Travis Wood delivers in the clutch as Cubs outlast Brewers in 13 innings

Travis Wood delivers in the clutch as Cubs outlast Brewers in 13 innings

MILWAUKEE – At this time last year, the Cubs bumped Travis Wood out of their rotation, turning a one-time All-Star starter into a lefty reliever and creating what could have been an awkward situation. The Cubs also took away what Wood (nine career homers) probably loved most: Hitting.

But the Cubs became a playoff team last season with across-the-board contributions, racing out to the best start in baseball this year with a similar philosophy and a confidence that borders on arrogance.

The Cubs outlasted the Milwaukee Brewers as Wednesday night turned into Thursday morning at Miller Park, earning a 2-1 win and their 12th come-from-behind victory this year. It only took 13 innings and five hours against a sub-.500 team in what’s supposed to be a great stadium for offense.

But what a finish for Wood, inheriting two runners in the 12th inning and escaping a bases-loaded, no-out jam. Cubs manager Joe Maddon went with a five-infielder alignment as Wood induced a shallow flyball to center fielder Dexter Fowler and a pop-up to shortstop Addison Russell.

“When he came in the game, I said: ‘Understand one thing: If you get out of this, you get an at-bat,’” Maddon said. “That kind of jacked him up a bit. That’s just how he operates, man.”

After retiring Hernan Perez and Aaron Hill, Wood earned his at-bat by forcing another pop-out, this time from pinch-hitter Martin Maldonado. Wood then bailed out the offense again by drawing a five-pitch walk against Carlos Torres – Milwaukee’s sixth pitcher – with two outs and the bases loaded in the 13th inning.

“You’re always on your toes with Joe,” Wood said. “That way you never relax and you’re always in the ballgame.

“Nobody gave up and nobody gave in.”

“If you’re going to play that long, you might as well win,” said Kris Bryant, who used three different gloves while playing left field and covering at first and third base.

“(Wood’s) always said that he wants to hit a walk-off homer. I guess that was kind of close to it, especially to work an at-bat like that after sitting on the bench for that long. And just coming off an inning like that, you can’t say enough about it. He’s a fun one to watch and he’s a big part of the success of our team.”

After a guy named Chase Anderson no-hit the Cubs for seven innings and almost put together a one-hit complete-game shutout on Tuesday, Jimmy Nelson shut down a lineup that leads the National League in runs scored. Overall, the Cubs went 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position, leaving 14 on base and not exactly looking like an American League uber-team.

“Whenever you win a game like that on the road, that really says a lot about your group,” Maddon said. “We hit the ball well all night long. To say you hit the ball well in a 2-1 victory in 13 innings is kind of like ‘I’m an idiot.’ But I’m not.

“We had a hard time dismissing people tonight, but our at-bats were good, the swings are good, I thought everybody looked really good. Give them credit – their pitching and their defense.”

Wood increased the level of difficulty by giving up a leadoff double in the 13th inning, but Neil Ramirez and Clayton Richard (Maddon’s sixth and seventh relievers) combined to get the final two outs. The Cubs will need another strong performance from Jason Hammel (5-0, 1.77 ERA) on Thursday afternoon, to win this series and give the bullpen a break after Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Wood threw 91 pitches combined.

“Victory provides its own energy,” Maddon said. “A win like that jacks up the whole group. I wanted Davey (bench coach Dave Martinez) to walk around (and ask): ‘Who needs tomorrow off?’ Nah, everybody’s good now. There’s so much energy in victory it’s incredible.”

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.