Look, before starting this recap, go search “cute dogs” or something. The All-Star break is near, the Cubs are scuffling, and Jake Arrieta is out of whack. The Cubs have dropped the first three games of the series to the dreaded, hated, despicable, unfathomably evil Mets.
Top Play (WPA): The lone bright spot in this ballgame came in the fourth, when frustration levels were not at Ludicrous, but merely Very High. Anthony Rizzo squared off against a locked in Bartolo Colón, with Kris Bryant on first after a sharp single to left. Colón went to his wily two-seam fastball on a 1-0 count, but Rizzo sensed it: he skied the pitch on the outer edge of the plate to center field, Yoenis Céspedes tracked it to the wall slowly, and the center fielder finally ran out of room as the ball landed to the left of the Big Apple home run sculpture, tying the game at two (+.212).
Umpire Laz Diaz appeared to be rolling a twelve-sided die to conclude the outcome of pitches all night, so Rizzo’s pounce early in the count headed off the possibility of him falling victim to an amoebic strike zone.
Bottom Play (WPA): The bottom of the Mets lineup gave Arrieta fits all night, once he got out of the weeds in the first versus the heart of the order. Cleanup hitter James Loney (yes, the Mets are that banged up) flew out on the first pitch of the fourth inning, but the rest of the inning was rough sailing for the right-hander. Asdrubal Cabrera singled and Wilmer Flores flew out, bringing up Alejandro de Aza, whom Arrieta sliced and diced neatly in the second.
De Aza looked lost again against Arrieta, going down 1-2 and staring down an intimidating Arrieta who looked to be piecing together an acceptable outing. Arrieta lost the light-hitting outfielder, however, missing the zone three more times and placing de Aza on first base.
The frustration reached its zenith with the next batter, as Travis d’Arnaud, recently off the disabled list and inexplicably hitting eighth, muscled an 0-1 pitch just out of Javier Baez’s reach in center field. Arrieta jammed d’Arnaud successfully, but Jason Heyward could not race in from his spot in center quickly enough to corral the ball before it hit the ground, and Baez fired the ball into the infield promptly, but not before two runners had scored (-.250). It was the dribbling, limp conclusion of a maddening night for Arrieta.
Key Moment: The Cubs are at their least flexible, roster-wise, all season. Injuries have piled up, they haven’t had an off day since June 16th, and their 15-inning marathon game in Cincinnati this week depleted an already thin bullpen.
All this is to say that Joe Maddon didn’t have his full slate of options on Saturday night, especially after Chris Coghlan’s fourth-inning exit due to a strained rib cage muscle. Maddon, however, made some questionable decisions with the personnel he did have. In the seventh, with the Cubs down 4-2 and the top of the order due up, Maddon sent up Travis Wood to hit for himself. Wood had savvily induced a double play to end the sixth, and to save Jake Arrieta from an even uglier stat line, but David Ross, Matt Szczur, and Albert Amora, Jr., stayed glued to the bench nearly all evening, as frustration mounted and remaining outs became scarce. Wood grounded out on four pitches, the second out of the inning.
Ben Zobrist homered in the very next at-bat, Jason Heyward walked and reached second on a passed ball, and Kris Bryant struck out on a 97-mile-per-hour Addison Reed heater. With Reed still in the bullpen at the beginning of the inning and Jeurys Familia waiting in the wings for the ninth, it was the perfect opportunity for Maddon to insert one of his bench bats for Wood to at least say he put a major-league hitter in the box. As it was, the Cubs failed to score again in the ballgame, and the game ended whimperingly.
Trend to Watch: Jake Arrieta had another mediocre start, giving up four runs in five and one-third innings, with two walks, eight hits, and one home run allowed. In the first, he was missing the zone on all pitches, in all places: he was getting around on his breaking ball, he was missing up and down with his fastball, and he faced four 3-2 counts in the inning, including all of the first three hitters. When the inning ended, Arrieta had tallied a dizzying 35 pitches, including the home run to Neil Walker.
Following the shaky first, Arrieta retired nine consecutive Mets, and found the strike zone on the first pitch more often. But his at-bat versus de Aza, as well as his entire fifth inning, indicated that he still did not have command.
To the relatively untrained eye, it appears that Arrieta’s mechanics are not the finely tuned sequence of motions that the pitcher has fashioned over the past few seasons. Even the FOX broadcast picked up on some possible issues with Arrieta’s plant foot and his release time; however, there might be slightly more to Arrieta’s mechanical woes than that. A visual of Arrieta’s vertical release points on all of his pitches, since the beginning of 2015, is telling:
All of Arrieta’s release points are up, and have been all of 2016 compared to last season. In particular, if you look at his July-October of last season, when Arrieta was pitching better than anyone in half a century, his release points were very well clustered and consistent. Next week, I’ll have more about Arrieta’s 2016, his ability to induce soft contact, and his mechanics, but there is certainly something rotten in the state of Pilates.
Coming Next: The Sunday matinée features another stellar pitching matchup. The Cubs send out June NL Pitcher of the Month Jon Lester (3.78 DRA, 94 cFIP, 2.03 ERA) to face the Mets’ young Noah Syndergaard (2.66, 61, 1.94). The Mets pushed Syndergaard’s start back due to the bone spurs in the pitcher’s elbow, so it remains to be seen how the righty will adjust to being at less than one-hundred percent health.
David Ross will catch Lester, giving the very lost Miguel Montero a day off, and with Chris Coghlan leaving Saturday’s game with a strained muscle in his side, Willson Contreras and possibly Kris Bryant will see starts in the outfield. The Cubs hope to escape from New York with a lone victory to show for their effort, but their weekend so far has been as grim as the most grisly of John Carpenter films. Sunday’s game is at 12:10 CDT, on Comcast SportsNet.
Lead photo courtesy Adam Hunger—USA Today Sports