Cubs

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.”

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.