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On to the next one: Schwarber, Cubs dismantle Pirates in wild-card game

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On to the next one: Schwarber, Cubs dismantle Pirates in wild-card game

PITTSBURGH — Kyle Schwarber certainly didn't permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure.

The rookie masher did what he does best, driving in the first three runs as the Cubs dismantled the Pirates, 4-0, in the National League wild-card game in front of 40,889 fans at PNC Park.

Schwarber got the start in Joe Maddon's unconventional lineup, playing right field, a position he's only been at a handful of times in his professional career.

But the move paid off as Schwarber fought off a two-strike pitch from Gerrit Cole to put the Cubs on top, 1-0, in the first inning and then dropped the hammer with a two-run blast that nearly splashed into the Allegheny River beyond right field in the third inning.

"Oh man, that was magestic," Cubs catcher David Ross said. "He hit that ball and I couldn't even celebrate because I wanted to see how far it went. He's a beast."

It was all Jake Arrieta and the Cubs needed as the ace continued his masterful season with a complete game shutout, striking out 11 Pirates hitters and allowing just four singles.

[MORE CUBS: Jake Arrieta keeps on dominating with wild-card shutout of Pirates]

On offense, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo combined to go 0-for-7 with a walk, but the top of the order did all the damage.

Beyond Schwarber, Dexter Fowler became the first Cubs player to hit a homer, steal a base, collect three hits and score three runs in a postseason game.

As Maddon says to Fowler all the time — "you go, we go." The 29-year-old leadoff hitter proved that again Wednesday, leading the game off with a base hit and coming around to score on Schwarber's base hit a few pitches later.

Schwarber had actually been struggling the last month-plus of the season, hitting just .177 with a .655 OPS in 33 games dating back to Aug. 20. That followed his ridiculous start to his big-league career (1.021 OPS through 36 games).

Schwarber actually closed out the regular season without an extra-base hit in his last nine games (26 at-bats).

But that all changed once the postseason rolled in.

"I know the struggles are going to happen," Schwarber said. "It's baseball. It's a crazy game that goes up and down. You've just got to try to find a way to be even keel throughout it all.

"The atmosphere today, it was live. It's a playoff game and you're going to be locked in."

Schwarber might have been even-keeled on the field, but he actually admitted that he was nervous leading up to the game.

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"The nerve really hit (Tuesday) night when I was watching the American League wild-card game because I realized that was going to be us and in less than 24 hours," he said. "Then coming out to the ballpark, there are butterflies and listening to the national anthem and listening to the crowd roar, there is going to be butterflies.

"But once that first pitch happens, it's game time. It's time to go. Everything starts to slow down from then. You feel so sped up when you're spectating and then once you step onto the field, you slow it down."

How, exactly, does one do that?

It's not just one rookie like Schwarber. It's every young player on the Cubs team rising above the moment — Addison Russell shrugging off an error to turn a double play on the next batter; Bryant playing flawless defense at two different positions.

"We have a great group here," Bryant said. "We just have a lot of fun. That's what it's about — have fun, don't let the pressure affect you.

"Joe says it best — never let the pressure exceed the pleasure. I think that's the best saying. That should be the title of our book."

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.