Cubs

With another win, Jon Lester shifts into cruise control as Cubs enter stretch run

With another win, Jon Lester shifts into cruise control as Cubs enter stretch run

Jon Lester doesn't get the same attention as teammates Jake Arrieta or MLB ERA leader Kyle Hendricks, but the veteran southpaw is staking his claim in the NL Cy Young race.

With just about a month left in the season, Lester looks worth every cent of the $155 million contract he signed prior to 2015.

Lester took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and dominated the San Francisco Giants Friday in a 2-1 Cubs victory in front of 40,818 fans at Wrigley Field.

Hunter Pence's homer with two outs in the seventh was the only blemish on Lester's line as he needed 102 pitches in a complete game effort.

"I didn't think his stuff was overpowering," catcher David Ross said. "He just really moved the ball around and executed the pitches when he had to. 

"When you got an aggressive team like that and the ball moving all over the place like it was today, good things happen."

Lester improved to 15-4 on the season, lowering his ERA to 2.61 by allowing only five baserunners (three hits, two walks) with four strikeouts.

That marks seven straight quality starts for Lester, who has surrendered just seven earned runs in that span, good for a 1.35 ERA. Only Hendricks (1.28 ERA) has a better mark since late July.

This is more like it after an inconsistent debut season in Chicago.

"Last year, his numbers were good. I don't think Jon would tell you he had a good year," said Ross, Lester's personal catcher. "But I think his numbers were really good, consistent for him.

"This is Jon Lester [now]. This is the guy I know. This is the guy I've known since I've been catching him. This is typical Jon. He's gonna go out, keep you within striking distance and he's gonna give you all he's got when he steps on the mound.

"He expects perfection out of himself and I expect that of him when I catch him. He's having a phenomenal year."

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Lester is also tied for the MLB lead with 22 quality starts and the Cubs have won 20 of his 27 starts, tops in the big leagues. 

The 32-year-old southpaw has 17 starts with one or fewer earned runs this season. 

So maybe he's the pick for Cy Young over Hendricks or Arrieta?

"It's fun to be a part of," Lester said. "At the same time, I don't really care. I'd rather have a ring. Individual stuff is obviously really cool and it's nice, but those World Series trophies look nice on your mantle, too. I'd rather have those."

Ross gave the Cubs the lead in the third with an RBI double. After Lester bunted his catcher over to third base, Dexter Fowler drove home Ross with a looping single over shortstop.

The Cubs had a prime opportunity to tack on in the bottom of the eighth, but Jason Heyward lined into a double play with the bases loaded.

The Cubs have now won five in a row and nine straight at Wrigley Field, improving to 40 games over .500 at 87-47.

"It's pretty incredible," Joe Maddon said. "I always talk about increments of five and I remember back when we were just talking about five [games above .500]. Pre-All Star Break, had that little bit of a hiccup, stubbed our toes, but rebounded pretty nicely.

"There's good energy on the field, there's a strong belief that we're going to play a pretty good game. The defense and the pitching have really set the tone for the whole thing."

Ross echoed his manager's thoughts.

"We're used to winning," the veteran catcher said. "When you get that confidence of being used to winning, it's fun. ... It's a good group, confident. A lot of winners. We expect great things out of ourselves and we expect to win every game. We really do.

"The cool thing for me is that when you got this kind of lead this late in the season and guys are still not giving away at-bats late in the game or when you're down like the other night and still finding ways to come back, that's the sign of guys that are just focused on what's going on on the field and nothing else."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion. 

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

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USA TODAY

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.