Jake Arrieta takes a step in the right direction as Cubs reign over Brewers

Jake Arrieta takes a step in the right direction as Cubs reign over Brewers

Jake Arrieta still didn't look like his Cy Young self, but he definitely took a step in the right direction Sunday.

In fact, the Cubs as a whole looked more like themselves Sunday, drubbing the Milwaukee Brewers 13-6 in front of 41,671 fans at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs' new look lineup tallied 22 baserunners on the afternoon — including 10 extra-base hits — and scored in seven of eight offensive frames.

Arrieta allowed only an unearned run in six innings, striking out six and walking just one. He lowered his season ERA from 5.44 to 4.80 on the afternoon and spent most of the game sitting around 93-94 mph with his fastball, a slight uptick from the 91.7 mph velocity he was averaging on the season entering play Sunday.

Joe Maddon actually has seen a different Arrieta the last two starts, including last weekend in St. Louis when Arrieta gave up a pair of two-run homers across six innings.

"The last two games are more remincisent of what he's supposed to look like," Maddon said. "And two really good games to build off of."

Arrieta still doesn't feel quite right with his mechanics, but agrees with his manager about the outing as a stepping stone.

"It was a step in the right direction," Arrieta said. "I was able to do some things a little more consistently to help command the ball glove-side, arm-side. When I'm able to do that with the fastball, the other pitches just kinda fall in line based on the way my delivery feels.

"The timing was pretty good today. It's just something I look to build on because I know there's still room for improvement."

Arrieta did need 111 pitches to get through the six frames, but picked up his first win since May 3 and seemed to be inching closer to his dominant form with a few nasty pitches to the high-powered Brewers lineup:

The 31-year-old starter had settled into exactly 85 pitches each of his last three outings, but Maddon wanted him to stretch things out and Arrieta responded well.

"Felt good," he said. "It was a grind there for a while in a couple of the innings, but was able to bear down, make a few good pitches. I kept the ball on the ground quite a bit today, which was nice.

"That's obviously an indicator of a step in the right direction and just look to build off that and continue to move forward."

The Brewers set off fireworks pregame with some choice words about the way the Cubs handled Saturday's rainout, but it was Kris Bryant and Co. dishing out the blasts in the game.

Bryant hit two homers — the ninth multi-homer game of his career — and reached base five times as the Cubs' restructured lineup looked refreshed and invigorated, scoring in seven of eight offensive innings.

Bryant also made Cubs history:

Ben Zobrist — appointed as the new leadoff hitter — crushed a homer into the right field bleachers to open the bottom half of the first inning and sent two others to the warning track. Kyle Schwarber — bumped down to second — reached twice via a walk and RBI single.

Willson Contreras added two hits, two runs and a pair of RBI as the Cubs rapped out 10 extra-base hits and tallied 22 baserunners.

The Cubs are off to a hot start on the long homestand, going 4-1 in the first five games.

But Maddon is still waiting for the Cubs (22-20) to put together their complete game. 

"We're still not playing our best baseball," Maddon said. "That was a nice 13-run game, whatever. My perfectionism comes in the fundamentals of the game.

"...Hits, whatever. You're gonna hit, you're not gonna hit. But to play the game properly — I thought we ran the bases well, that was good to see. But more than anything, I just want to see us play that championship-caliber defense.

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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