Jake Arrieta strikes back, but Cubs can’t finish off Mets

Jake Arrieta strikes back, but Cubs can’t finish off Mets

Jake Arrieta answered any doubters on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, shutting down the New York Mets and showing the stuff that made him the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner.

For a team built to finally win the World Series this year – with Arrieta supposed to be the Game 1 starter in a playoff rotation – that means more than a final score in the middle of July. Maybe that’s why the Cubs had Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” playing on the clubhouse sound system after a 2-1 loss.

No awkward silence, no staring at the carpet, no heads buried in lockers after Mets closer Jeurys Familia escaped a bases-loaded, no-outs, ninth-inning jam, quieting the raucous crowd (41,456) on its feet watching a rematch of last year’s NL Championship Series.

“That was a little more like it,” Arrieta said moments after sitting down in the interview room. “It could be significantly better, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

The Cubs (56-37) still have almost two weeks until the Aug. 1 trade deadline to figure out how to reconfigure their bullpen around closer Hector Rondon, who lost the game in the ninth inning when defense-first catcher Rene Rivera lined a two-out, go-ahead RBI single into right field.

Once again, the Cubs couldn’t come through in the clutch against New York’s power pitching, managing only an unearned run against Noah Syndergaard, going 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position, striking out nine times and letting Familia (33-for-33 in save chances this season) off the hook when Kris Bryant grounded into a game-ending double play.

[SHOP: Buy a 'Try Not to Suck' shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

But even with the no-decision, Arrieta is still the story here, hitting the reset button after a 10-day layoff and the understandable decision to not pitch in the All-Star Game, rest his body and clear his head.

Arrieta came out firing, throwing 16 of his first 17 pitches for strikes, and 25 of his first 27, putting up zeroes through the first five innings. The only offense the defending NL champs could generate against Arrieta came in the sixth inning, when Jose Reyes drove a ball into the right-field corner for a leadoff triple and scored Curtis Granderson’s sacrifice fly.

“That’s really when I’m at my best,” Arrieta said, “challenging guys right away from the first pitch and really putting them on the defensive side and making them swing the bat. I expect to pitch more like this, as far as the aggressiveness and keeping the ball down in the strike zone with everything.”

This wasn’t just outside noise from the fans, the Chicago media and scouts following the Cubs. Arrieta had been grinding through starts (4.81 ERA since the beginning of June) and searching for answers. Even eternally positive manager Joe Maddon admitted his ace hadn’t put it all together yet, missing the crisp delivery and pinpoint control that fueled one of the greatest runs by anyone who’s ever picked up a baseball.

[MORE: 'Expect the unexpected' at trade deadline, says Hoyer]

Arrieta lasted seven innings for the first time since June 11, retiring 12 consecutive batters during one stretch and allowing only five hits and finishing with eight strikeouts against one walk.

“I’ve tried to stay the same throughout,” Arrieta said, “regardless of the other results or the circumstances, understanding that what I’ve done in between starts has been very effective over a long stretch. With that said, it’s still nice to come out and keep your team in the game, especially when the guy on the other side is doing the same thing.”

The Cubs will need Arrieta at the top of his game in October, when great pitching beats teams like the Mets (50-43). Even with a 12-4 record and a 2.60 ERA, the questions will keep coming, because so much of this team’s identity is tied up in Jake Being Jake.

“I hear it,” Arrieta said. “I know it’s out there from you guys (in the media). And that’s fine. I understand we need to talk about it. I’m not sure exactly where I’m at in the league, but I’m sure it’s in the top 10.

“Can I get better? Yes, but there’s going to be times where we struggle. It’s just part of this game. The other guys over there are good, too. So trying to keep those slumps to a minimum and move forward is the idea.”

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

USA Today

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Joe Maddon needed Mike Montgomery to get through at least six innings given the circumstances presenting the Cubs' manager before Game 2 of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Not only were the Cubs short a man in the bullpen (thanks to Brandon Morrow’s pants-related back injury), but Maddon had to use four relievers — including Pedro Strop for two innings — after Tyler Chatwood managed only five innings in Game 1 earlier in the afternoon. 

So when Montgomery — who had only thrown over 100 pitches once in the last two and a half seasons before Tuesday — saw his pitch count sit at 40 after two innings, and then 63 after three, he knew he needed to regroup to avoid creating a mess for the Cubs’ bullpen. 

What followed was a start that, statistically, wasn’t the most impressive of the five Montgomery’s made since re-joining the Cubs’ rotation earlier this year. But it was an important start in that the 28-year-old left-hander didn’t have his best stuff, yet didn’t give in to a good Dodgers lineup. And holding that bunch to one run over six innings was exactly what the Cubs needed in what turned out to be a 2-1 extra-inning win. 

“Especially when you don’t have have your best stuff, you always gotta — that’s when you really learn how to pitch,” Montgomery said. 

It’s also the kind of start that could be a major point in Montgomery’s favor when Maddon is presented with a decision to make on his starting rotation whenever Yu Darvish comes off the disabled list. Knowing that Montgomery can grind his way through six innings when his team needs it the most without his best stuff only can add to the confidence the Cubs have in him. 

Montgomery didn’t have his best stuff on Tuesday, issuing more walks (four) than he had in his previous four starts (three). He threw 48 pitches between the second and third innings, and only 25 of those pitches were strikes. Of the nine times the Dodgers reached base against Montgomery, six were the result of fastballs either leading to a walk or a hit. 

Even though the Dodgers were able to bother Montgomery a bit on his fastball, Maddon said that’s the pitch of his that’s impressed him the most over the last few weeks. 

“He never got rushed,” Maddon said. “In the past he would seem to get rushed when things weren’t going well, when he spot-started. Overall, fastball command is better — even though he was off a little bit tonight, the fastball command still exceeds what I’ve seen in the past couple of years on a more consistent basis. The changeup, really, good pitch. He got out of some jams but I think the fact that he knows where his fastball is going now is the difference-maker for him.”

Darvish will throw a simulated game on Wednesday after throwing two bullpen sessions last week. Maddon still doesn’t have a timetable for the $126 million right-hander’s return, and said he’s not entertaining what to do with his rotation until Darvish comes off the disabled list. But Maddon did mention Montgomery’s relative lack of an innings load — the most he’s thrown in a season in 130 2/3, which he did in 2017 — as a reason to perhaps not rush him into a permanent starting role the rest of the season. Going to a six-man rotation is a possibility, too, Maddon said. 

But the over-arching point is this: Montgomery will remain in the Cubs’ rotation as long as he keeps earning it. That can be the product of strong outings in which he has good stuff, or games like Tuesday in which he shows the Cubs the kind of resiliency most starters need to get through a full season. 

“I pitch well, good things happen,” Montgomery said. “I’ve always thought that. Opportunities, you just gotta make the most of them.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

For the second time in 1998, Sosa went back-to-back games with multiple home runs. After going yard twice on June 19 of that season, Slammin' Sammy again sent two balls into the bleachers on June 20.

He singlehandedly beat the Phillies that night, driving in 5 runs in a 9-4 Cubs victory.

But that wasn't the most impressive feat of the day from Sosa. His second homer was actually measured at a whopping 500 feet! It was the longest of the season, but not the longest of his career. On June 24, 2003, Sosa hit a homer at Wrigley measured at 511 feet.

The back-to-back big games raised Sosa's season OPS to 1.083 with a ridiculous .685 slugging percentage. He began June 1998 with a .608 slugging percentage.

Fun fact: Kerry Wood struck out 11 batters in 7.1 innings on June 20, 1998 to pick up his 7th big-league victory. As Wood marched to the National League Rookie of the Year that season, he finished with a 13-6 record and 233 strikeouts in only 166.2 innings for a career-high 12.6 K/9 rate.