Cubs

Why Giants pose bigger wild-card threat for Cubs

Why Giants pose bigger wild-card threat for Cubs

Jake Arrieta’s reflexive answer to the wild-card question – ‘Who gives a s---?’ – will either be remembered as the symbolic moment where a Cy Young Award winner got locked back into the zone. Or those four words will go on the headstone of the 2016 Cubs if they don’t win the World Series.

Because if Madison Bumgarner puts the San Francisco Giants on his shoulders and beats New York Mets ace Noah Syndergaard on Wednesday night at Citi Field, then remember how Cubs manager Joe Maddon framed any National League first-round opponent: “Be careful what you wish for.”          

Especially in a best-of-five series where the Giants can line up Johnny Cueto to start Games 1 and 5 at Wrigley Field, with one-time All-Star lefty Matt Moore, World Series MVP Bumgarner and motivated ex-Cub Jeff Samardzija in between, making this a simple question: Which team is more dangerous? 

“It’s the Giants,” an NL Central scout said, “because if their starting pitching gets hot, then they can do some damage. But the only problem is, they need their bullpen to shore things up a little better at the end of the game.

“They have pedigree. They have experience. They have starting pitching. It’s just a matter of the back end (of the bullpen) when they’re winning: Can they hold it together?”   

The Giants certainly have their flaws, leading the majors with 30 blown saves, sinking to 30-42 in the second half after having the best record in the game at the All-Star break (57-33). But San Francisco could once again be clicking at the right time, sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers over the weekend at AT&T Park to avoid a road Game 163 against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Elite rotation pieces and a defense that tied for the major-league lead in fielding percentage (.988) can help mask some of those bullpen issues. Offensively, the Giants can make up for a power outage – Brandon Belt led the team with 17 home runs – with a lineup that doesn’t give away at-bats and features battle-tested hitters like Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Brandon Crawford. 

“You’ve got an experienced, mature bunch that will figure out a way to beat you,” an NL East scout said. “It’s an even-number year. That’s what (would scare) me. Look at what they did two years ago. They were in the cellar then, and look what they did.”

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The 2010 Giants didn’t clinch an NL West title until Game 162 and won the World Series. The 2012 Giants won elimination games against the Cincinnati Reds and Cardinals before sweeping the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. The 2014 Giants watched Bumgarner throw a complete-game shutout in a wild-card showdown against the Pittsburgh Pirates and come out of the bullpen for a five-inning save to beat the Kansas City Royals in a World Series Game 7.    

“This is 2016, so they’re going to be tough to beat, no doubt,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Same with the Mets and the experience they gained last year. That will be a fun game to watch, especially with Syndergaard and Bumgarner. I’m sure they’re both going to throw 200 pitches each if they have to. 

“It’s fun for baseball – those wild-card games – and we’re happy we’re not partaking in that this year with that anxiety and the stress level.”

Where the Mets have lost three frontline pitchers who shut down the Cubs during last year’s NL Championship Series – Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz are all recovering from season-ending surgeries – the Giants invested $220 million in Cueto (18-5, 2.79 ERA) and Samardzija (12-11, 3.81 ERA) and gave up the kind of young position player (Matt Duffy) the Cubs refused to surrender to the Tampa Bay Rays in a trade-deadline deal for Moore (13-12, 4.08 ERA).

After burning Syndergaard in the wild-card game, the Mets could be leaning on a 43-year-old control artist (Bartolo Colon) and two rookies (Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman) who didn’t arrive in New York with any hype. 

“The Mets – I don’t know – they got some mojo,” an NL West scout said. “When you got a guy like (Yoenis) Cespedes, he can turn (everything) around (in that lineup). Bartolo’s pretty good, but I’m shocked that they’ve put this run together.” 

The Giants and Mets are 87-win teams that didn’t flip off the switch. The Cubs held a double-digit lead in the NL Central since the first week of August, clinched a division title in mid-September and spent the final week of the regular season playing non-contenders. One reward for 103 wins will be a four-day layoff.

“Listen, we’re going to play a good team in the first round,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “By definition, you’re going to play a team that gets on a plane feeling awesome about themselves after Wednesday’s win. 

“We were that team last year. You get on that plane, you feel like world-beaters after winning that (wild-card) game on the road. We’re going to play a good team that feels good about themselves. That’s why I think the focus has to be on us and why we need to play good baseball.”

Arrieta gave his teammates that invincible feeling, suffocating the Pirates and setting off the champagne-soaked celebration inside PNC Park’s visiting clubhouse, the Cubs flying to St. Louis and then knocking out a 100-win Cardinals team. 

“We can go toe-to-toe in the playoffs with any lineup or any rotation,” Arrieta said. “We’re more than equipped and more than capable of taking care of business and moving forward. But you got to start with the first game October 7.”

Cubs still searching for answers with Brad Brach

Cubs still searching for answers with Brad Brach

The Cubs have some interesting roster decisions to make in the near future. 

The big-league pitching staff is potentially going to get very crowded very quickly with Tony Barnette now added into the mix, Craig Kimbrel close to making his debut and Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. nearing returns from their respective injuries. Somehow, the Cubs will need to open up multiple spots on their pitching staff.

Fans on Twitter are quick to solve the problem by saying "DFA Brad Brach," but it's hardly that simple and also probably not the best course of action for the franchise to cut ties with the veteran reliever.

Yes, Brach has not pitched well in his first season with the Cubs, especially lately — he has given up runs in eight of his last 12 outings and now carries a 6.14 ERA and 1.84 WHIP on the season. 

But there's more than meets the eye with his numbers and both he and the Cubs feel like they're on the verge of getting things in order.

"The most frustrating part is I feel like I've had some of the best stuff I've had in the last couple years these last five weeks and have just not gotten the results," Brach said. "Unfortunately this is a results-driven game, especially in the bullpen. If you're not getting the job done, you're not gonna be out there when the game matters and that's when I love being out there. 

"[The Cubs have] been really good about coming up to me — 'your stuff's there, just one little thing here or there.' But at the end of the day, I just gotta execute it and get the outs."

Brach has given up 32 hits this season, but only 8 of those have gone for extra bases and just 1 left the yard. He's given up homers at the same rate as Aroldis Chapman and among MLB pitchers with at least 20 innings this season, only six other guys have a better HR/9 rate than Brach.

Brach also woke up Monday morning with a .397 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) against him, which is roughly 100 points higher than the league average this season and 107 points higher than his career average (.290). His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is right around his norm (3.73 vs. 3.69 for his career) and has the lowest strand rate of his MLB life so there's an element of bad luck here.

On the other hand, he's also giving up more hard contact and less soft contact than ever before.

After walking 15 batters in his first 12.1 innings, Brach has gotten that under control — he's doled out only 1 free pass over his last nine appearances and 7 total in 17 innings since April.

"It's been really frustrating and it's been waves of frustration," Brach said. "Early in the season, I wasn't throwing strikes, walking a ton of guys and wasn't getting hurt. Now, I'm not walking guys and getting hurt by the single in a year when home runs are dominating the game. 

"It's definitely a frustrating thing. The contact's been pretty weak. Mine was just two rocky games. I just kinda have to look at it like those were two really bad outings and move on and hopefully I can get on a roll here."

Brach has a point there — nearly half of the runs he has given up on the season (8 of 20) came in back-to-back outings against the Rockies on June 5 and June 11, where he was tagged for 4 runs each time while getting only three outs combined.

He also has a long track record of success. Since his rookie season, the 33-year-old has never posted a season ERA over 3.78. From 2012-18, Brach had a 2.92 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 33 saves and averaged more than a strikeout an inning while also spending most of that time as a high-leverage reliever pitching in the AL East.

However, Brach did experience an up-and-down 2018 season (4.85 ERA with the Orioles in the first half, 1.52 ERA with the Braves in the second half) and he has been thinking back to that a lot as he tries to get out of his slump with the Cubs.

"If I didn't have last year's experience, who knows where I'd be right now," Brach said. "Last year was pretty bad, too. Just couldn't get any outs. I was getting hit hard — a lot harder than I have been this year, so at least I know it can turn around."

There's still more than half the season remaining and Brach has exactly the kind of stuff, pedigree and experience to be a valuable bullpen piece for the Cubs down the stretch.

"It's kind of baffling to us from the side," manager Joe Maddon said. "We're trying to really dig into it and see if there's a thread there that we can bring to him. Because you watch him pitch from the side and the stuff is outstanding. It really is — the fastball-changeup-slider mix. 

"It's really hard to wrap your head around it. Some of it, I thought was a little bit of bad luck. Some of it has been late-count hits that he's gotta be a little bit better with 0-2, 1-2 counts. I'm trying to decipher all that. But purely from a physical perspective, he's throwing the ball great and he's not getting the results. And I think maybe then the confidence gets nicked a little bit, also. 

"That's where I'm at with him. I think he's throwing the ball wonderfully, but we gotta figure out — outside of a jam-shot, bad-luck knock every once in a while — what we can do to help him. This guy is such a wonderful team player. Everybody's behind him out there. Every one of us. We gotta figure it out because his stuff's that good."

Javy Baez leads Cubs to huge win with a little help from Pedro Strop

Javy Baez leads Cubs to huge win with a little help from Pedro Strop

For the second time this season, Pedro Strop has added another chapter to the legend of El Mago.

And for at least the second documented time over the last few years, Strop also helped give Javy Baez the motivation needed to lift the Cubs to victory.

On an 0-2 pitch from Mets reliever Seth Lugo in the eighth inning, Baez smacked a 3-run homer into the right-field bleachers, notching the Cubs shortstop another curtain call and sending the 39,077 fans at Wrigley Field into euphoric bliss.

"That was big. He was so frustrated," said Strop, who picked up his 9th save in the 5-3 victory. "When I was walking to the 'pen, he was so frustrated after that first strikeout [against Jacob deGrom]. He was like, 'He's not throwing fastballs, just sliders!' I was like, 'Bro, it's good that you know that. So go up with another plan. Do your thing. You're gonna win this ballgame.'"

Baez's 100th career homer accomplished exactly that and in doing so, changed the entire tone and tenor of the first weekend of summer on Chicago's North Side.

There's no way the Cubs wanted to go into a four-game set with the contending Atlanta Braves after having just dropped three of four to a hapless Mets team that is melting down inside the clubhouse. It also would've been the Cubs' ninth loss in their 13 games, but Baez's clutch blast helped them salvage a series split and maintain sole possession of first place entering a new week of baseball.

"That's the last thing you want to do is lose another one," said Cole Hamels, who gave the Cubs 7 strong innings, but did not factor in the decision. "... That's the momentum we need to take forth, especially with the series that's coming up."

It also continued one of the strangest/coolest statistical oddities of the 2019 MLB season, given that it came on an 0-2 count.

Baez now has more homers after falling behind in the count 0-2 this year than NINE other MLB teams and nearly half of his homers (9 of 19) have come after getting into the extreme pitcher's count:

What makes Baez so tough on 0-2 counts?

For starters, he's never afraid of striking out, possessing a fearless nature Joe Maddon and other Cubs players have admired for some time.

But Hamels also provided some great perspective on why Baez might be so good in a count when pitchers typically dominate:

"I think that's kinda the difficult part with him — sometimes it can always be 0-2 with him," Hamels said. "Even if you haven't thrown a pitch yet, you treat it like 0-2. If that's just the nature of what pitchers do to him — if it's considered almost always an 0-2 count — he's gonna get really good at it because that's just the way he survives and the way he lives and plays the game. 

"With him though, being a teammate, you just know that he's never out of it. He's trying to hit a homer every at-bat, every pitch. That obviously can make a pitcher think a little bit longer and maybe try to be too perfect and therefore that's why they make mistakes."

The win puts a nice bow on what was otherwise a sloppy weekend for the Cubs, who often looked flat at the plate and made uncharacteristic mistakes on the basepaths and in the field. 

Prior to that homer from Baez, the Cubs had only managed to push across 1 earned run in 13 innings against a Mets bullpen that entered the weekend with a 5.39 ERA and more blown saves than any other team in baseball.

It's the second time in just over a week where the Cubs managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but the last time (Anthony Rizzo's homer off Kenley Jansen last Saturday in L.A.) apparently wasn't enough to spark the team to get back to their winning ways. 

Was this Baez blast enough to wake the team from their midseason slumber and be this year's seminal moment that we all look back on in September?