Cubs

Jake Arrieta is a wild card in budding Cubs-Pirates rivalry

Jake Arrieta is a wild card in budding Cubs-Pirates rivalry

PITTSBURGH — Jake Arrieta felt so locked in, so prepared for the biggest start of his life that he trolled the Pittsburgh Pirates on Twitter, telling their fans that the blackout atmosphere at PNC Park wouldn’t matter.

The Cubs will never forget that epic performance during last year’s National League wild-card game, how Arrieta walked the walk in a complete-game shutout. His young son, Cooper, even helped pour champagne into his mouth during that wild postgame celebration, creating another memorable snapshot for a team with attitude.

Judging by the F-bombs dropped during Monday’s 7-2 win over the Pirates, the Cubs could be in for more fireworks. Even during the first week of May while the Penguins are still alive in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Arrieta’s starts have already become must-see TV, and the Pirates will get another up-close look on Tuesday night at this beautiful waterfront ballpark.

“Their fans are good,” Arrieta said. “They’re passionate about their team and their guys, so it’s something that I enjoy. I don’t expect them to be my biggest fan — or a fan of me at all — but that’s the nature of fans and the fans that really support their team.

“That’s the whole point of social media — to interact. Sometimes it’s well received. Sometimes it’s not. But that was the intention there — to fire people up — and I think that’s exactly what I did.”

Within the pandemonium of that wild-card game, the Cubs and Pirates cleared their benches after reliever Tony Watson’s first pitch to Arrieta drilled him with two outs in the seventh inning. Pittsburgh’s Sean Rodriguez got ejected, flipped out and started boxing with a Gatorade cooler in the dugout. Arrieta responded coolly by stealing second base.

Arrieta looked a little drained during the next two rounds of the playoffs, beating the St. Louis Cardinals (while seeming to lose some of his air of invincibility) before the New York Mets swept the Cubs out of the NLCS.

There hasn’t been any sort of hangover for Arrieta, the first NL Pitcher of the Month for three consecutive months after a dominant April that saw him go 5-0 with a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds and only two runs allowed across 36 innings. As manager Joe Maddon likes to say, the reigning Cy Young Award winner is embracing the target.

“When you’re at the top of your game, when you’re one of the teams to beat, it’s just something that comes with the territory,” Arrieta said.

Arrieta’s meticulous routine and laser focus mean he doesn’t experience a flood of special memories as soon as he sees the bridges, the black and gold and the Pittsburgh skyline. Or at least he won’t admit that now.

“Well, when you bring it up, yeah,” Arrieta said. “That was a neat experience, something that was huge for us as a team and for the organization. But it was short-lived.

“We moved on and had to play the Cardinals and the Mets, and our season was cut a little bit short. But we’re in a better spot now this early in the season. We like where we are.”

That would be in first place in the Central, with a four-game lead over the Pirates and the best record in baseball (18-6) and no interest in dealing with the wild card’s short fuse.

“When you play 162, and then you have to fight it out in one game to move on or go home, it’s a situation that nobody really wants to be in,” Arrieta said. “The goal is obviously to win the division. And getting off to a hot start is the way you go about doing that. We’re where we intended to be at this point in the season.”

A Hobbled Hero: Baez, Cubs keep finding wild ways to win

A Hobbled Hero: Baez, Cubs keep finding wild ways to win

Javy Baez has only seen one pitch in the Cubs-Phillies series, but that's all he needs to make a major impact.

"El Mago" notched his first walk-off RBI since May 8, 2016 in the bottom of the ninth inning Tuesday night, lacing the only pitch he saw from Juan Nicasio down the right-field line. Baez had missed the entire series to that point due to a heel injury he suffered Sunday in Washington D.C. and actually underwent an MRI before Tuesday's game to make sure there was no other damage.

Baez's single put the finishing touches on the Cubs' first win this season when trailing after eight innings. They now lead the majors with five walk-off victories.

After another blown lead by the bullpen (the third in the last week), the Cubs entered the bottom of the ninth down 2-1, but Kris Bryant led off with a walk and then Anthony Rizzo doubled. After a Willson Contreras flyout, Jason Heyward was intentionally walked and then Albert Almora Jr. hit a tapper in front of home plate that Bryant just barely beat out at home to tie the game.

Then came Baez, as Joe Maddon opted to go to the hobbled star in place of Daniel Descalso, who was 0-for-4 on the evening to that point.

Prior to the ninth inning, Maddon wasn't sure if Baez would even be available to pinch hit in the game, but trainer P.J. Mainville taped up Javy's foot/ankle at the start of the inning and gave the Cubs skipper the all-clear.

"Just give PJ some credit on the tape job," Maddon joked. "This is right out of the Lombardi era kind of stuff. Tape and aspirin — go ahead and play. That's what everybody's football coach said."

If Baez hadn't delivered the walk-off hit and the Cubs wound up in extra innings, Maddon said he didn't know if Baez would be able to even play the field on his injured heel and the only player left on the bench was backup catcher Victor Caratini.

"In moments like that, you can only think it so far," Maddon said. "And then at some point, you gotta throw it at the wall and see what happens."

Maddon doesn't know if Baez will be able to play Wednesday night, but plans to make two lineups and then check with the shortstop to see about his status when he arrives at the field.

Baez's Cubs teammates are no longer surprised at the ridiculous things he does or how easy he makes some very difficult tasks look. Bryant joked he was actually upset Baez didn't hit it over the fence for a walk-off grand slam.

"I don't even know what's going on with him half the time anyway," Bryant said. "It's like, 'oh, Javy's pinch-hitting. And then I was debating like, 'don't swing at the first pitch," but I was like, 'no, it's Javy.' 

"It was awesome. He just like goes up there and swings the bat. If he didn't have to run to first base, he wouldn't. It's just like, 'I'm so good, I'm just gonna get this hit and then we're gonna go home.'"

However awe-inspiring Baez's Kirk Gibson impression was, the only reason the Cubs were even in the spot to win the game at that moment was because of the hustle and aggressive baserunning from Bryant. 

His game-tying run on Almora's tapper in front of the plate was huge, but his first trip around the bases was even more impressive. 

With Bryant on second base and Rizzo on first in the first inning, both runners were off on the full-count pitch to Contreras, who hit a routine grounder to Phillies shortstop Jean Segura. As Segura made the throw to first to retire Contreras, Bryant never hesitated around third base and scored on some heads-up, aggressive baserunning that looked like a page right out of the El Mago Playbook.

Bryant said as he was running, he thought about what it's like to play the left side of the infield on such a routine play and felt like he could catch the Phillies by surprise.

"I saw [third base coach Brian Butterfield] holding me up, too, and I just kept going," Bryant said. "I almost felt like I had eyes in the back of my head. It was kind of like one of those experiences that it's hard to explain, but I just kept going."

That run was all Jose Quintana and the Cubs needed for six innings, until Carl Edwards Jr. came on in relief for the seventh. Edwards allowed a leadoff single and then a double two batters later, giving way to Brandon Kintzler with two outs.

Kintzler gave up a groundball single up the middle to Andrew McCutchen and just like that, the Cubs' thin 1-0 lead had evaporated in the blink of an eye. And with the offensive issues (they were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position before Baez's hit), that looked to be enough to send the Cubs to their second straight defeat in frustrating fashion.

But the magic of El Mago and Bryant allowed the Cubs to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and send fans home happy and with a little more belief that this just might be a special summer on Chicago's North Side.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Jake Arrieta discusses his return & Mark DeRosa talks the leadoff spot

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Jake Arrieta discusses his return & Mark DeRosa talks the leadoff spot

Hear from Jake Arrieta after his first start as a visitor at Wrigley Field, including his thoughts on facing his former teammates and the standing ovation he received during his first at-bat (1:30). Then, Luke Stuckmeyer is joined by MLB Network's Mark DeRosa to discuss the Cubs' leadoff spot, the team outperforming expectations so far, and much more (8:15).

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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