Schwarber finds his groove again as Cubs pull out much-needed win


Schwarber finds his groove again as Cubs pull out much-needed win

Forget pitching. The Cubs offense can take it from here (for one game, at least).

The Cubs (75-56) climbed back from deficit after deficit Tuesday, finally breaking through for a 5-4 win over the Reds (54-77) in front of 33,756 fans at Wrigley Field.

Kyle Schwarber delivered the big blow - a two-out, go-ahead homer into the left-center field bleachers in the bottom of the seventh.

Schwarber had been mired in a 1-for-14 slump before Tuesday and carried just a .122 average and .493 OPS over his last 11 games.

But it looks like he may have found his rhythm again as he singled, walked and scored three runs on top of his 13th big-league homer.

"He provided a spark for us," Kris Bryant said before acknowledging that nobody really needed to talk Schwarber through his slump. "He's got a good head on his shoulders. He trusts in his ability."

Joe Maddon actually had been predicting Schwarber's struggles for a while - "It's just hard to maintain that level of play or excellence at the plate, especially for a first-year guy for that long" - and the Cubs manager also believed Schwarber showed signs of coming out of his funk when he drew a fourth-inning walk.

In the next two at-bats, Schwarber ripped a single up the middle (clocked at 109 mph exit velocity) and then the two-run homer.

"I was putting a little pressure on myself," Schwarber said. "I just need to stick to the basics and stick to my approach and be more patient."

After allowing 13 runs (six unearned) Monday night, Cubs pitchers again struggled to keep Reds hitters off balance, allowing solo runs in the first, fifth, sixth and seventh innings.

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Maddon spoke pregame about how he wants to see starting pitchers go deeper in games, but Dan Haren only managed to make it through five innings before giving way to the bullpen.

Haren called it a "step forward," but also wished he could have thrown more than 73 pitches.

"Obviously in the situation I'm in, my leash is a little bit shorter," Haren said. "I understand what Joe's doing. Of course, I'd like to be out there for six, seven, eight innings and stuff, but definitely not going to complain about it.

"We've got a great bullpen, so we're gonna use it. We've got 30 or so games left. Every game, we're treating it like a playoff game. What I'm trying to do is just accept that and make the most with the amount of pitches or innings that I get."

Lefty Clayton Richard came in for the sixth and faced only two left-handed batters, allowing doubles to both before Justin Grimm pitched out of a jam.

Then Fernando Rodney served up a leadoff homer in top of the seventh, an emotional letdown after the Cubs had just rallied to tie the game the inning before.

But none of it mattered as the Cubs' slumping offense came through to pick up the pitching staff. All five of the runs came with two outs.

Bryant was 3-for-4, driving in the Cubs' first two runs of the game. Miguel Montero singled home another in the sixth inning and then Schwarber's blast put the Cubs ahead for good.

"It feels like the playoffs every night," Schwarber said.

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?


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.