Cubs

Madison Bumgarner shuts down Cubs in what could be an October preview

Madison Bumgarner shuts down Cubs in what could be an October preview

SAN FRANCISCO – The Cubs couldn’t solve Madison Bumgarner and the even-year equation that won World Series titles for the San Francisco Giants in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

Another sellout crowd at AT&T Park and a national TV audience saw the blueprint for October on Sunday night, Bumgarner walking off the mound to a standing ovation with two outs in the eighth inning of a 1-0 victory over a Cubs team that so far has only won the offseason.    

The first-place Giants (27-19) won this three-game series with lights-out pitching, strong defense all over the field and enough big hits – and without starting Johnny Cueto or Jeff Samardzija, the frontline pitchers imported at a cost of $220 million for the next championship window.

“I know they feel they can beat us – and we feel like we can beat them,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “We match up well. We can play against these guys. It’s always going to be a closely contested game. No side has a clear-cut advantage.”

The Cubs believe they are better built to handle power pitching in the playoffs and manufacture offense in October after a boom-or-bust lineup got swept by the New York Mets in last year’s National League Championship Series.          

The Cubs made Bumgarner work, forcing him to throw 28 pitches in the first inning and loading the bases with two outs. But with that deceptive windup, funky angle and left-handed crossfire motion, Bumgarner won an eight-pitch at-bat against Addison Russell, striking him out looking at a 92-mph knee-high fastball.

“Throughout the season, you’re going to see (adversity),” said Russell, who went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. “Whenever you’re riding high, just ride that wave out. This is something that we’re going to be faced with the whole season.

“The best thing we can do is just keep our confidence high and go get them next time.” 

Bumgarner (6-2, 2.17 ERA) allowed only three singles across 7.2 innings, finishing with six strikeouts, two walks and an RBI double off Kyle Hendricks (2-4, 3.30 ERA) in the fifth, which means the Cubs have now lost three of their last four series.

At 29-13, is this the best team in baseball?

“If you went based off record right now, everybody would say that, I understand that,” Maddon said. “We have to be able to sustain that over the course. This is a snapshot. This is May 20-whatever. I want to be the best team in baseball after the last game’s been played.

“So for right now, mission accomplished getting off to a good start. (But) it doesn’t really matter if you are right now or not. It’s what you are at the end of the year that matters the most.”

The Giants are an edgy, experienced, confident team that won’t concede anything. The Cubs couldn’t generate any power against Bumgarner, with Dexter Fowler driving a ball that came back down to earth at the left-field warning track in the fifth inning.

Javier Baez tried to get creative leading off the eighth inning, bunting a ball toward first and getting called out for running outside the base path. Maddon erupted, going nose-to-nose with first-base umpire Dana DeMuth, but it didn’t change the call.

And when Ben Zobrist blasted a ball to deep center field off Giants closer Santiago Casilla to begin the ninth inning, Denard Span made a falling-backwards catch in front of the wall.

But the Cubs aren’t going to hit the panic button with a sub-.700 winning percentage (.690), passing the season’s quarter pole in San Francisco and heading into Busch Stadium on Monday night with a six-game lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates and a seven-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the division.  

“Now it’s up to us to sustain it,” Maddon said. “Nobody’s in there taking anything for granted. We come to play every night.”

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.

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

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USA TODAY

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.