Women who have experienced the final month of a full-term pregnancy will tell you those last few weeks are the longest of their lives. So close to the realization of nearly a year’s worth of expectations, time grinds to a halt as the conscious waiting, and worrying, takes over. The Cubs have been eying a big fat October due date of their own for the better part of 2016, and, with little left to do in preparation, September has been predictably crawling.
Ticking off the regular season benchmarks has certainly helped. Division and home field clinches were fun. Reaching 100 wins, celebrating David Ross’s final home game, watching Kris Bryant kick that pesky RBI century mark monkey off his back—all bright spots along the grind, and all now in the rearview.
With four measly games against eliminated opponents currently remaining before postseason play, almost no good can come from watching. Joe Maddon deemed these fall exhibitions to be another sort of spring training. Thus, you trust the players and coaches to be working out issues while understanding the performance bears almost no weight on actual events to come (after all, these Cubs won only thirty-seven percent of their March matches before absolutely dominating April and May). Meanwhile, every potential collision or stumble is terrifying as you find yourself wishing that ‘needing to stay sharp’ wasn’t actually a thing.
Despite the lose-lose proposition surrounding the viewing experience, tonight’s offering provided one main point of interest. After six consecutive trials in the great Arrieta-without-Montero experiment, which resulted in an uncharacteristic 4.58 ERA over that stretch, Arrieta’s preferred backstop rejoined him last week against the Cardinals. So too, it seemed, did his mechanics, as Arrieta delivered seven shutout innings and even pulled out some new tricks in the form of a surprisingly effective changeup for strike three.
Arrieta was quick to credit Montero with the apparent turnaround: “He knows the way my stuff works. He has little nuances, little mannerisms that he makes behind the plate that can help me get back on track from time to time and it’s nice to have a guy like that who can really pick things out visually and relay a message to me by something small that helps me get back in line.”
Matching up again tonight, in Arrieta’s final start before facing a whopping twelve day wait for the third game of NLDS action, reestablishing that solid connection in the battery and dominating again could have provided nearly two weeks of peace of mind (false as it may have been). But, alas, Arrieta’s command was a struggle throughout, exacerbated somewhat by a nebulous strike zone, and we are left to shrug and remember: it’s only fall training. Unfortunately for Arrieta, this one still stings in the stats, as the seven runs allowed over five innings (his most since 2014) pushed his season ERA over three for the first time.
Top Play (WPA): The game began promisingly enough, with a first inning two-out homer by Anthony Rizzo over the twenty-one foot Roberto Clemente wall in right field (+.112). The Cubs took a 1-0 lead, but it was quickly erased in the bottom of the first. The offense would not get another hit until a seventh inning rally brought them briefly within striking distance, though no real comeback threat materialized.
Bottom Play (WPA): The big blow against came in the bottom of the fourth, when Arrieta’s command issues generated a three-run deficit for the Cubs. It began with a hit-by-pitch (allowing the lead-off man to reach for the third time in four innings) and a single to center field by Sean Rodriguez. With two on and no one out, Arrieta hung an 80 mph curve for John Jaso to take deep, making it 4-1 Pirates (-.162). Pittsburgh would not relinquish the lead but would add to it, most notably in the seventh when Jaso knocked an RBI triple to complete the first ever cycle in PNC Park.
Key Moment: Arrieta was not sharp at any point tonight, but the doors fell off in the Pirate’s fifth when, with two outs, he allowed back-to-back-to-back doubles to Rodriguez, Jaso, and Freese, followed by an RBI single by Eric Fryer for good measure. Coincidentally (or not), the bottom of the fifth also marked Willson Contreras’s replacement of Montero to get in some scheduled innings of work behind the plate. The three tacked on runs ended Arrieta’s disappointing night, but the first of those doubles ended Chris Coghlan’s as well, as a scary collision with the outfield wall left him limping off the field with a left ankle injury. The official word is positive, just a mild sprain, but the scene was another frustrating reminder of how quickly these “meaningless” games can turn terribly significant in an instant.
Trend to Watch: With Arrieta’s start tonight, the Cubs’ four-man rotation for the playoffs is midway through its final regular season performances. John Lackey’s one-run, five-inning display Wednesday offered little cause for concern, while Arrieta’s shudder-inducing workout can at best be considered instructive. Neither reached his 200 inning goal for the season, but, hey, the year isn’t over. The daunting challenge for each will be managing the extended rest facing them before Lackey’s “big boy” games begin, which figure to be no earlier than October 10th for these starters.
Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks are currently slated as the NLDS number one and two, so watch for their final “practice” starts this weekend. Their mechanics and timing figure to be the only meaningful information to be gleaned from games 161 and 162, as they align themselves for typical five-day rest before postseason play kicks off October 7 at Wrigley. Maddon has been a huge proponent of mitigating pressure by maintaining a business as usual, process-centered, one game at a time approach, so look for them to “beat up the day” their last times out (and try not to read too much into anything that transpires).
Coming Next: After seven sharp appearances out of the bullpen since joining the squad, rookie Rob Zastryzny makes his first start for the Cubs in the series finale from Pittsburgh tomorrow night. His longest previous outing came in Los Angeles last month, when he pitched three and two-thirds innings of one-hit, scoreless ball. Coming up as a starter, the lefty should be ready for his shot and will look to make a statement about his future big league role. The Pirates will pin their hopes of a series split on right-hander Ivan Nova, who will also be trying to end his season on a high note following some rocky, abbreviated starts of late. Tune in at 6:05pm CDT to see if the Cubs can rack up another triple-digit regular season win and party like it’s 1909.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports