Many of the story lines surrounding Monday’s match-up between the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies centered around the starting pitching duo. It was the first time former Cub Jake Arrieta had faced his old team since signing a three-year, $75 million deal with the Phillies following the 2017 season.
In his four full seasons with the Cubs, Arrieta posted a 2.67 ERA across 119 starts, racking up a 151 ERA-plus (51 percent better than league average) during his time on the north side. Of course, those numbers encompassed two no-hitters from the right-hander and a Cy Young award in 2015.
During that campaign, Arrieta posted a sparkling 1.77 ERA, leading the league in wins (22), complete games (four) and shut-outs (three) while holding opposing hitters to an average of 5.9 hits per nine innings across that same time frame. For his efforts, as mentioned above, Arrieta won the National League Cy Young award in ’15, helping to establish three straight seasons of the veteran finishing in the top-ten for that honor.
In the postseason, Arrieta was equally as valuable for the Cubs, allowing just five hits to the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 2015 NL Wild Card game while striking out 11 as Chicago advanced into the NLDS. That start, the Cubs would go on to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals to advance to the NLCS, helped kick-off this recent run of success by the franchise, culminating in a World Series trophy in 2016.
It was in that World Series against the Cleveland Indians that Arrieta made two starts, amassing 11.1 innings, posting a 2.38 ERA in the process while winning both of his outings and recording a WHIP south of one. As many will remember, the Cubs needed all seven games to bounce back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Indians in seven electrifying games to break the 108-year championship drought.
Three years removed from that magical 103-win season that ended at the summit of the baseball world, the Cubs have essentially swapped Arrieta for Darvish in their starting rotation, an experiment that has not played out well for the Cubs, at least so far.
Entering play on Monday, Darvish was sporting a 5.05 ERA in his 17 starts with the Cubs across two seasons after signing a six-year, $126 million deal prior to the 2018 campaign. While the right-hander is still averaging better than 11 strikeouts per nine innings, Darvish battled injuries last season that limited him to just 40 frames and an ERA approaching five.
Well, having recovered from off-season elbow surgery, Darvish looked to bounce back in 2019 to prove he is the same pitcher who narrowly missed winning the American League Cy Young award in 2013. Despite being fully healthy, Darivsh has battled his mind just about as much as the opposing batters, a process that has not gone well for the veteran.
Prior to play on Monday, Darvish had amassed just two wins in nine starts this season, pitching to a 5.14 ERA as his walk rate has ballooned in his second year with the Cubs. Never above 10.9 percent before joining the Cubs, Darvish has posted walk rates of 11.7 percent and 17.2 percent in ’18 and ’19 respectively. With 33 walks in 42 innings prior to Monday, Darvish leads all major league starters (minimum 40 innings) with that lofty walk rate while also ranking 17th on that list, sporting a 28.7 percent strikeout rate.
While Darvish has been wild more often than not thus far in 2019, he has been gradually cutting down his hard contact rate since coming to Chicago, dropping it to 26.7 percent this season, a number that is better than three percentage points lower than his career average. Additionally, Darvish has been inducing many more ground balls in 2019, sporting a 49.5 percent ground ball rate entering play. For perspective, Darvish has not posted a ground ball rate higher than 46.2 percent (2012) in his career prior to this season, with his career mark sitting at 41.5 percent.
On Monday, Darvish looked to build upon a strong showing against the Cincinnati Reds in which the right-hander struck out 11 batters and failed to yield a free pass across 5.1 innings. While the Cubs ended up losing the contest 6-5, that outing represented just the second time all season that Darvish did not walk a batter and the first time he had struck out double digit batters.
Tasked to face-off against the a potent Phillies lineup and perhaps one of the best pitchers to ever grace the mound at Wrigley Field in the form of Arrieta, Darvish no doubt knew his outing would mean a lot to the fans.
Not only is this four-game series against Philadelphia important as they are the NL East Division leaders, but it would serve as kind of a turning point for Darvish in his career with the Cubs. Many times in just the season and a half since Darvish has been with the Cubs, fans and writers alike have talked about how a certain outing might be a turning point for the right-hander. That, however, has never come to fruition as Darvish has yet to really string solid back-to-back outings together as a member of the Cubs.
With a “good” start under his belt just five days prior, Darvish looked to out-duel Arrieta and quiet the Phillies’ lineup. Despite being full of names like Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto, Philadelphia’s lineup entered play with the 17th best wRC-plus in the game (98) just ahead of teams like the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals.
Nevertheless, Harper and others always pose a threat, especially in a game where runs are likely to come at a premium. With two former “aces” on the mound Monday, the series-opening game between the Cubs and Phillies turned out to be an old-fashioned pitcher’s duel, one that ultimately ended up in the hands of both bullpens.
Early on, it looked like Darvish would out-duel Arrieta as the Phillies managed just one hit their first time through the batting order. Needing just 10 pitches to get through the first inning, Darvish flashed his elite command, garnering four called strikes and one swinging.
His strikeout of Andrew McCutchen to lead-off the ballgame represented the first of three Darvish would induce through the first three frames as he kept the Phillies in check with three ground balls across the first third of the game.
Opposite Darvish, Arrieta was forced to work around a considerable amount of traffic. After going quietly in the first inning, the Cubs sent six men to the plate in the second frame, loading the bases with only one away. Entering play, the Cubs were sporting a .159 (13-for-82) batting average since May 6 with runners in scoring position, a number that ranked 29th in baseball across that time frame.
In the second, and throughout much of the night on Monday, the Cubs would only continue pushing that number in the wrong direction as two ground balls from the home club’s eight- and nine-hole hitters allowed Arrieta to escape the opening frame.
Following that let-down of an inning, Darvish responded by retiring the Phillies 1-2-3 in the top half of the third, striking out his counterpart and inducing a ground ball off the bat of McCutchen in the process.
Eager to get their pitcher an advantage with the top of their order due in the third, Kyle Schwarber kicked off the frame with a towering three-base hit to left field that narrowly missed flying out of the ballpark. Instead, Schwarber pulled into third base with his sixth career triple, later scoring on an Anthony Rizzo RBI single by a drawn-in Phillies infield.
Staked to a 1-0 lead, Darvish pitched into the sixth having not allowed the Phillies to move a runner into scoring position. Instead, Darvish retired Philadelphia in the fourth with two ground balls and a strikeout of Harper on a cutter that may have been the right-hander’s best offering of the game. Stranding his first free pass of the evening on base, Darvish opened the sixth inning by walking McCutchen.
Never a good idea to walk the lead-off batter, especially at the top of the lineup, Darvish induced a ground ball that came within about six inches of resulting in a double play. Instead, Jean Segura was safe at first after a brief replay review, later moving to second with a stolen base.
Representing the Phillies’ first runner in scoring position all night, the visiting club made sure to capitalize upon their opportunity. A walk of Harper preceded just the Phillies’ third hit of the ballgame, a single of the bat of Realmuto that rolled into center field and tied the contest at one.
Still with an opportunity to get out of the inning with the game tied, Darvish needed only one out to complete six strong innings. Cesar Hernandez, however, had other ideas, tagging a 1-1 slider from the right-hander and looping it into the right field corner. After taking a Phillie bounce and rolling onto the top of the wall padding, Hernandez’s ball ended up eluding Heyward, allowing both runners to score and Cesar to end up with a triple.
Now down 3-1 thanks to back-to-back run-scoring hits from the Phillies, Darvish finished six frames with a 4-3 ground out, ending what was a strong, quality start from the veteran. Despite ultimately getting out-dueled by Arrieta who spun six innings of one-run baseball, Darvish looked sharp for much of the evening.
Overall, Darvish needed 95 pitched to complete six innings of work, garnering 16 swinging strikes on those offerings. Ten of those 16 came courtesy of Darvish’s cutter, a pitch he featured 32 times on Monday. The other six were split between Darvish’s slider and two-seam fastball/splitter, pitches he tossed a combined 42 times.
In addition to his 16.8 percent swinging strike rate, Darvish added another 19 called strikes to the mix, five with his four-seam fastball and cutter and six with his slider as it was clear Darvish’s command was on his side for much of the night. Darvish’s final line looked like this: six innings, four hits, three earned runs, three walks and seven strikeouts on the aforementioned 95 pitches, lowering his season ERA to 5.06.
Offensively, the Cubs could not get much going against Arrieta, but the Phillies bullpen would be a different story. In each of the third, fourth and fifth innings, the Cubs had legitimate chances to score runs, walking away with just their one tally. In the fifth, the Cubs loaded the bases with one away, beginning with a double by Rizzo and single by Heyward. Not sent home on Heyward’s single, Rizzo was cut down at home plate by Harper from right field after Albert Almora flied out.
Realmuto was just able to tag Rizzo as he attempted to slide-step the catcher at home plate and keep the Cubs within one run only a half inning ahead of the Phillies’ rally in the sixth.
Up 3-1 late, the Phillies tasked reliever Seranthony Dominguez to soak up two innings of work as the right-hander worked a clean and efficient first frame in the seventh. Despite that and his nasty stuff, the big righty opened the home half of the eighth inning by walking back-to-back batters, giving the Cubs yet another run-scoring opportunity. Moved to second and third on a sac-bunt by Almora, a single into the outfield grass by Daniel Descalso would be more than enough to tie the contest.
Entering play, Descalso had been struggling at the plate, turning in a .215/.286/.318/.603 slash line after jumping out to such a good start offensively. Amid the Cubs’ struggles with runners in scoring position this month and Descalso’s overall tough times, the left-handed batter was determined not to send Cubs fans home empty handed.
With a quality start from Darvish hanging in the balance, Descalso ripped a low-and-away 98.2 MPH fastball from Dominguez into the left-center field gap, splitting the defenders and allowing both runners to trot home. On the Segura relay throw, the ball bounced off Descalso’s foot as he pulled into third base, falling into the home dugout and allowing the veteran to score the Cubs’ go-ahead run.
Labeled “a little-league home run,” Descalso’s heroics saved a quality start from Darvish, getting the right-hander off the hook. Thanks to his two-run triple and run on the error from the Phillies’ infielder, the Cubs entered the ninth clinging to a new-found 4-3 lead. That advantage, however, would not be safe even with Brad Brach pumping 97 MPH heaters. A one out double was chased in by Segura who no doubt was attempting to atone for his error just a half inning prior.
Atone is exactly what Segura accomplished, sending a soft fly ball down the right field line that found dirt, scoring Maikel Franco and tying the contest at four all.
The Cubs’ late-inning rally courtesy of Descalso helped wipe both starting pitcher’s hands of Monday’s contest despite both of them turning in quality outings. Instead, the fate of the ballgame ended up in the hands of each team’s bullpen.
Unfortunately, it would not take long for the Cubs’ bullpen to yield the lead once again. Sporting a 3.92 ERA entering play, even after a terrible start, Chicago’s ‘pen was a bit leaky on Monday. First, Brach allowed the Phillies to tie the game in the ninth, ahead of left-hander Kyle Ryan who issued the go-ahead solo home run in the 10th.
On a 1-2 count to Phillies catcher Realmuto, Ryan left an 89 MPH fastball in the middle of the strike zone and elevated, an offering the back-stop sent 377-feet to left-center field. Giving the Phillies a 5-4 lead in the 10th. It was the first long ball allowed by Ryan this season, one that could not have came at a worst time.
All told, the Cubs’ bullpen allowed two critical runs in the ninth and tenth, resulting in the Phillies taking the series-opener over the Cubs by a score of 5-4. With their late-game heroics, the Cubs finished the contest 3-for-9 with runners in scoring position, but the feeling still remains that there were plenty of opportunities for the Cubs to score runs in the middle innings. Instead, they plated just one, needing an eighth inning rally to get back in the game.
In the end, it was all for nothing as Ryan issued the go-ahead home run in the 10th, helping to drop the Cubs’ record to 27-18 while improving the Phillies’ mark to 28-19 on the season.
Next Up for the Cubs
The Cubs will continue their four-game series with the Phillies on Tuesday at 6:00 pm at Wrigley Field. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be left-hander Jose Quintana (4-3, 3.68 ERA). Across three starts spanning 17.2 innings this month, Quintana has been up-and-down, posting a 4.08 ERA while going 1-2 in the process. Additionally, the southpaw has issued 18 hits, striking out 12 while walking six batters.
Quintana’s last outing was cut short against the Cincinnati Reds on May 16 due to rain. Prior to his exit, Quintana yielded three earned runs on six hits over five innings of work while striking out four batters versus just one walk.
Opposing Quintana on the mound Tuesday will be right-hander Zach Eflin (5-4, 2.89 ERA). Unlike Quintana, Eflin has been rolling thus far during the month of May. Across 21 innings spanning three starts, the 25-year-old has posted a 2.14 ERA, allowing 15 hits and striking out 19 batters while issuing only four walks. In his last start, however, Eflin was roughed up by the Milwaukee Brewers, yielding four earned runs on seven hits over five innings of work.
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