Maholm looking forward to bigger stage with Cubs

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Maholm looking forward to bigger stage with Cubs

MESA, Ariz. Paul Maholm shrugged his shoulders several times. He described himself as a quiet guy from a small town, who plans to go home to Mississippi when its all done. He came across as thoughtful and secure in his identity.

Maholm did not seem to be on edge, even after a bad flu case, or easily rattled. That should help him in going from the low-pressure environment around the Pittsburgh Pirates to Wrigley Field.

The Cubs have Matt Garza, who always seems to be making noise, and Ryan Dempster at the top of their rotation. The final two spots are up for grabs, with Chris Volstad, Randy Wells, Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood among the contenders.

In the middle sits Maholm, the No. 3 starter who signed a free-agent contract that qualified as a splash for the Cubs this winter (4.25 million this season, with a 6.5 million club option for 2013).

Maholm, 29, never played for a Pirates team that won more than 72 games in a season. He had shown enough at Mississippi State University to become the eighth overall pick in the 2003 draft. His career record is 53-73 with a 4.36 ERA.

Have I thought I pitched better than that? Maholm said Tuesday. Yeah, but its there. Its in the books. Im not going to worry about what my record is. Were starting with a clean slate and I want to take the ball every fifth day and expect to win.

Im going to do everything I can (and) Im going to have every bit of confidence in the guys to put up runs and make the plays (behind me because) Im not a strikeout guy.

Manager Dale Sveum pointed to Maholms 3.66 ERA last year. The left-hander has also accounted for more than 1,100 innings in the majors. Thats a rotation lock.

He knows what hes doing out there, Sveum said, and anyone who saw what the lack of rotation depth did to the Cubs in 2011 knows what the manager is talking about.

Hes got four pitches that he can command and when hes keeping his sinker down in the strike zone, hes very, very effective in (using it) to get quick outs.

Maholm broke the news of his signing on Twitter, where he has almost 20,000 followers. The Roberto Clemente Award winner has used social media to reveal parts of his life, and from here its sometimes hard to understand why a professional athlete would open up like that in a gotcha culture.

I think Im pretty smart about trying to do the right thing, Maholm said. Im a Christian and Id like to hopefully have a platform to help others and with that comes charity work and other things that me and my wife have done in Pittsburgh.

Thats part of Twitter. Thats part of me. Im not going to shy away from it. Im not going to blast the team or any of that through my Twitter account. Its a way for fans to get to know me and interact with them and (let them) see the type of person and husband that I strive to be.

Maholm got into it with some Pittsburgh fans several weeks ago on Twitter after the Steelers lost an NFL playoff game to Tim Tebows Denver Broncos.

I thought it was a great story, he said. I dont think all athletes are necessarily role models, or they shouldnt be, but if youre going to put (up) a guy whos got the right values and the right work ethic, (Tebows) the guy right now.

I dont think you see him asking for interviews, holding press conferences on his own. Hes open. Hes going to talk. He comes off as one of the nicest guys (around). Sure, theres some overkill, but I think that comes with (todays) technology.

That last line might as well describe life around the Cubs and inside the cramped clubhouse at Wrigley Field. Maholm says hes looking forward to having 40,000 fans right on top of him.

Thats what you want, Maholm said. Thats what you play for.

As Cubs search for answers, Scott Boras doesn’t believe Jake Arrieta is feeling the pressure of free agency

As Cubs search for answers, Scott Boras doesn’t believe Jake Arrieta is feeling the pressure of free agency

LOS ANGELES – It’s harder to find perspective when the lights are flashing all around Dodger Stadium and the techno music is thumping and Adrian Gonzalez just launched a two-run homer 429 feet to straightaway center. 

But that’s why Jake Arrieta pays Scott Boras. The super-agent sat in a front-row seat behind home plate on Friday night, watching his client go through another up-and-down start for a Cubs team that needs Arrieta to pitch more like an ace.

It’s easy to lose sight of this during a 4-0 loss where the Dodgers looked more like the team on a mission after getting eliminated from last year’s National League Championship Series.

But Arrieta is someone who has already experienced the low points that made him think about quitting baseball as he shuttled back and forth between the Orioles and Triple-A – and the intoxicating high from ending the 108-year drought and creating so much joy for generations of Cubs fans.

So Boras isn’t buying the idea that Arrieta might be feeling the weight of his upcoming free agency.

“Coming from Baltimore to here and establishing himself in the big leagues was the major arc of his career,” Boras said, “the most difficult moment of illustrating that he is an everyday major-leaguer. The fact that he has the skills, and what he has up here (in his head), the dynamic of winning two World Series games and things like that, I’d say he’s (been) measured. When you win World Series games, that’s the most important thing.

“If you want me to measure pressure, I’d say that’s World Series cojones.”

To get back into October, the Cubs will need more consistency from Arrieta (5-4, 4.92 ERA), who’s still fine-tuning his delivery and not always getting that extra burst of velocity that made him a Cy Young Award winner and unhittable one night at Dodger Stadium.

Two aging Dodgers crushed Arrieta fastballs. Chase Utley – who began the game hitting .204 – drove one over the center-field wall in the third inning. Gonzalez had gone 131 plate appearances this season before notching his first home run with two outs in the sixth inning.

“I understand how difficult this game is,” Arrieta said. “It’s a work in progress. I’m still not exactly where I would like to be. But it’s close. It really is.”

Even as Arrieta worked through command/mechanical issues last season, he still wound up winning 18 games and limiting opponents to a .583 OPS that ranked second in the majors. It took until the middle of last August before he gave up his 10th home run, or where he’s already at through 10 starts this season. 

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“The one that Utley hit out was on the corner – that’s a good piece of hitting,” Arrieta said. “The one to Gonzalez was too much plate in a 3-1 count. It was elevated. Willson (Contreras) called a changeup. I shook to the fastball. I expected to locate a little bit better than I did. But I feel like if I continue on this progression, I think I’ll be OK.

“I don’t intend to continue to give up as much hard contact, especially balls over the fence. It’s been a little bit of tough luck, but they just flat out beat us.”

There’s some truth to that – Arrieta continued to pile up the strikeouts (nine) and limit the walks (one) – while Dodger lefty Alex Wood extended his scoreless streak to 25.1 innings before handing the game over to a dominant bullpen. But whether it’s an underperforming offense, a defense not playing at the same historic level or those velocity questions, Arrieta doesn’t appear to have the same margin for error anymore.

All those elements could come roaring back, but the Cubs are now a 25-22 team that could be looking to replace 60 percent of the rotation by Opening Day 2018.

“You don’t really think about (it),” Boras said. “When the Cubs come to town, I look at the standings: OK, where are they at? They’re trying to win again. This club’s a good club and you think about what moves they’re going to make to make it better.

“Jake’s total focus has always been about putting himself in a position that few players get to be in – and that is being on a club where you can win more.”

Whatever happens over the next several months, this will be the reservoir of confidence Arrieta draws from, and ultimately his legacy as a Cub.

“When the postseason hits, it’s Jake’s greatest measurement,” Boras said. “I don’t know, I heard winning a World Series in Chicago was difficult.”

Cubs: Is Joe Maddon turning Kyle Schwarber into a platoon player?

Cubs: Is Joe Maddon turning Kyle Schwarber into a platoon player?

LOS ANGELES – Joe Maddon doesn’t want to put the platoon label on a young hitter who became a World Series legend before his 24th birthday. But the Cubs manager also isn’t planning to start Kyle Schwarber against left-handers anytime soon. 

“If people want to say that, I can’t avoid it,” Maddon said Friday at Dodger Stadium, where Schwarber sat against lefty Alex Wood, who took a 20.1-inning scoreless streak into this National League Championship Series rematch. “I’m going to do that until I feel good about him, because I don’t want to lay too many at-bats on him in a negative situation.

“If he’s not swinging the bat well against righties, it’s a bad assumption that I’m going to think he’s going to swing it well against lefties. Then I’m just putting him in a deeper hole by throwing him out there, just based on really bad logic.

“I’m just trying to pick his spots right now to get him going. Once he goes, he can play against anybody.”

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Schwarber – who’s hitting .181 with a .656 OPS and 55 strikeouts in less than 200 plate appearances this season – will start Saturday against Dodger right-hander Brandon McCarthy. But even with Clayton Kershaw looming on Sunday, Maddon didn’t want to give Schwarber the entire weekend off, the way Jason Heyward mentally reset last August at Coors Field.

“I don’t think it’s there yet,” Maddon said. “I’ve had good conversations with him. I think it’s a different set of circumstances.”

For the Cubs, this doesn’t really change their overall evaluation of Schwarber as a core player and potentially one of the most dangerous left-handed sluggers in the game. But Maddon has been backing away from the idea of Schwarber as a leadoff hitter, trying to reboot the player who had been such an intimidating postseason presence.

“My concern when the guy is struggling a little bit is you don’t want him to get him too many at-bats,” Maddon said. “It’s really hard to get yourself out of that mental, physical and numerical hole. By not getting him as many at-bats, it will be easy to get back to a number he’s more comfortable with.

“I don’t care about that – I really don’t. I’m looking at his past, process, what he’s doing for the team in regards to on-base, everything else. But for the guy himself, he looks up at the scoreboard and he sees numbers everywhere and they evaluate themselves based on numbers.

“I don’t want him to do that. I just want him to get back into the process of having good at-bats.”