Cubs

With one bunt, Ben Zobrist helps swing NLCS in Cubs' direction

With one bunt, Ben Zobrist helps swing NLCS in Cubs' direction

LOS ANGELES – Forget cleanup hitter. Think of Ben Zobrist as a great point guard, someone who understands how the pieces fit together, sees all the angles, creates for his teammates and remains calm under pressure.

After watching the Los Angeles Dodgers hold the Cubs scoreless for 21 consecutive innings – and take control of this National League Championship Series – Zobrist realized he needed to do something different.

Zobrist had been thinking about this for days, but finally sensed the opportunity on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium. Julio Urias – the 20-year-old lefty who’s evoked comparisons to Fernando Valenzuela – hadn’t allowed a hit through three innings. The Dodgers had focused on throwing first-pitch strikes and attacking Zobrist early with off-speed stuff in the zone.

“You just try to find the right time,” Zobrist said. “I felt like at that point it was definitely necessary to at least try. And if it doesn’t work out – or you foul it off – then next pitch I’m probably swinging.”

Zobrist bunted the Urias curveball he saw coming, placing it perfectly along the third-base line for the leadoff hit that put the Cubs in transition. Javier Baez and Willson Contreras hit back-to-back singles, scoring Zobrist for the first run and forcing one of four errors the Dodgers committed. Jason Heyward hit a ball to the right side of the infield to score Baez. And Addison Russell broke out of his slump by drilling a 94-mph Urias fastball over the right-center field wall for a two-run homer.

Just like that, all the fourth-inning pressure in Game 4 broke the Dodgers as the Cubs stormed back for a 10-2 victory that tied up a best-of-seven series. 

“All the little things,” Zobrist said. “You’re not going to hit a bunch of three-run homers every game. You really have to find a way to play small ball, especially in the postseason when we’re facing good pitching and they’ve been tough on us.

“That just kind of got everything going. Offensively, everybody contributed. It just kind of felt like the floodgates opened.”

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This is what Zobrist did with the Kansas City Royals last season, earning a World Series ring and signing a four-year, $56 million contract to help the Cubs win eight more games than the 2015 team that never led at any point against the New York Mets in the NLCS.

The Cubs wanted a veteran switch-hitter in the middle of their lineup to set an example for their younger players, a winner who would maintain the same pitch-by-pitch focus and daily approach, no matter what else might be going on around this team.    

“That’s kind of what you have to do to stay sane,” Zobrist said. “If you do different things when things are not going well, (then) you’re going to drive yourself crazy in this game.

“We try to keep the routine the same. We try to stay positive with each other and believe that it’s going to happen. We know that our offense is too good to keep down for a long time.

“Hopefully, tonight was a big indication of what is to come the next few games.”

While the best team in baseball during the regular season had to find its identity in October – see that first-round comeback against the San Francisco Giants – Zobrist already had enough self-awareness to know this: “I’ve said this before, I’m not a cleanup hitter. I’m just batting fourth.” 

Jake Arrieta full of appreciation in return to Wrigley mound: ‘I’ll never forget this city’

Jake Arrieta full of appreciation in return to Wrigley mound: ‘I’ll never forget this city’

The last time Jake Arrieta pitched at Wrigley Field, his night ended with Cubs fans giving him a rousing standing ovation. The former Cubs right hander tossed 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball, leading the Cubs to victory in Game 4 of the 2017 NLCS—their only win against the Los Angeles Dodgers that series.

Arrieta returned to Wrigley Field as a visitor on Monday night, making his first start against the Cubs since joining the Philadelphia Phillies last season. Ironically, Arrieta’s counterpart for the night was Yu Darvish, who ultimately replaced Arrieta in the Cubs starting rotation.

Despite now donning Phillies red, Cubs fans once again showed their love for Arrieta, giving him a lengthy standing ovation ahead of his first plate appearance. Darvish even stepped off the mound in respect for the moment.

“I loved it, absolutely loved it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said to reporters postgame. “[I’m] very happy that our fans would acknowledge him like that. Yu stepped away from the mound nicely. Jake deserved it.”

Arrieta tipped his helmet in appreciation for the crowd, taking in the moment for more than 30 seconds before stepping into the batter’s box. After the game, he told reporters that moment brought back memories of his time with the Cubs.

“That was something that really brought back great memories of getting that same sort of ovation pretty much on a nightly basis,” Arrieta said. “[I’m] very appreciative of that. I can’t say thank you enough to the city of Chicago, I really can’t.”

Arrieta took fans back to his Cubs tenure on Monday, throwing six innings of one run ball in the Phillies’ 5-4 10-inning win. Although the 33-year-old didn’t pick up the victory, he matched Darvish—who threw six innings of three-run ball—pitch by-pitch.

Phillies manager Gabe Kapler noted how well Arrieta handled his emotions throughout the night.

“I thought he handled the emotions really well. I thought he was in control of the game even when we were down,” Kapler said to reporters. “He always maintained his poise and he just got stronger as the outing went on and that’s why we were able to have him take down the sixth inning for us.”

It’s well-documented how Arrieta’s career improved for the better after the Cubs acquired him in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles in July 2013. When the Cubs acquired him, Arrieta held a career 5.46 ERA in 69 games (63 starts). He finished his Cubs career with a 2.73 ERA in 128 regular season starts. He also won five postseason games with the Cubs, including Games 2 and 6 of the 2016 World Series.

Despite moving on in free agency, Arrieta spoke highly of his time with the Cubs, their fans and the city of Chicago.

“Cubs fans all across the country, all across the world, they really respect and appreciate what guys are able to do here for them,” he said. “It means a lot, it really does.

"I’ll never forget this city, the fan base, the organization, everything that they did for me. It was 4 1/2 incredible years of my career.”

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Yu Darvish crashed Jake Arrieta's party, but Cubs bullpen falters

Yu Darvish crashed Jake Arrieta's party, but Cubs bullpen falters

Yu Darvish was one pitch away.

Holding onto a 1-0 lead with two outs in the sixth inning, Darvish threw Phillies catcher JT Realmuto a 2-2 cutter. It made sense - Darvish had been spotting that pitch well all night, and the Phillies were averaging a paltry 79.8 mph exit velocity against it.

With one strike standing between Darvish and a 6-inning shutout, Realmuto took Darvish’s cutter and sent it back up the middle for a game-tying RBI single. A 2-RBI triple from César Hernández followed. In the blink of an eye, what was shaping up to be one of Darvish’s finest moments in Chicago was instead reduced to yet another start spent searching for silver linings.

“Really good. He was outstanding tonight,” Joe Maddon said. “He pitched really well.

“He had really good stuff. He had command of his stuff, he had command of himself. I thought he was outstanding - even better than what he looked like in Cincinnati. I thought that was probably his best game for us to date.”

Darvish has continued to lean heavily on his cutter this season, more so than any year prior. After throwing it 13 percent of the time last season, he’s going to that pitch almost 25 percent of the time now. If that holds, it’d beat his previous career-high, set in 2013, by six percentage points.

All things considered, that pitch has actually been good for him this season. It’s his go-to offering when he needs to induce weak contact, and batters are hitting .125 against it so far. He gets batters to chase cutters 29.5 percent of the time, the most of any pitch he throws. While he has admitted in games past that he relies too heavily on his fastball, Maddon sees no issues with the new trend.

“I have no concerns with that whatsoever,” he said. “There’s different ways for pitchers to attack hitters, and if it's successful, I really would not change a whole lot.”

Though the night was dedicated to celebrating one of the franchises most beloved pitchers, it was one of their most maligned that continued to show signs of figuring it out. He’s put together back-to-back starts with three or less walks for the first time this season, and has allowed two or less runs in three of the last five.

The pitcher even stepped off the mound during Arrieta’s first at-bat, in order to let the standing ovation continue on.

“He’s is a legend in Chicago,” Darvish said after the game. “And I pitched against him and pitched pretty good, so it makes me confident.”

The bullpen again struggled on Monday night, as the trio of Mike Montgomery, Brad Brach, and Kyle Ryan allowed two runs on five hits, including the game-winning solo home run from Realmuto in the 10th. For a moment it looked like the Cubs had a win wrapped up when Brach got outfielder Andrew McCutchen to bite on a two-strike slider, but was (probably incorrectly) called a checked swing.  He would eventually draw a walk, leading to Jean Segura’s game-tying single.

“On the field, I thought for sure [that McCutchen swung],” Brach said. “Looking at the first base umpire, I was a little taken aback. That’s why I went off the mound - just to regather myself, because I didn’t want to let the emotion get to me there.

“It’s a 50-50 call, and unfortunately it didn’t go my way.”

 

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