Pirates' plan for Cubs' ace Jake Arrieta coming into focus


Pirates' plan for Cubs' ace Jake Arrieta coming into focus

Eight years ago, Clint Hurdle managed the Colorado Rockies into a one-game playoff with the San Diego Padres. On the mound for the visitors at Coors Field: Right-hander Jake Peavy, who went on to win the National League Cy Young for the 2007 season.

The Rockies tagged Peavy, who entered the game with a 2.36 ERA, for six runs in 6 1/3 innings. Some of the success came from star power — Todd Helton homered, while Matt Holliday delivered an RBI single. But catcher Yorvit Torrealba homered, and Seth Smith’s triple followed by Kaz Matsui's sacrifice fly plated Colorado's sixth run off Peavy before the seventh inning stretch.

The takeaway for Hurdle, who enters Wednesday’s wild card game against Cubs ace Jake Arrieta in his fifth year managing the Pittsburgh Pirates, is that anyone is beatable in one game, no matter how favorable/unfavorable the matchup looks.

“These games, we always talk about, to beat No. 1s, you gotta move runners from second with no outs, you gotta try to score from third with less than two outs,” Hurdle said from the cramped manager’s office at Wrigley Field last week. “And every once in a while, you get a couple guys on, a guy could boot a ball, you get a walk, a guy hits a three-run homer that changes the whole complexion of the game. One missed location by an elite pitcher and one guy putting a big swing on it, it might not even be the guy you had walking in the door thinking it was going to happen that way.

“It happened that way in Colorado. That night we got some things done from some people that probably going into the game you weren’t looking to. … It’s why you (the media) write the stories after the games. More often than not, things happen that you might not have been able to come up with.”

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Of course, it works both ways. Last year, San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner rolled into PNC Park and fired a four-hit shutout to kick-start one of the most impressive postseason performances in baseball history. And the year before, then-Cincinnati Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto lasted 3 1/3 ineffective innings as the Pirates rolled to win their first playoff game since Barry Bonds left town in 1992.

The Cubs altered their rotation in September to line Arrieta up to pitch in Wednesday’s winner-take-all wild card game at PNC Park. It’ll be Arrieta’s sixth start against the Pirates, and in his previous five he’s limited a team with 98 wins to a .151 batting average and .368 OPS without giving up a home run. Essentially, Arrieta’s turned the Pirates into a worse version of himself at the plate — the Cubs ace hit .152 with a .428 OPS and two home runs this year.

“He’s the whole package,” Pirates third baseman Aramis Ramirez said. “He’s got good stuff, good cutter, good curve, plus fastball, 95, 96 (mph) and he commands it. That’s the key. He doesn’t throw the ball over the middle. He’s in and out, he hits the corners and that’s why he is where he is right now.”

All-Star Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen compared the 29-year-old Arrieta’s ability to locate his powerful arsenal to that of Dodgers pitchers Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, who form two-thirds of the NL Cy Young race with Arrieta. Second baseman Neil Walker pointed to Arrieta's improved cutter/slider combo pitch as a reason for his dominant success.

“We’ve seen him several times this year and last year and with any really good pitcher, that’s the key is if he’s making mistakes that day, you gotta take advantage of it,” Walker said. “He’s no different than any other ace pitcher.”

If Pittsburgh has something working in its favor, it’s that nothing Arrieta does Wednesday night will be a surprise. In hitting against him over five games, they’ve seen his arm angle and release point, and know the action on his pitches well.

“We’ve faced him more than once, so regardless of tonight, it’s an advantage because we’ve faced him so much,” McCutchen said a few hours before Arrieta tossed seven innings of one-hit shutout ball against the Pirates Sept. 27. “It can be more of an advantage as opposed to a team outside our division so, yeah, that helps.”

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Arrieta allowed four earned runs in his final 12 starts of the season, good for a 0.41 ERA over 88 1/3 innings. His record improved from 11-6 to 22-6.

Three of those starts came against the Pirates (22 IP, 2 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 19 K), so seeing him a few times in two months didn’t exactly help in terms of results. But Pittsburgh knows what it has to do to beat Arrieta -- jump on mistakes, move runners over and strike when given an opportunity. The challenge is executing that plan.

“If he spots, dots up, throws that cutter-fastball and all that other stuff that he’s been doing for months of the season, it’s a hard night," Hurdle said. "It’s a hard night at the office.

“There’s also some losses tied to his record, though,” Hurdle added with a grin. “There’s going to be an opportunity.”

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. might be in the middle of a breakout season. The 24-year-old outfielder continues to show his impressive range in center field and is having his best year at the plate.

In Sunday's 8-3 win against the Giants, Almora had three hits and showed off his wheels in center to rob Evan Longoria of extra bases. The catch is visible in the video above.

"Defensively, right now he's playing as well as he possibly can," Maddon said.

On top of the defense he has become known for, he is hitting .326. That's good for fifth in the National League in batting.

"He's playing absolutely great," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He's working good at-bats. His at-bats have gotten better vs. righties.

"The thing about it, is there's power there. The home runs are gonna start showing up, too."

There's also this stat, which implies Almora is having a growing significance on the Cubs as a whole:

There may be some correlation, but not causality in that. However, with Almora's center field play and growing accolades at the plate, the argument is becoming easier and easier that he is one of the most important players on the Cubs. That also goes for Almora's regular spot in the lineup, which has been up in the air with Maddon continuing to juggle the lineup.

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Why can't a trade be looked at as a win-win? 

There doesn't always have to be a clear winner and loser.

Prior to Jose Quintana taking the ball for Saturday's game against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field, Joe Maddon was asked about the players (Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease) the Cubs gave up to acquire Quintana as well as the deal with the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman in July 2016.

Gleyber Torres is absolutely killing it in New York, hitting .323 with a 1.014 OPS, 9 homers and 24 RBI in only 29 games. Six of those homers have come in the last week alone. 

With the White Sox, both Jimenez and Cease have found success in Double-A and Advanced Class-A, respectively.

Jimenez is hitting .331 with a .992 OPS, 9 homers and 35 RBI in 35 games. Cease is 6-2 with a 2.83 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 57 strikeouts in 47.2 innings.

As the Cubs work to get their offense settled into a consistent groove, some Cubs fans have been looking at what might've been with guys like Torres and Jimenez.

"You can't have it both ways, man," Maddon said. "I'm happy for Gleyber. When he left, we talked about it. And we talked about the kids that went to the White Sox. It's good stuff. 

"I'm really disappointed if anybody's disappointed in the fact we won the World Series in 2016 and the fact that the guy we're talking about that we had to give up Gleyber for was so instrumental in that happening. That's bad process if you're gonna get stuck on something like that. Be happy for Gleyber. Be happy for him."

Maddon has been a fan of Torres' since he saw him in spring training in 2015, Maddon's first year in the Cubs organization.

"This kid's 21, with high, high baseball intellect," Maddon said. "He's very similar to Javy on the field. I've had some great conversations with him in the past. 

"The first time I saw him in spring training, I thought this guy's for real. It was like one at-bat, line drive to RF, I said who is this guy? And then you have a conversation with him. He's solid."

Maddon's point is a great one — would Cubs fans prefer to still have Torres and NOT have the 2016 World Series championship? Because that title doesn't happen without Chapman, regardless of how you feel about him as a person or what the Cubs had to give up to acquire him.

"Don't play that game," Maddon said. "Be happy for [Torres]. I'm gonna be happy when Eloy and Dylan make it up here. All these dudes, I want them to get here and be really good. And the guys that we get, I want them to be really good. 

"I don't understand why somebody's gotta lose all the time. This is an absolute classic example of what was good for both teams."