Max Scherzer gets payback in type of game Cubs will have to win in October

Max Scherzer gets payback in type of game Cubs will have to win in October

WASHINGTON – This might be a worst nightmare for the Cubs in October, a $210 million ace at the absolute top of his game, using all his weapons and making this lineup look helpless. The Washington Nationals seem unbeatable when Max Scherzer pitches like this.

Scherzer took a perfect game into the sixth inning on Monday night at Nationals Park, giving the Cubs flashbacks to the New York Mets and the power pitching that swept them out of the National League Championship Series.

“That’s what we ran into last year,” manager Joe Maddon said after a 4-1 loss. “We ran into the Mets and we didn’t put the ball in play enough, and that’s what we got to really strive to do – at least move the ball and give ourselves a chance.”

The Cubs (43-19) upgraded their lineup by committing $240 million to Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, allowing for second-year improvements from Kris Bryant and Addison Russell and re-signing leadoff guy Dexter Fowler in spring training.

But Scherzer struck out nine of the first 10 hitters he faced, and by the time the Nationals (40-24) pulled him for a pinch-hitter with a three-run lead and the Cubs loading the bases with an intentional walk in the seventh inning, Maddon admitted: “You could have brought Sandy Koufax in, it might have looked a little bit better at that point.”

The last time the Cubs beat Scherzer, he responded with a 20-strikeout performance against the Detroit Tigers in his next start, matching a big-league record shared by Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood and Randy Johnson.

The Cubs had blasted four home runs off Scherzer on May 6 at Wrigley Field, part of a four-game sweep that had the Nationals on edge heading into this measuring-stick showdown.

“No, I don’t look at it like that,” said Nationals manager Dusty Baker, who guided the Cubs to within five outs of the 2003 World Series before an epic collapse. “Why do I have to measure against them? They’re the best right now in our league, but I don’t believe in that. I believe in measuring against yourself – how can we get there?

“I approach the series with positive attitude and think about winning and no negatives, because everything that (could have gone) wrong in Chicago for us (did) go wrong. And everything that went right in Chicago went right for them. But you can’t bring it back, so there’s nothing you can do about that. All we can do is go forward.

“You can give them the pennant right now if you want to. It’s up to you. But we still got to play.”

The Cubs know what this feels like on certain nights Jake Arrieta pitches, that air of invincibility warming up and game-over vibe after scoring the first run. Scherzer – who won a Cy Young Award with the Tigers in 2013 and threw two no-hitters for the Nationals last season – didn’t mess around this time.

“He made a pretty good adjustment,” said Miguel Montero, who caught Scherzer with the Arizona Diamondbacks. “At Wrigley, he gave up a lot of hard hits on 0-0 counts trying to get ahead with the fastball, and the guys kind of ambushed him a little bit.

“He pitched a little bit backwards today, and he was able to throw the breaking ball for a strike. When you slow it down – and then you throw the fastball to speed it up – it’s hard to catch up.

“He wanted payback.”

Russell, the No. 8 hitter, ended the perfect game with one out in the sixth inning, driving a Scherzer cutter into the left-field seats at the end of a nine-pitch at-bat for a game-tying homer. But the Cubs really didn’t play their A-game behind Kyle Hendricks (4-6, 3.05 ERA), making two errors and watching Heyward just miss making a spectacular catch at the right-field fence.

The ball bounced out of Heyward’s glove as he threw his body across the Delta advertisement, landing in Washington’s bullpen for a go-ahead Wilson Ramos home run in the sixth inning. Heyward – a three-time Gold Glove winner who expects to make those highlight-reel plays – threw his glove to the ground.

The Cubs struck out 11 times against Scherzer and didn’t draw a walk all night. Anthony Rizzo delivered the only other hit off Scherzer – a double to left-center field with two outs in the seventh inning.

“I’m not even one bit concerned about strikeouts,” Heyward said. “A guy like that makes his pitches, he’s going to be able to rack up some strikeouts. But we did have some decent (at-bats) against him. We made some good swings, and we got to him late.

“I kind of wished he would have stayed in a little longer, (so) we had another chance at him.”

Scherzer is exactly the kind of pitcher the Cubs will face in October, someone who can throw close to 100 mph or kill you softly. It’s up and down, in and out, pinpointing sliders and dropping curveballs, all with a purpose. 

“In order to win in the playoffs, you got to beat good pitching,” Montero said. “It’s fine. We beat him one time, he beat us this time. In the playoffs, you see good pitching. That’s why they get to the playoffs, because they got good pitching. The bottom line is you just got to compete.”

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

The Cubs didn't wait long to make Joe Maddon's words come true.

Roughly 5 hours after Maddon said the Cubs are definitely in the market for more pitching, the front office went out and acquired Jesse Chavez, a journeyman jack-of-all-trades type.

It's a minor move, not in the realm of Zach Britton or any of the other top relievers on the market.

But the Cubs only had to part with pitcher Class-A pitcher Tyler Thomas, their 7th-round draft pick from last summer who was pitching out of the South Bend rotation as a 22-year-old.

Chavez — who turns 35 in a month — brings over a vast array of big-league experience, with 799 innings under his belt. He's made 70 starts, 313 appearances as a reliever and even has 3 saves, including one this season for the Texas Rangers.

Chavez is currently 3-1 with a 3.51 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 56.1 innings. He has a career 4.61 ERA and 1.38 WHIP while pitching for the Pirates, Braves, Royals, Blue Jays, A's, Dodgers, Angels and Rangers before coming to Chicago.

Of his 30 appearances this season, Chavez has worked multiple innings 18 times and can serve as a perfect right-handed swingman in the Cubs bullpen, filling the role previously occupied by Luke Farrell and Eddie Butler earlier in the season.

Chavez had a pretty solid run as a swingman in Oakland from 2013-15, making 47 starts and 50 appearances as a reliever, pitching to a 3.85 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 8.2 K/9 across 360.1 innings.

"Good arm, versatile, could start and relieve," Joe Maddon said Thursday after the trade. "I've watched him. I know he had some great runs with different teams. 

"The word that comes to mind is verstaility. You could either start him or put him in the bullpen and he's very good in both arenas."

It's not a flasy move, but a valuable piece to give the Cubs depth down the stretch.

There's no way the Cubs are done after this one trade with nearly two weeks left until the deadline. There are more moves coming from this front office, right?

"Oh yeah," Maddon said. "I don't think that's gonna be the end of it. They enjoy it too much."

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Expecting Jason Heyward to carry a team offensively would be thought as foolish just a few short months ago. But here in the middle of July, Heyward has turned into the offensive firestarter the Cubs have been seemingly missing since Dexter Fowler left. 

Heyward walked away from Thursday night's 9-6 win over the Cardinals tallying three hits, two RBI, two runs scored and his first stolen base of the year, as the 28-year-old outfielder continued to poke holes in the Cardinals defense. 

Twice Heyward was able to slip a ball between the 1st and 2nd basemen that off the bat looked like neither had a chance to make it through the right field side. Later, Heyward would battle through a lengthy at-bat, finally being rewarded with an opposite-field hit that drove in the game-tying run. 

"It just happened," Heyward explained. " [Carlos Martinez] is not going to give you a whole lot to do damage on throughout the game. I was able to get one pitch there and get a guy home." 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon mentioned Heyward and his ability to move the ball around the field and how it's helped him become an effective piece to this Cubs offense. So effective Heyward's batting average crept up to .290 after today's three-hit performance. 

Heyward credits his quick hands as the major tool he's utilized to create so many successful at-bats lately, which has allowed him to take advantage of certain pitches and punch them through for hits.

He's certainly not driving the ball for consistent power, but the approach has put Heyward on pace to match the 160 hit total he amassed with the Cardinals in 2015. 

"I feel like Joe's mindset on moving the ball is putting the ball in play when you got guys on base," said Heyward. "It keeps the line moving, regardless of the result." 

It might be crazy to think that Heyward's incredible turnaround this season might simply be attributed to putting the ball in play. But even just taking a look at Heyward's contact rates shows he's increased his contact on pitches outside the zone by roughly three percent.

Not a massive difference, but if Heyward's hands are truly giving him an edge at the plate, making contact with pitches that may not be a strike but are hittable pitches could explain the increased offense we are seeing now. 

"That's kinda the biggest thing," said Heyward. "The more good swings you take, the more hits you have a chance to get." 

Shooters shoot, and Heyward continues to shoot his shot and keep the Cubs offense chugging along.