Tyler Chatwood

Cubs rotation weathers surprise break, shakeup to be as dominant as ever

Cubs rotation weathers surprise break, shakeup to be as dominant as ever

Hair flowing out from under his cap, Yu Darvish held his right leg up at a right angle and watched Brewers’ Omar Narvaez swing late on a high fastball.

If Darvish stuck an arm out, his body would be in the shape of a K, fitting for yet another strike out.

In the Cubs’ 4-2 win against the Brewers on Thursday, Darvish allowed just one hit and one run in seven innings. In fact, in the Cubs’ past three games no starter has given up more than a run, and all pitched at least six innings.

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“It makes my job really easy,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “It’s fun to sit back and not have to worry about too much until the sixth or seventh inning.

The Cubs rotation has been a strength all season. Entering play Thursday, the Cubs starters had the third-best ERA in Major League Baseball (2.65). But this recent string of especially dominant performances came under unusual circumstances: right after a surprise four-day break.

Starting pitchers enjoy a consistent schedule through most of the season. They generally pitch every fifth or sixth day, with a bullpen in between starts.

But the postponement of the St. Louis series, due to more positive tests in the Cardinals organization, threw off that routine for the Cubs starters. The Cubs left St. Louis last Friday without having played a game.

The Cubs coaching staff had a decision to make: skip the pitchers scheduled to start in those un-played games, or shuffle the rotation? They did a little bit of both.

Jon Lester, who was originally scheduled to start last Friday, threw his regular in-between-starts bullpen on Saturday and drew the first start of the Cleveland series.

Then, the rotation picked up at the beginning. The Cubs’ first three games back had Lester, Kyle Hendricks and then Darvish taking the mound. All had dominant outings, despite the extra days rest.

"There have been so many things going on this whole year,” Hendricks said, “I think that nothing's going to faze us now.”

Having Mills and Lester swap places also split up the two most similar pitchers in the Cubs rotation. Hendricks and Mills are both soft-throwing, crafty right-handers. With Mills pitching fifth and Hendricks first, they threw on consecutive days as the rotation turned over.

Now, left-handed Lester will pitch in between the two, giving hitters a different look.

“We talked about it a little bit,” Hendricks said after his start Wednesday. “I think it's a little overblown, the effect of it. I think the last two games that I've pitched behind (Mills) I just haven't made a lot of good pitches, I was kind of off a little bit. Today I just made better pitches. ... And honestly, seeing how he attacks guys helps.”

Even so, Lester set the bar high out of the break and then Hendricks matched his one-run six innings.

“We’re not talking about it, but we’re putting pressure on each other,” Darvish said. “That’s a good pressure for us.”

On Thursday, Darvish said he stuck to mixing in his knuckle curve ball early in counts, as he’d begun to do against Pittsburgh two weeks before. He had a no-hitter going into the seventh inning Thursday but gave up a solo home run to Justin Smoak. Darvish recorded a season-high 11 strikeouts.

“I thought he had really good command of his off-speed stuff tonight,” Ross said after the game. “… Really kept them off balance. You really didn’t see a whole lot of good swings until that homer form Smoak.”

Next, the streak will be in the hands of Tyler Chatwood and Mills. Chatwood had a dud of an outing the last time he pitched, allowing eight runs on 11 hits at Kansas City. But he averaged over nine strikeouts in each of his first two outings.  And Alec Mills has a 1.38 ERA, the second best on the team, behind Lester (1.06).

Both have been integral parts of the rotation overperforming, after the Cubs front office was up front about its starting-pitching depth concerns ahead of the season.

After Thursday’s game, the Cubs rotation has improved to a 2.55 ERA, with a 12-3 record.

 

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Cubs lay out rotation plans following postponed series against Cardinals

Cubs lay out rotation plans following postponed series against Cardinals

The Cubs laid out their starting rotation plans for this coming week following the postponement of their series in St. Louis due to several more Cardinals testing positive for COVID-19.

After Monday’s off day, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks will take the bump in Cleveland on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Cubs return to Chicago for a four-game set against the Brewers starting Thursday, and Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills will start the first three games.

“It lined up for giving each guy the least amount of days off as we possibly could,” Cubs manager David Ross said Sunday.

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Lester, who was scheduled to start in St. Louis on Friday, threw a bullpen session on Saturday. He last started on Aug. 2, giving him eight days between starts.

Hendricks (Tuesday), Darvish (Wednesday) and Chatwood (Thursday) started against the Royals and will each have seven days between starts. Mills started this past Monday but pitched five innings in a sim game on Sunday, putting five days between that and his next outing.

RELATED: Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

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Cubs quick takes: Tyler Chatwood rocked, Cubs rolled by Royals

Cubs quick takes: Tyler Chatwood rocked, Cubs rolled by Royals

Tyler Chatwood for closer? Um, hold that thought.

The bigger issue for the Cubs’ right-hander on Thursday night in Kansas City was that after two impressive starts to open the season, he took less than three innings to look like the rotation’s weak link.

That might sound harsh in a long season, but it’s not a long season. And the rotation was far and away the Cubs’ strength during a 10-2 start — including a six-game winning streak that went up in the smoke of Thursday’s blowout loss.

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Quick takes from that 13-2 loss:

Chat-worst

How bad was the worst start of the season so far for the rotation?

The eight runs Chatwood (2-1) allowed not only exceeded the number of outs he recorded (seven) on this night, but also were twice as many as the rotation allowed total during the six-game winning streak — which included 39 2/3 innings by the starters.

"The stuff looks fine from the side," manager David Ross said. "Just one of those nights."

Chatwood didn’t walk a batter, but he was rocked for 11 hits worth of hard contact, including two-run homers by Whit Merrifield in the second and Maikel Franco in the third, and four doubles.

"I made good pitches; they hit them. I made bad pitches; they hit them," Chatwood said. "I think my stuff was all still there, maybe not as sharp as I wanted to be with the sinker. But I still feel good. I feel like I was attacking, trying to execute a game plan and gave up hits on good pitches and bad pitches."

Q and A?

A few hours before Chatwood took the mound, Jose Quintana took a big step closer to returning from his thumb injury to rejoin the rotation — using all his pitches in a 35-pitch, two-inning game simulation in South Bend.

Barring a setback, he’ll extend during another sim game Tuesday and could be scheduled for his return soon after that.

That’s where starts like Chatwood’s on Thursday start coming into play when the Cubs start looking for the right arm to move to the bullpen when Quintana is back.

"Coming into this game this guy was one of our best pitchers," Ross said of Chatwood. "This guy was dealing. You're gonna have some nights that things just don't go your way. They took advantage of the mistakes he made. That's just baseball."

Speaking of the bullpen…

The Cubs couldn’t have picked a worse day for a short-start clunker in the early part of the season.

Thursday was roster cut-down day, when the Cubs sent relievers Rex Brothers and Justin Steele to the alternate site in South Bend to reduce the overall roster to 28, which now includes nine relievers.

Four were used to cover nearly six innings of work Thursday, although only Duane Underwood Jr. (13 batters, 51 pitches) is certain to be unavailable when the Cubs open a three-game series in St. Louis on Friday. In fact, Ryan Tepera needed only 15 pitches in a four-up, four-down performance.

Perhaps most noteworthy was the mopup eighth that struggling closer Craig Kimbrel pitched, opening the inning by allowing a triple, walk and single before retiring the final three he faced.

Bats out of hell?

Even if Chatwood had kept it close, the Cubs’ winning streak might have been in jeopardy because of the way Royals starter Brad Keller looked in his return to the rotation after having tested positive for COVID-19 last month.

Last year’s Opening Day starter for the Royals made quick work of the Cubs in five innings pitched — striking out seven and limiting the Cubs to three singles and two walks.

By the fifth, the Cubs started pulling the regulars from the lineup with the score 9-0.

By the end of the two-run ninth, Cubs pitcher Alec Mills took a turn as a pinch-hitter.

Where they stand 

With the loss, the Cubs' record drops to 10-3. But the Twins, who shared the best record in the league with the Cubs, also lost on Thursday. (The Marlins are 6-1).

On deck

The Cubs head to St. Louis for a three-game series. The Cardinals are set to return to the field after 13 players and staff members tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the postponement of their four-game series against Detroit this week.

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