Jake Arrieta looks like his old self as Cubs win fifth straight

Jake Arrieta looks like his old self as Cubs win fifth straight

It’s hard to not view Jake Arrieta in the extreme when he has transformed himself from a Triple-A pitcher thinking about quitting baseball into a Cy Young Award winner and a World Series hero.

This is someone who trolls fans on Twitter, poses naked for ESPN the Magazine and says whatever he wants to reporters. He is the centerpiece to one of the greatest trades in franchise history and a major part of one of the biggest stories ever in professional sports.

From the frustrating lows with the Baltimore Orioles to the dizzying highs as a Cub, the arc of this story doesn’t lend itself to measured responses or detached analysis.

After being must-see TV for the no-hitter possibilities, Arrieta Watch has morphed into referendums on what he will get paid as a free agent this winter. Sometimes, it feels like it’s either Max Scherzer money or one wrong mechanical tweak or velocity downtick away from falling over the cliff.

When in reality this game is way too hard to be understood as a daily stock chart. Just like the Cubs as a whole, Arrieta is too confident, polished and accomplished to be fluctuating that wildly.

Don’t look now, but the Cubs are on a five-game winning streak after Tuesday night’s 10-2 victory over the Miami Marlins at Wrigley Field, where Arrieta settled into the kind of groove needed to keep this momentum rolling.

“We haven’t necessarily changed our mindset or our outlook (just) based on our performance, negative or positive,” Arrieta said. “That’s probably the most important thing we can do — just stay even-keel — whether we’re going well or not.

“Put the night prior behind you and show up for the next game as prepared as possible and try and win that ballgame. That’s what we do so well when we’re winning games consistently.”

That feeling starts with a lights-out rotation. After giving up back-to-back walks, handing the Marlins a 1-0 lead and throwing 34 pitches in the first inning, Arrieta retired 16 hitters in a row and walked off the mound to a standing ovation in the seventh inning from the crowd of 34,082.

Coming home from an 0-for-6 West Coast trip, the Cubs (30-27) have swept the St. Louis Cardinals and surged into a first-place tie with the Milwaukee Brewers.

“Any time we go through a period like (that), it kind of increases the sense of urgency a little bit,” Arrieta said. “Not necessarily pressing or trying to do more than we’re capable of, but just maybe trying to get locked in a little more, as far as our mental approach.

“It's just focusing exclusively on that and allowing our ability to show through without putting added pressure on ourselves. It’s really starting to pay off. This is a ballclub that’s capable of winning 10, 12 games at a time in a row.”

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Just like super-agent Scott Boras, manager Joe Maddon downplayed any issues with Arrieta’s velocity or the idea of a new reality for a pitcher who has been so good at freezing hitters, creating soft contact and minimizing damage.

“We’re not talking about a whole lot of difference,” Maddon said. “I still see a lot of 92-93s and 94s compared to like 93, 94, 95 maybe, so it’s still a significant velocity. It’s not like he’s just flipping it up there. I’ll take what they call the effective velocity by throwing it where he wants to throw it.

“If he’s able to command that thing where he wants to, those numbers absolutely play. Nobody even talks enough about it, but he’s got a great curveball and the cutter/slider was a big thing a couple years ago (and) I think the changeup’s developing yet, too.

“He’s got four above-average pitches. He just needs to command his fastball at any velocity and he will be very successful.”

It’s a good sign when Arrieta gets 10 groundball outs against the Marlins and continues to pile up the strikeouts (76) against the walks (20) this season. If this offense and defense plays up to its capabilities, it’s easy to picture Arrieta (6-4) winning around 15 games, as long as he maintains the durability that will be attractive on the open market.

Maddon pulled Arrieta after 100 pitches, when J.T. Realmuto tripled leading off the seventh inning. The Marlins managed just two hits and two runs against Arrieta, whose ERA has dropped almost a full run down to 4.46 since the middle of May.

There will be more peaks and more valleys in Arrieta’s walk year, which is off to a so-so start that will ultimately be defined by how the Cubs finish.

“I don’t think that has anything to do with Jake right now,” Maddon said. “I don’t think it’s mental. I don’t think it’s any of that stuff. I just think he’s slowly getting back to where he had been. I’m seeing an uptick.

“More than anything, I just think the fact that he’s trying to locate his fastball so much, that might be where you’re seeing a little bit of a drop, just by him trying to throw the ball where he wants to as opposed to just letting it rip.

“But he will, because he’s physically fine. He’s well. You watch his workouts — they’re still incredibly insane. As soon as that fastball starts going where he wants to, it’s really going to take off again.”

Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Millions of Americans have lost jobs or taken pay cuts because of the economic impact of a coronavirus pandemic that in this country shows no signs of going away anytime soon, including countless members of the sports media.

So despite some of the more laughably ignorant opinions from the dimmer corners of social media, exactly nobody in the media wants any sport to shut down again.

That said, what the hell are we doing playing games outside of a bubble during the deadliest pandemic in this country in more than 100 years?

With Friday's news that another Cardinals staff member and two more players tested positive in the past two days for COVID-19, the Cubs-Cards weekend series was postponed as officials scrambled to test and retest Cardinals personnel and try to get their season restarted.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since the intake process began in June, have done everything right, from management to the last player on the roster, to keep their team healthy and playing.

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But the operative, most overlooked, word in all of this has always been “playing.”

And the longer MLB pushes through outbreaks, and measures the season’s viability in counting cases instead of the risk of a catastrophic outcome for even one player, the deeper its ethical dilemma in this viral cesspool.

“Ethically, I have no problem saying we’re going to keep doing this,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said over the weekend about asking players to continue working as the league experienced outbreaks involving the Marlins and Cardinals.

“That said, we have to do it the right way,” Hoyer said, citing the extra lengths the Cubs have taken to keep players and staff safe.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

But even he and other team executives understand the limits of all the best-made plans.

“The infection is throughout the country. That’s the reality,” team president Theo Epstein said. “If you’re traveling around, there’s a real risk. Protocols are not perfect. No set of protocols are perfect. They’re designed to minimize the risk as best you possibly can.”

And while the odds for surviving the virus favor young, athletic people such as baseball players, the nearly 160,000 Americans killed by COVID-19 in the last five months include otherwise healthy toddlers, teens and young adults.

Add that to the best-known characteristic of this virus — its wildfire-like ability to spread within a group — and baseball’s attempt to stage a two-month season involving travel in and out of 30 locales starts to look like Russian roulette.

Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez, 27, contracted COVID-19 last month and as a result developed myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart — that might shut him down for the season even after multiple tests say he’s clear of the virus.

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, a fit, 39-year-old, recent major-league athlete, had a monthlong case so severe he went to the emergency room at one point for treatment before the viral pneumonia and high fever began to improve.

The vast majority of players insist they want to play, including Rodríguez, even after his heart diagnosis. More than 20 others have opted out because of the risk, including All-Stars Buster Posey, David Price and — in the past week — Lorenzo Cain and Yoenis Céspedes.

Obviously the owners want to play, with more than $1 billion in recouped revenues at stake in a season of deep financial losses.

“Everyone that I know outside of baseball who’s become positive, who’s gotten COVID-19 at some point, did everything right — washed their hands, wore masks, socially distanced — and they still became positive,” Epstein said. “They don’t know where. It could have been the grocery store. It could have been walking down the street.

“And as far as I know that’s the case inside baseball, too,” he added. “This is everywhere in the country and unfortunately going the wrong direction nationwide. It’s a fraught environment out there that we’re operating in, and we’re going to need to do our absolute best and also be fortunate.”


Cubs-Cardinals series postponed after Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak worsens

Cubs-Cardinals series postponed after Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak worsens

The COVID-19 pandemic finally caught up to the Cubs, who had their weekend series against the Cardinals postponed Friday after the Cardinals' coronavirus outbreak worsened by three positive tests before the teams were scheduled to open a three-game series in St. Louis on Friday night.

The Cardinals, who haven't played since last week because of an outbreak that now includes at least 16 players and staff, scrambled to test and retest personnel Friday as Major League Baseball wiped another series off their schedule.

Cardinals president John Mozeliak said Friday the latest players to test positive are outfielder Austin Dean and pitcher Ryan Helsley. The club announced Tuesday catcher Yadier Molina and shortstop Paul DeJong recently tested positive.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since intake testing began more than a month ago, had not lost a game on their schedule because of coronavirus issues.

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The Cubs (10-3) were scheduled to fly home from St. Louis Friday night and are not scheduled to play again until Tuesday in Cleveland. This weekend's series has not been rescheduled yet.

“Based on the information MLB has shared with us, postponing this series is a necessary step to protect the health and safety of the Cardinals and the Cubs,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said in a statement. “Therefore, it is absolutely the right thing to do.

“While it’s obviously less than ideal, this is 2020, and we will embrace whatever steps are necessary to promote player and staff wellbeing and increase our chances of completing this season in safe fashion,” he added. “We will be ready to go on Tuesday in Cleveland. In the meantime, we wish the Cardinals personnel involved a quick and complete recovery.”