Cubs

What Cubs need to see during finals week before playoff test

What Cubs need to see during finals week before playoff test

PITTSBURGH – Winning or losing the final seven games of the regular season won’t change the perception of the Cubs as the on-paper favorites heading into the playoffs. It all goes back to the question president of baseball operations Theo Epstein got during his Opening Day media session: Will this year be a failure if the Cubs don’t win the World Series? 

The final judgments will come in October, but for now the Cubs will be running through postseason scenarios, adhering to Joe Maddon’s keep-everyone-fresh philosophy and trying to avoid any catastrophic injuries during this road trip through Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Before Monday’s 12-2 win over the Pirates, Maddon confirmed the Cubs are leaning toward carrying 11 pitchers and 14 position players for their first-round playoff series, with a 12-man staff being a possibility that hasn’t been ruled out yet. The manager had already written out the lineups for these four nights at PNC Park, beginning with Chris Coghlan as a leadoff guy, Willson Contreras as the cleanup hitter and Albert Almora Jr. starting in center field.   

“That fine balance between being rested and being sharp – we’re trying to thread that needle,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “There’s no guidebook for it.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

With the National League’s No. 1 seed, the best record in baseball and 100 wins already secured, the Cubs can focus on:

• Hoping to copy part of the World Series blueprint the Kansas City Royals used last year. The Cubs have built a dominant bullpen that can shorten games and might roll through October. But that depends on Pedro Strop (knee) and Hector Rondon (triceps) coming back from injuries and performing at full strength.   

After Strop pitched a scoreless seventh inning against the Pirates on Monday night, Rondon gave up back-to-back homers to Matt Joyce and David Freese leading off the eighth, which might be written off as lack of adrenaline coming into a 12-run game. Following the playoff script, superstar closer Aroldis Chapman worked the ninth inning with a 10-run lead.

• Maddon dropped into a hitters’ meeting last week at Wrigley Field to send a post-clinch message, stressing the idea of using this time wisely and focusing on the fundamentals the Cubs preached in spring training. That’s grinding out at-bats, understanding a two-strike approach and full-count situations and not relying so much on the home run. 

“That’s the key moving forward for us offensively,” Maddon said. “That’s the little nuance of the game as you get to this part (of the year) that really helps you separate.”

• Keeping a third catcher or not sounded more like talk-show filler than an actual debate around the Cubs. David Ross is locked in as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, but at the age of 39 “Grandpa” plays best in a backup role. Contreras offers the most offensive upside and a rocket arm behind the plate, but the rookie would have to make up for his inexperience with energy and enthusiasm. 

Miguel Montero has caught more than 8,400 innings in The Show and finally seems to have found his left-handed swing – hitting .333 with two homers, three doubles and 10 RBI in his last 18 games – near the end of a disappointing offensive season.

“It’s really tough to find guys like Miggy,” said Kyle Hendricks, a Cy Young Award candidate and projected Game 2 starter on Oct. 8 at Wrigley Field. “There aren’t many catchers that can control the tempo of a game. He keeps me in sync. He keeps me on time. He knows when to take a break and give me a breather. He just has a really good feel.

“We go (in) with a good game plan, but I think his in-game adjustments are probably where he really picks it up the most. He’s been around. He’s seen all these hitters. He can feel when guys are trying to do certain things to you.”   

Getting Jake Arrieta back in the zone that made him the hottest pitcher on the planet last year might require Montero’s presence as a game-caller, pitch-framer and ace whisperer.

• Will wild-card chaos reign? The New York Mets (83-74) and San Francisco Giants (82-74) woke up on Monday clinging to wild-card positions, with the St. Louis Cardinals (81-74) only a half-game behind. The playoff probabilities on FanGraphs project the Mets as a virtual lock (88 percent), making it a coin flip between the Cardinals (57.6 percent) and Giants (54.3 percent).

What do the Cubs have to play for now?

“There’s a lot of self-motivators out there, a lot of accountable people,” Maddon said. “On top of that, we know that Kyle is still in the Cy Young race. We know that Arrieta and Lester are still vying for those individual awards on top of everything else. ‘KB’ (Kris Bryant) wanted that 100th RBI – we got that. We got guys that are in the MVP race. There’s a lot of stuff going on right now. Beyond the team goals, we all would like to see our guys win some personal awards, also.

“We’re rotating the stock. Guys are coming in and out of the lineup. Guys are fresh. And the guys that don’t get a chance to play that often – they want to play and they want to show you what they got. Right now, players want to be on the playoff roster, (and) that’s motivation, too.

“At the end of the day, it’s just about being professional. You want to win.”

• If the wild-card winner gets hot and shocks the best team in baseball in a best-of-five series, the autopsy of this season will inevitably involve second-guessing how the Cubs handled success and if clinching by mid-September dulled their edge.

But in trying to stack the odds in your favor, would you rather be scrambling after the injuries (Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler) that have decimated New York’s power pitching? Or worrying about the flammable bullpen (major-league-leading 30 blown saves) that might torch San Francisco’s even-year hopes? And if the Cardinals haven’t put it all together by now, what makes you think the flip will be switched in October?

“As a whole, this gives us a chance to get everybody healthy and on the same page,” Ross said. “Throughout the year, we’ve done a good job of focusing on the day and what’s to come. As long as we focus on being the best team that we can be, I don’t think we’ll have a problem.

“If you want to put a negative spin to clinching early, you can, but I’m pretty excited about it. I think the guys in here are very excited about it. I think there are a lot of other teams that would love to be in our position right now.”

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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