Cubs

Jake Arrieta is human against Cardinals — but Cubs are that good

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Jake Arrieta is human against Cardinals — but Cubs are that good

Jake Arrieta is human and not some cyborg sent to destroy the St. Louis Cardinals. But just remember the T-shirt cut into a tank top to show off his muscles: “We Are Good.”

The Cubs still pounded the Cardinals during Monday’s 8-6 victory at Wrigley Field — even with Arrieta off his game in Game 3 and not inviting comparisons to Bob Gibson or Madison Bumgarner.

That underlines why the Cubs are now in position to end this on Tuesday and clinch their first playoff series ever at Clark and Addison, where they’ve been playing for 100 years.

“It was a huge team win,” Arrieta said. “Special night.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs out-slug Cardinals to take commanding control of NLDS]

This became a missed opportunity for a proud Cardinals team that found a way to beat Clayton Kershaw twice in last year’s National League Division Series, eliminating the Los Angeles Dodgers in only four games.

The Cubs and Cardinals understood this would be a pivot point in a best-of-five matchup between two iconic rivals, with Arrieta becoming a breakout star in October and giving this young team so much confidence.

“You know how tough baseball is,” second baseman Starlin Castro said. “That guy — he does a lot for us. All the time. We score like one run and he picks us up. Today, we scored a lot of runs for him. We got his back.”

Manager Joe Maddon — who likes to say Arrieta’s pitch count goes to infinity — took the ball from his No. 1 starter after 97 pitches. Jason Heyward reached out and drove a curveball out to left field for a two-run homer that inning and Arrieta just hit Brandon Moss with a pitch, leaving a runner on with two outs in the sixth, ending his unbelievable run of 21 consecutive quality starts.

“I got out of rhythm a little bit,” Arrieta said. “It’s a different environment in the playoffs. You have to control the emotions and try and conserve energy when you have the ability to do so. It’s a learning process.

“They made it tough. They made me battle. They made me work for it.”

[MORE CUBS: Addison Russell's status uncertain for Cubs-Cardinals Game 4]

Arrieta’s final line: Four runs on five hits and two walks plus nine strikeouts, still earning the victory against baseball’s best team during the regular season.

Arrieta had given up four runs total since the middle of August, a brilliant run of 10 starts that included a no-hitter at Dodger Stadium and a complete-game shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates in that wild-card game.

It transformed Arrieta into a Cy Young Award frontrunner and a huge national story. Not bad for someone who put up a 5.46 ERA across parts of four seasons with the Baltimore Orioles before getting traded to the Cubs in July 2013.

“He’s human,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “This is gonna happen. I’m actually happy that it happened, because I realize that he’s human. I was a little concerned about it.”

Arrieta looked out of sync, leading off the fourth inning by walking Stephen Piscotty (and almost drilling his helmet) and Matt Holliday (on four pitches). A crowd of 42,411 fell silent when Jhonny Peralta doubled off the ivy in left field, scoring Piscotty to tie the game, but Cubs fans didn’t need to panic. A relentless lineup just kept coming and coming, setting a postseason record with six home runs and turning into a worst nightmare for Cardinals fans.

“These are two big boys duking it out,” Arrieta said. “It’s like a heavyweight fight. The Cardinals won 100 games in the regular season. We had 97 (wins). We can both really play. It’s pretty much going to come down to the team that makes the fewest mistakes.”

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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