Chicago Cubs

Clubhouse frustration bubbling up for Cubs and Jake Arrieta

Clubhouse frustration bubbling up for Cubs and Jake Arrieta

PITTSBURGH — We interrupt your regularly scheduled coverage of The Plan and that wacky, fun-loving Cubs team to bring you a snapshot of clubhouse frustration.

Jake Arrieta sounded defensive while talking to reporters after Wednesday night’s 8-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, standing in front of his locker and second-guessing manager Joe Maddon. On the other side of the room, veteran catcher Miguel Montero questioned the way the Cubs are preparing for the playoffs with Cactus League scripts.

The postgame questions started with Arrieta’s first-inning issues with umpire Chris Guccione’s strike zone. When reporters mentioned Maddon’s positive spin on a seven-run outing, Arrieta dismissed those happy-talk answers about his stuff — “it just wasn’t crisp” — and then wondered why he went from throwing to Montero to rookie Willson Contreras.

“The feeling of the game, from the first pitch, just wasn’t there,” Arrieta said. “Switching catchers just felt like we were trying to do a little too much instead of win a ballgame. But I didn’t throw well, no way around it.”

Montero went with a similar passive-aggressive tone, riffing on how the Cubs will maintain their edge almost two weeks after clinching the National League Central title and nine days before their first playoff game at Wrigley Field.

“Did it feel like spring training?” Montero said. “I do believe that. And that’s not a good feeling for a pitcher, for a player, to go into a game knowing that you’re going to play just four innings or five innings or whatever it is.

“This game is still important for all the players. It’s still important for every single guy. I don’t want to go out there not caring about winning or losing. That’s not my mentality. My mentality is going out there because I want to win, regardless.

“We have to trick our mind. Because if that’s how we’re going to go the rest of the way, I guess we need to trick ourselves.”

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Unprompted, Montero brought up the Pirates scoring three runs in the ninth inning on Tuesday night before the Cubs hung on for a 6-4 victory — without using Aroldis Chapman — as Maddon tries to keep the bullpen fresh for the playoffs.

“We didn’t have our closer warming up,” Montero said. “That’s something I take personally because I’m catching and I want to win.

“It’s hard. I understand (Joe’s) point. And I understand the organization’s point. I respect it. I can only control what I can control. It is what it is.”

OK then, the Cubs are still a 101-win team and the NL’s No. 1 seed. But this became a sharp contrast to all the backslapping after the pregame announcement of Theo Epstein’s monster contract extension. And Arrieta didn’t look like a reigning Cy Young Award winner, giving up 10 hits while John Jaso — who does look like a Pirate — lined a curveball into the right-field seats for a three-run homer in the fourth inning and hit for the cycle.

“We’re moving on,” Arrieta said. “We’ll prepare for the next one. I don’t like giving up seven runs. I’m pissed about that. But moving forward, everything’s fine.”

With Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks lined up at the front of the playoff rotation, Arrieta’s next start is almost two weeks away.

“It doesn’t matter,” Arrieta said. “I’ll throw sides. I’ll prepare. And whoever I face first round — they’re going to be in trouble.”

After burning through 103 pitches in five innings, Arrieta’s regular-season odometer is now at 197 1/3 innings, but he has zero interest in a gimmick that would get him to 200 this weekend against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.

“Listen, I want to pitch on a schedule,” Arrieta said. “I don’t want to throw an inning in a game. I’m not trying to do anything different. Let’s just prepare like we normally do and go out and try to win games. I’m not trying to throw a bullpen in a game.”

Look, if this isn’t trouble in paradise, then it’s obvious that the Cubs are a hyper-competitive group that knows what’s at stake in October and has some independent thinkers and strong personalities. And that Arrieta’s unreal 2015 season created impossible standards for this year that couldn’t be met with an 18-8 record and a 3.10 ERA, the type of numbers that still get pitchers $200 million contracts.

“I don’t think you know how hard this game is unless you play it,” Arrieta said. “I feel I can have another season like that. People have done it before. Why can’t I do it? I can do it again. So, yeah, I appreciate it. But at the same time, that’s what you strive for. That’s why you work hard. You go out and you try to perform that way.”

How Carl Edwards Jr. regained his confidence and killer instinct out of Cubs bullpen

How Carl Edwards Jr. regained his confidence and killer instinct out of Cubs bullpen

Carl Edwards Jr. unleashed a big curveball that froze Cincinnati Reds leadoff guy Billy Hamilton with a check swing and forced Cubs catcher Victor Caratini to make a hockey goalie-style block in the dirt with two runners on. They all looked at third base umpire Ron Kulpa, who signaled strike three as the crowd of 36,698 roared on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.   

The Cubs hope that seventh-inning scene is more of a big-picture look at the rest of their season than the final score in a 2-1 loss. The Cubs believe Edwards can be an Andrew Miller-type presence during the playoffs, maybe their future closer. By striking out all three batters he faced, Edwards kept it a scoreless game and bailed out Kyle Hendricks, who looked more like last year’s major-league ERA leader.   

Edwards screamed and pumped his fist as he walked back to the dugout, an emotional release from the slump that had manager Joe Maddon getting what-do-you-do-with-C.J.? questions.

“It’s more mental than anything,” Edwards said. “I know this game is very humbling. I can look good for 30 straight appearances. And then all of a sudden – four/five big games – I can be hurt again. I just look at it as going out there and having fun.

“I knew in the back of my mind that I would get over it because I’m a strong-minded guy. It wasn’t (anything) physical. I don’t know how I lost confidence, but I lost it. Right now, I'm just slowly getting it back. And I’m feeling more and more comfortable going out there every day.”

After watching Edwards blow the save and give up a grand slam to Matt Wieters during a potential playoff preview against the Washington Nationals in early August, Maddon compared the situation to a great shooter in basketball: “You just keep throwing it back out there.”

“I don’t want to run away from him,” Maddon said. “He’s really good. He had a bad couple days. Hitters go through slumps. Pitchers go through slumps. Managers go through slumps. Writers go through slumps. We all go through slumps.

“I love the guy. I absolutely love him. I love the teammate that he is. He had a couple tough days. Everybody does.”

Edwards actually had a 1.07 ERA and a 0.75 WHIP through his first 27 appearances this season – and then put up a 6.55 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP across his next 25 games. Still, there is so much to work with here, from the swing-and-miss stuff (70 strikeouts in 48.1 innings) to his natural feel for pitching to the internal drive that allowed him to blossom as a former 48th-round draft pick.         

“A big thing has been my dad sending me messages,” Edwards said, “every day telling me to pray and meditate. He knows me like a book. It’s just getting those words from him and seeing those messages before I go out to the game. And taking that message with me: No matter what happens, I’m here for a reason.”

Keep it simple. Don’t overthink it. Be yourself.

“He’s always done that,” Edwards said. “(When) I was struggling real bad, he told me: ‘Every day, just go back to backyard baseball. Say a prayer. Miss you. Meditate and just know, son, you’re there for a reason. And no matter what the outcome is, I’m going to still love you regardless.’ Just my dad being my dad. He basically taught me pitching growing up, so he’s the one that knows me best.”

Cubs: Ben Zobrist breaks down what went wrong this season and how he can still make it right

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Cubs: Ben Zobrist breaks down what went wrong this season and how he can still make it right

Ben Zobrist is a self-made player who feels months behind where he should be, freely admitting: “If we were in September right now, I’d be like: ‘Uh-oh.’”

The Cubs have played that long game all year, hanging around and slowly moving ahead in the National League Central race, hoping they will peak at the right time and the muscle memory will take over in October. That just seems to be getting harder and harder for their World Series MVP.

“We’re still where we need to be,” Zobrist said, “even though I have not played anywhere near my capability this season.”

Zobrist is a man of faith, so he will try not to feel snake-bitten, even as the injuries keep piling up, scratched from Monday’s game with a stiff neck and held back in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.

But watching Zobrist work a pinch-hit walk in the eighth inning and line an RBI single off Reds closer Raisel Iglesias in the ninth inning underlined how much the Cubs need him without Dexter Fowler leading off and Willson Contreras hitting in the middle of their lineup. 

Coming off back-to-back World Series runs, there were questions about whether or not a stiff neck would prevent Zobrist from being ready for Opening Day. Playing a doubleheader on May 9 at Coors Field stressed his lower back and sidelined him again. An awkward swing on May 26 at Dodger Stadium would eventually put him on the disabled list with a sore left wrist and force him to miss most of June.

Playoffs? Personal three-peat? The Cubs are a 62-56 team with a 1.5-game lead in the division. Zobrist is also too much of a realist to think that he can just flip a switch when he’s hitting .223 with an OPS that’s roughly 80 points below the league average and he hasn’t homered since the first game after the All-Star break.

[MORE: Cubs don’t see finish line for Addison Russell yet: ‘I don’t think that there’s any rush’  ]

“Right now, I’ve got more important things to worry about and they’re more minute,” Zobrist said. “Am I doing the things I need to do to have a good, quality at-bat? If I can start doing that again, then I’m very confident that when we get to that time, I’ll be able to do what I normally do. But that’s a long ways away for me, still.

“I’m trying to get to the point where I normally am in May. I’m not thinking about playoff time. I need to get back to that May time where I’m getting things where they need to go.”

After getting shut down by the New York Mets’ power pitching and swept out of the 2015 NL Championship Series, the Cubs identified Zobrist as the switch-hitter to diversify their lineup and set an example for their young players.  

Whatever happens from here – the Cubs believed his ability to handle fastballs and play multiple positions would keep him productive through his mid-30s – Zobrist has already been worth every penny of that four-year, $56 million deal.

“I’ve always been a hands/wrists/forearms (hitter),” Zobrist said. “That’s been one of my strengths: Let the pitch get deep and still get my hands to the front of the zone. That’s been really difficult to do. In June, it was impossible for me.

“And when that went, it was like: ‘OK, this is a tough one,’ because I tried to play through it. It just wasn’t healing and I wasn’t able to do the work. That’s when I hit the DL. I had to figure out (that) I have to get the wrists and the hands completely healthy. Or else I shouldn’t be out there, because the pitchers are too good.”

At 36, Zobrist is old enough to remember watching the championship celebrations for Michael Jordan’s Bulls on TV, childhood memories that inspired him to give a speech during that massive Grant Park rally last November, a scene that he envisioned when he took a hometown discount to sign with the Cubs.  

“Age is about figuring out how to take care of you, because every guy is a little bit different,” Zobrist said. “There’s no formula once you get to a certain point. When you’re 25, the formula is nothing. It’s essentially just like: ‘Show up. Do the work. And you’re going to be able to do what you know how to do.’

“But as you get a little bit older, you start kind of going: ‘OK, what is it about me that I have to do to get back to where I feel great on the field?’ That’s a learning experience that’s constantly happening.

“Whereas before, you didn’t really have to do anything to get ready. You could just basically pick up a bat and run down to the cage and start swinging as hard as you want to swing.

“And now it’s like: ‘OK, if you want to go 100 mph, you’re going to have to take longer than 2.whatever seconds to get there.’ You’re going to have to really ramp it up and figure out those particular issues for you as a player that are going to pop up.”

Nights like this – the rest of the team going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position, almost getting shut out by a last-place team and missing the dimensions their World Series MVP brought to this lineup – make you wonder if there will be enough time for Zobrist and the defending champs to figure it out.