Cubs

Jake Arrieta rounding into form as rejuvenated Cubs bury Cardinals

Jake Arrieta rounding into form as rejuvenated Cubs bury Cardinals

Miguel Montero may well have been speaking for all Cubs fans when he said he was excited after Jake Arrieta's outing.

The reigning National League Cy Young winner is in the race for the prestigious award again this season, but he's gone through some ups and downs, battling inconsistency all year.

Yet in Friday's 5-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in front of 40,791 fans at Wrigley Field, Arrieta flashed his potential, again showing what it looks like when he has everything clicking.

Arrieta struck out the side in the first inning, setting the tone for a 10-strikeout performance over seven shutout innings, allowing only five singles and a walk.

"It looked really familiar, the way they were taking some pitches, the strikeout performance," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.

Familar to last season, when Arrieta went on a superhuman run that topped anything anybody's ever seen before?

"He's not 100 percent there yet," Maddon said, "but definitely moving in the correct direction. That's a wonderful moment to build off of for him. 

"I'm absolutely certain that his confidence has to be peaked a little bit right there. That was more reminscient of what we saw last year."

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All summer long, everybody's been asking how Arrieta gets back to his dominant level. 

And all summer long, Maddon has maintained Arrieta is getting there, while the veteran starter has struggled to find his command and feel.

Will we look back at Friday as the turning point?

"We've been hyper-critical of him all year based on what he had done last year," Maddon said. "But to his credit, I think he's handled that really well, the criticism. He can just easily say, 'Look at my numbers, what's wrong with that?'

"But he knows theres another level of his pitching ability, so give the guy credit for continually attempting to work it out and make it even better and really holding himself to that higher standard."

Arrieta believed he had something of an revelation during Friday's outing, realizing he can dial it back and still get plenty of outs without going maximum effort all the time.

"I think the big thing for me is controlling my effort," Arrieta said. "When I'm able to do that, my stuff speaks for itself. Sometimes the competitiveness, the stubbornness gets in the way, but once I push that aside, stuff works pretty well."

Montero actually believes it's not the "effort" that is the key with Arrieta.

"I don't think he knew how to explain that," Montero said. "I don't believe he backed down or anything. I just believe he was letting the ball go rather than be pinpiont, rather than be nibbling, rather than make perfect pitches.

"You can see his fastball velocity picked up today than the past. And that was my main goal. I told him, 'I don't want you to be throwing 91 on the edges. I want you to be throwing 94, 95. Let it go.' Because I've had experience before with pitchers where they've been hit a few times and they just try to start nibbling. 

"You just gotta stay strong, stay positive, make pitches. We create bad habits, slowing your arm down just to be perfect. And then when you make a mistake, you get hit. My point is, if you're gonna make a mistake, just make a mistake letting it all out.

"And he did that today. There were pitches that he threw middle-middle that they couldn't do anything with because he was pitching with conviction behind it and he was letting the ball go. And when he does that, he executes a lot more pitches."

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

Albert Almora Jr. joins Kelly Crull on the Cubs Talk Podcast to weigh in on a variety of topics, including his budding bromance with rumored Cubs target Manny Machado, his expanded role and how he spends his time off away from the ballpark.

Plus, Almora has a surprise pick for the organization’s unsung hero, stating the Cubs would’ve never won the World Series without this guy.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."