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One more (final?) time: The season is in Cutler's hands

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One more (final?) time: The season is in Cutler's hands

Bears players knew very well what was at stake last week and the week before that and the week before that and

They did not do enough each time. The prospect of the collective light going on is the great unknown right now and sometimes it is open to question whether certain key figures fully grasp the moment.

I think any time you lose games, you lose consecutive games, theres going to be that doom that sets in of what we could do differently, what we should have done, said quarterback Jay Cutler. I think thats anywhere in the league. Even when I was in Denver, you lose a couple games here and there, and its the end of the world.

(It actually was, if you define world as playoffs.)

The three straight losses by the 2008 Broncos took them from 8-5 to out of the postseason. While it may have been convenient to blame a porous defense, the fact is that Cutler threw four interceptions vs. two touchdowns and failed to post a passer rating higher than 75 in any of those three games.

The 2012 Bears were 8-5 going into the Green Bay game and Cutlers passer rating (72.5) was eerily similar to those three failed efforts.

The abyss

The point is not to single out Cutler. Others have dropped the ball literally and figuratively to put the Bears in their present fix. But no single player holds as much of the franchise future in his hands as No. 6.

What Cutler has established over his time in Chicago is that he is not a quarterback who is a consistent force for bringing his team from behind, particularly against a good defense, which Arizonas most definitely is.

The concerning element is that Cutler himself is more than capable of helping his team into a trail technique, as his first-half interceptions against Minnesota and Green Bay amply demonstrated. If that happens Sunday in the desert, the Bears project to have the kind of bad loss that gets head coaches fired.

And quarterbacks franchise credentials questioned.

Once the season is over, I think that this organization will take time to let things settle down and figure out what the necessary steps are going forward, Cutler allowed. But as players, we cant worry about that. That cant be in the back of our mind, cant be anything were concerned with. We can only have one concern right now, and thats Arizona.

Another must win

The Lovie Smith Bears are 12-50 when they fail to score at least 18 points. Five of those 12 wins were in the 2005 season when the defense was the NFLs best in points-allowed. The likelihood of Cutler directing the offense to at least 18 points against the Cardinals is problematic at best.

Whether Smith wanted to characterize the Green Bay game as a must win did not alter the fact that it was, because without a win, the Bears were reduced to waiting for playoff scraps rather than being able to order off the menu and affect what their own fortunes. Smith addressed that loss only in terms of the NFC North, which it indeed affected.

But the defeat dropped the Bears into the hopper of wannabes like Dallas, Washington, New York and Minnesota, which the Bears had throttled just three weeks earlier but could not put away in Minneapolis when they had the chance.

A nagging sub-question then became whether the Bears were in fact deteriorating, from a 28-10 breezing to a 21-14 study in inept offense against the same team. Did the Vikings get better or the Bears worse?

The loss to the Packers, turning just as the Minnesota game did, on Jay Cutler interceptions, gave a disturbing answer at a time when the head coach was being evaluated. And evaluations of head coaches jobs are less about game specifics but rather where the team is trending.

All I know how to do is come back and get it corrected the next week, said defensive end Julius Peppers. Weve got to win these two and see how everything else works out. But were going to win these last two.

We dont have any more chances. We have to win them all and whatever we can do, weve got to do it now.

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With or without Justin Verlander, Jake Arrieta expects Cubs to stay in first place: ‘We have the pieces’

With or without Justin Verlander, Jake Arrieta expects Cubs to stay in first place: ‘We have the pieces’

The Cubs already have a Cy Young Award winner, someone who was transforming into the hottest pitcher on the planet around this time in 2015, and then beat the Cleveland Indians twice on the road in last year’s World Series.

So the Cubs can keep discussing Justin Verlander and trying to figure out the price point where it makes sense, what caliber prospects they would have to give up and how much money the Detroit Tigers would have to kick in to cover a bill that could soar toward $90 million. 

But Jake Arrieta showed why the Cubs might finally start to run away from the division and become a very dangerous team in October, dominating the White Sox on Wednesday night at Guaranteed Rate Field during an 8-3 win that vaulted them into first place in the National League Central.          

“We expect to remain in first place,” Arrieta said. “We know it’s going to be a tough task, but that’s kind of what you deal with at the highest level of sports. You expect to have really good competition from teams that are either equal with you or close behind.

“We feel like we have the group to separate ourselves at this point in time and remain in first place for the remainder of the way.”

The Cubs probably don’t have the blue-chip prospects – and the appetite to raid their farm system again – to blow away the Oakland A’s and win a bidding war for Sonny Gray. The Cubs kick the tires on everything, but Yu Darvish would be a rental and the Texas Rangers are torn over what to do with their Japanese star. 

This is another reason why the Cubs are focusing on adding a veteran backup catcher and strengthening the bullpen before the July 31 trade deadline: Arrieta Watch is back, taking a no-hitter into the fifth inning in front of a sellout crowd of 38,517 before Omar Narvaez drilled a ground-rule double into the right-center field seats.  

The Cubs are 10-2 since trading for Jose Quintana during the All-Star break, erasing a 5.5-game deficit against the Milwaukee Brewers heading into this weekend’s showdown at Miller Park. At 53-47, the Cubs are a season-high six games over .500, and it all starts with pitching.  

“I think we’ve got the pieces to get it done,” Arrieta said. “If there’s a situation where we can get another guy and not lose any key players, it might work in our favor.

“Obviously, when we traded for Quintana, that’s a huge addition to our ballclub. This guy’s really good. He works his butt off. And just seeing how he carries himself in between starts is a really great sign. To have a guy like that who works extremely hard and cares about the team winning ballgames – you can’t replace that.

“That trade right there in itself is one that’s going to pay huge dividends for this ballclub, not only for this year, but for the next couple years. But we’re a great team right now, and I think we have the pieces to get it done.”  

Arrieta was on cruise control until Yoan Moncada launched his 98th and final pitch – an 0-2 curveball – 409 feet over the center-field wall with two outs in the seventh inning. Arrieta only allowed those two hits, giving up two runs and finishing with five strikeouts against two walks, continuing the correction super-agent Scott Boras predicted when the Chicago media and Cubs fans wondered about his flashes of diminished velocity and spikes in hard contact during a free-agency push.

Arrieta has methodically put together 10 wins and three straight quality starts after the All-Star break, chopping his ERA down from 5.44 in the middle of May to 4.03. Ricky Renteria’s White Sox are obviously tanking for the future and there are a lot of conditions attached to this statement: 

But if Arrieta pitches like this, Jon Lester continues to be one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation, Quintana excels in a pennant race and Kyle Hendricks regains his feel and rhythm after six-plus weeks on the disabled list, then the Cubs might have a better playoff rotation than the one that ended the 108-year drought.     

“We’re feelin’ it,” Arrieta said, thinking back to last summer, when Theo Epstein’s front office added 100-mph closer Aroldis Chapman to a team with close to a 99-percent chance of making the playoffs. “I remember last year we were in this clubhouse around this same time, and it’s no different.” 

Look at the competition: The Washington Nationals might be forced into adding a frontline starter now that Stephen Strasburg is headed to the 10-day disabled list with a nerve impingement in his right forearm. The Los Angeles Dodgers are hoping a strained lower back won’t stop Clayton Kershaw from making a few tune-up starts in September before becoming their Game 1 starter in October.

With or without Verlander, the Cubs are ramping up to defend their title.

“I’m going to continue to get stronger as the year progresses,” Arrieta said. “I feel like my best baseball, my best pitching, is still ahead of me. And I’m ready for it.”