The long shadow cast by Pujols and Fielder

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The long shadow cast by Pujols and Fielder

MESA, Ariz. Before the Cubs played their final home game last September, Rodrigo Lopez asked a stadium worker to take his picture. Lopez stood at home plate with Wrigley Field as the backdrop.

Lopez began last season pitching for the Atlanta Braves Triple-A affiliate. The Cubs traded for him almost two months in as emergency depth. He didnt know what was going to happen no one did, really so he wanted a memento.

If Lopez became a symbol for an organization that was scrambling, he also emerged as a bit player in baseballs biggest offseason story, which through all the misdirection still pointed the way the Cubs were heading.

The lobby was buzzing at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas during the winter meetings. Twitter was spinning constantly. Here was a great nugget for the 247 news cycle: Theo Epstein met with the agent for Albert Pujols.

Well, we met with Danny Lozano, Epstein said that night up in his hotel suite last December. He also represents Rodrigo Lopez, among other players, soits not always that youre there to talk about The Big Kahuna.

The national perception was that the Cubs had to make a big splash, while almost everyone who read between the lines with Epstein thought they werent looking for the quick fix.

The Los Angeles Angels shocked the world by giving Pujols a 10-year megadeal worth around 250 million. The Cubs arent putting Lopez on any billboards, but they are giving him the ball to start Sundays Cactus League opener against the Oakland As at HoHoKam Stadium.

I dont like to watch MLB Network or ESPN or stuff like that, Lopez said. Its too much information. Im trying to take a break when Im in the offseason. Some of the guys saw it on the Internet.

I got friends who were telling me, Hey, your name came out with the Cubs. It was funny for me, too. Im like, Yeah, cool.

Across his career, the 36-year-old Lopez has been represented by Scott Boras, Beverly Hills Sports Council and Lozano, who got him a minor-league deal with a set salary number if he breaks camp with the Cubs.

Epstein needed credible starting pitching, and as a swingman Lopez did a nice job for the Cubs last season, going 6-6 with a 4.42 ERA in almost 100 innings. The president of baseball operations spent the winter searching for value, buying low on players and offering opportunity.

With Pujols off the board, Boras kept dangling Prince Fielder, but the Cubs continued to reassure Bryan LaHair that he would get a very good shot at first base. Even with manager Dale Sveum being tight with Fielder from their time together with the Milwaukee Brewers.

They had great communication with me from Day 1, LaHair said. Even when they traded for (prospect Anthony) Rizzo, they contacted me right away. I think I knew before it was even out in the press. Thats all you can ask for just good communication and the truth and the honesty. Thats all theyve done for me since theyve been on board.

LaHair doesnt have age (29) or pedigree (39th-round pick) on his side. But the Pacific Coast League MVP generated 38 homers and 109 RBI last season at Triple-A Iowa.

The bottom line is the kid deserves a chance, Sveum said. We didnt have an incumbent or anybody making 15 million in front of him. What he did in winter ball is just as impressive. To hit 15 home runs in (Venezuela)? Nobody does that.

We never even offered Prince anything. That was more (speculation), whether it was my connection with Prince or just the media jumping the gun a little bit. But we had our guy and all along it was LaHair.

So the Cubs wont have to worry about how some new star will acclimate to Wrigley Fields cramped clubhouse. Lopez said his young boys who enjoyed running around the place complained a little bit about small family room. So their father had to explain that its an old stadium filled with history and tradition.

Thats why five months ago, with so much uncertainty at Clark and Addison, Lopez got his picture taken. The Cubs have shown patience and restraint and will be playing this season without the weight of expectations. Who could have seen this coming?

You never know whats going to happen, Lopez said. Hopefully, I get a chance to take more shots.

Arrieta wins 16th straight decision as Cubs beat Brewers

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Arrieta wins 16th straight decision as Cubs beat Brewers

Jake Arrieta's bid for a second straight no-hitter was dashed on his fifth pitch. His Wrigley Field scoreless streak ended at 52 2/3 innings.

Oh, and he won his 16th consecutive decision, the longest streak in the major leagues in a decade.

"I was a little flat today," the NL Cy Young Award winner said Thursday after leading the Chicago Cubs over the Milwaukee Brewers 7-2.

Chicago improved to 16-5, its best 21-game start since opening 1907 at 17-4.

"Our most important ballgames are still ahead of us," Arrieta said. "We're still lined up pretty well."

Arrieta (5-0) gave up one run, three hits and four walks in five innings — the first run he allowed at home since July 25. Alex Presley's fifth-inning RBI double ended Arrieta's home scoreless streak at 52 2/3 innings, four outs shy of Ray Herbert's major league record set with the Chicago White Sox in 1962-63.

Arrieta's streak of consecutive winning decisions is the longest since Jose Contreras of the White Sox won 17 in a row from August 2005 to July 2006, according to STATS. Chicago has won in Arrieta's last 18 starts, a team record.

Cubs catcher David Ross believed some perspective was needed.

"For him to have an off night, and he gave up one (run)," Ross said.

Arrieta's streak of consecutive quality starts ended at 24, two shy of Bob Gibson's record from 1967-68.

"I saw 92 pitches. I saw the Cubs trying to win a World Series. I saw the next five years of his career," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "All that stuff mattered much more than breaking Gibson's record."

Cubs left fielder Kris Bryant left in the fifth after rolling his right ankle while running the bases two innings earlier. The team called it a "mild" sprain, but said Bryant was to undergo an MRI.

After throwing 119 pitches at Cincinnati on April 21 in his second no-hitter in a span of 11 regular-season starts, Arrieta had six days' rest. The Cubs were off Monday, and Wednesday's game was rained out.

Arrieta acknowledged he's "not accustomed" to the extra days off.

Wearing short sleeves on a 45-degree cloudy day with a 12 mph wind at his back, Arrieta had trouble locating his fastball.

He needed 31 pitches to get through the first inning, when Jonathan Villar led off with an opposite-field, broken-bat single over third base. A pair of one-out walks loaded the bases before Chris Carter and Kirk Nieuwenhuis struck out on elevated 94 mph fastballs.

Arrieta initially protested, then agreed with Maddon's call to lift him after five innings.

"The extra off days, the rainout last night, cold weather, extended pitch counts, long first inning, it is the right way to go," Arrieta said.

Ben Zobrist hit a two-run single in the first off Taylor Jungmann (0-4), who gave up five runs, six hits and three walks in 3 2/3 innings as his ERA rose to 9.15. He also hit Bryant with two pitches.

"I think right now I'm a little timid," Jungmann said. "That's never been me, but it's obvious when you watch the game. Too much going on in my head and not competing."

Ross hit solo home run onto Waveland Avenue in the second, and Anthony Rizzo and Tommy La Stella added RBI doubles in the third for a 5-0 lead.

Villar had three hits and stole three bases as the Brewers lost to the Cubs for the 14th time in 15 games thanks to suspect pitching.

"There's no success in 11 walks, that's for sure," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "We were fortunate to only give up seven runs."

Lester takes mound as Cubs face Braves today on CSN

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Lester takes mound as Cubs face Braves today on CSN

The Cubs take on the Atlanta Braves on Friday, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 12:30 p.m. Then catch first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Today’s starting pitching matchup: Jon Lester vs. Aaron Blair

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Cubs getting precautionary MRI on Kris Bryant's ankle

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Cubs getting precautionary MRI on Kris Bryant's ankle

While the big-picture injury concerns revolved around the pitching staff heading into this World Series-or-bust season, the Cubs have already lost one of their best hitters for the year (Kyle Schwarber) and just placed a two-time All-Star catcher on the disabled list (Miguel Montero). The 162-game schedule is a war of attrition. 

The Cubs framed the MRI on Kris Bryant’s right ankle as a precautionary move after pulling the National League’s reigning Rookie of the Year from Thursday’s 7-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field.

Manager Joe Maddon said “I honestly don’t know” if Bryant will miss more time with what the Cubs initially described as a mild sprain. “I don’t even want to create conjecture. Let’s just see what happens. Let’s look at the test.” 

Brewers starter Taylor Jungmann (0-4, 9.15 ERA) drilled Bryant with two pitches that didn't appear to bother him that much. Bryant rolled his ankle while running the bases after a third-inning single and got replaced by Javier Baez in the fifth.

Bryant is hitting .289 and is second on the team in homers (four) and runs scored (17) and tied for second in RBI (15). He played in 151 out of 154 possible games after his Triple-A Iowa service-time detour to begin last season, delaying his free agency by a year. 

Beyond the power, Maddon views Bryant as one of the game’s best baserunners and a versatile defender who can move from third base to anywhere in the outfield.