Cubs

Cubs ride unconventional pitching performances to 8-6 win over the Reds

Cubs ride unconventional pitching performances to 8-6 win over the Reds

Before Thursday’s game against the Phillies, Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon was asked if, given the current state of their bullpen, Tyler Chatwood could see some innings as the closer. 

“I think he’s amenable to it...” Maddon responded. “... the big thing with him is throwing strikes. If he does that -- his stuff is that electric -- we’ll use him any time. As he gets well from [throwing 4 innings on Wednesday night] it’ll probably a solid two days, maybe three, before he’s ready to go again. We’ll see - we’ll see that night needs. I’m not afraid of it by any means.

“I would say that the first time he got a chance with us, it would be because the other guys aren’t available that night.”

48 hours later, with the Cubs white knuckling a two-run lead, it was Chatwood coming out of the ‘pen in the top of the 9th. Two singles, a double-play, and a Yasiel Puig flyout later, Chatwood had closed out one of the Cubs’ more unconventional wins of the season, a 8-6 nail-biter that featured a little bit of everything.  

“It was a little bit [surprising],” Chatwood said. “But I kept myself ready. I was able to get loose in the pen and luckily I got that double play right there, and we won. So it’s good.” 

On a day when the Cubs’ cobbled together their pitching performance, it was Yu Darvish’s 7 innings -- the first time he’s gotten that deep into a game since 2017 -- that kept Chicago in punching distance. The line itself isn’t particularly flattering; six runs on 12 hits is an eyesore. His performance may not have played well on Cubs Twitter, but those inside the clubhouse could not stop talking about it. 

“That was huge. I thought he was really good today,” Albert Almora, who already surpassed his 2018 home run total (5) with a solo homer in the 2nd inning, said. “I didn’t think he was going to come back out, so I said ‘good job’ to him in the 7th. I saw him back out in the 8th and was like ‘all right, he wanted it.’” 

“It looked like he emptied the tank against Puig in the 7th with a big strikeout,” Chatwood added. “But he still went back out there and battled and pitched into the 8th. That’s huge. We didn’t have many people available today, and I think he knew that. I thought that was one of the best games he’s thrown the ball.”

Darvish managed to strand eight base runners, though, and only walked two. He’s now gone three straight games while walking three batters or less, something he’d failed to do at any point prior. 

“I knew that the bullpen was going through a little struggle, and didn’t have much rest,” Darvish said. “So my main goal was to go more than 7 innings today.” 

On a warm day, with the wind blowing straight out at 16 miles per hour, Wrigley played as small as it has all year. The Cubs (and the Reds, for that matter) went deep three times, which brings their homestand total to 11. 

“The wind was a friend to both sides today,” Maddon said. “But really, you’ve got to give Yu a ton of credit for getting deeply into the game today. He still had his good stuff in the end. The stuff was still there, but it’s 107 pitches, and it’s just deflating when all that happens.” 

Not to be outdone by the guy who started the game or the guy who finished it, recently-called up pitcher Dylan Maples was the winning pitcher of record. He and Tim Collins came in from Triple-A Iowa that morning, and Maddon wasted no time throwing Maples into the fire. After walking his first batter, Maples got Reds’ rookie Nick Senzel to strikeout on a 91mph fastball to end the 8th. 

If it hasn't seemed easy of late, that's because it hasn't been. Of the Cubs’ first 50 games, 16 have been decided by one run (9-7). Over their last 12 games, eight have been decided by two or less runs. 

“They seem to all be like that,” Maddon said with a laugh. “Especially recently. We’re seeing a lot of good pitching. 

“That’s entertainment, guys. Woah.” 

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? 

While they wait for Kimbrel, Cubs add another intriguing option to bullpen

While they wait for Kimbrel, Cubs add another intriguing option to bullpen

Craig Kimbrel could still make his debut before the current homestand is over, but in the meantime, the Cubs added another intriguing veteran to the bullpen.

Tony Barnette was activated off the 60-day injured list Sunday and Rowan Wick was sent back down to Triple-A Iowa. 

The 35-year-old right-hander has had an interesting career ever since was drafted in the 10th round in 2006 by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of Arizona State University. He spent a couple years in the D-Backs organization but then went to Japan in 2010 to pitch for the Yakult Swallows for six seasons.

Barnette returned to the U.S. in 2016, signing a deal with the Rangers and putting up a 3.50 ERA in 125 appearances for Texas over three seasons. The Cubs signed him over the winter to add another arm to the bullpen mix, but he's been hampered by shoulder issues since spring training.

Barnette actually began a rehab stint with Triple-A Iowa in April initially, but made only four appearances before heading back to Arizona to hit the reset button on his recovery. He restarted a rehab assignment with Iowa on June 1 and has been lights out since — he's allowed only a pair of baserunners (1 hit, 1 walk) in 8.1 shutout innings while striking out 9. 

"Patience is a virtue," he said Sunday morning inside the home clubhouse at Wrigley Field. "It's hard to be patient in this game especially when you're expected to be logging innings at the major-league level. Patience was something that I really had to work on and stay with. Stay patient, trust the process, work with the training staff and make sure I was right and I am."

When the Cubs called Barnette over the winter, he said it was definitely a call he wanted to take — to join a team with World Series aspirations and play in front of the fans at Wrigley Field. Now he wants to answer the call out of the bullpen whenever he gets the opportunity.

Joe Maddon hasn't gotten a chance to see Barnette pitch live much due to the early injury in spring training, but the Cubs manager envisions utilizing the veteran righty as a weapon against opposing right-handed hitters. In his MLB career, Barnette has allowed only a .652 OPS to righties vs. a .780 OPS to left-handed hitters.

"He's a strike-thrower. He attacks the zone. He's kind of a fearless guy," Maddon said. "He's an assertive kind of a guy. He's an attacker, he can put the ball on the ground. He's an aggressive sort. Normally pitch-efficient.

"He's very confident right now. He's feeling really good."

When the Cubs signed him over the winter, Barnette was looked at as another potential under-the-radar option in the bullpen and now that the injury is behind him, he and the Cubs are hoping to make good on that potential.

But the Cubs pitching staff is also getting crowded, with Barnette joining a group of bullpen arms that includes:

Pedro Strop
Steve Cishek
Brandon Kintzler
Brad Brach
Kyle Ryan
Mike Montgomery

At the moment, the Cubs have folded both Adbert Alzolay and Tyler Chatwood into a six-man rotation. But they also have Kimbrel's arrival on the horizon as well as the eventual returns of Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr.

It's unknown how all these pieces will fit together, but Barnette could emerge as a reliable piece for Maddon and the Cubs.