbrel cannot return to the elite closer he was before coming to Chicago.

But even beyond that, the Cubs absolutely need him to lock down the ninth inning. Rowan Wick impressed in 2019 and emerged as maybe the team's best reliever down the stretch, but he doesn't have much of a track record. The same goes for lefties Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck. The Cubs have reason to feel optimistic about all three pitchers as up-and-coming relievers, but putting too much stock into a trio of guys without much experience is an easy way to run into major bullpen problems. 

Right now, those are the only four names you can confidently pencil into the 2020 bullpen, though other in-house options loom (Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Danny Hultzen, Duane Underwood Jr., etc.) depending on how the Cubs configure their rotation and the rest of the roster.

There's obvious concern surrounding Kimbrel, but there's also a reasonable case to be confident 2020 will be a different story. In his entire career, he has served up homers at a rate of just 0.72 per 9 innings, so his 3.92 HR/9 this season is a clear aberration that not even the juiced ball can full explain away. 

The velocity dip (down nearly 1 mph from 2018 and 2 mph from 2017) is scary, but may also be related to the odd year Kimbrel had. 

Baseball players — and closers, in particular — are very routine-oriented and no plan can make up for a situation that saw Kimbrel facing live hitters nearly four months later than usual. He's used to throwing off a mound and ramping up in spring training in mid-February and was instead still in a free agency stalemate until early June.

When he was signed, it was viewed as a clear upgrade for the Cubs, who were plagued by early-season bullpen issues. They were only able to afford Kimbrel because Ben Zobrist took a leave of absence and left several million dollars on the table for Epstein to put towards addressing an obvious weakness on the roster.

At the time, signing a World Champion closer on a Hall of Fame trajectory was the best possible way Epstein could shore up the bullpen.

"There was some element of risk, because of the unknown of an elite closer coming in mid-season," Epstein said on the team's final road trip. "That's a risk we were prepared to take because of the opportunity that presented itself. The resources got opened up with Zo's absence and the opportunity of an elite closer sitting there for a contract that was certainly reasonable compared to what most guys of his ilk were getting over the long-term. 

"So, we were prepared to take that. We thought it was a really good fit and we were prepared to take that risk. It hasn't turned out as we had hoped. It obviously [killed] Craig that he wasn't able to help down the stretch here. The two trips to the DL and not being able to reach his accustomed level on a consistent basis, you have to think it's related to not having his normal foundation underneath him. It's something we'll certainly talk to him about and how to have a really effective offseason and get back to his normal Spring Training, so he can get back to being himself consistently."