Cubs

Best way for Cubs to weather Jon Lester's absence is to pitch well, and that's just what they're doing

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USA TODAY

Best way for Cubs to weather Jon Lester's absence is to pitch well, and that's just what they're doing

The best way for the Cubs to weather Jon Lester’s absence?

Pitch well.

Fortunately for the Cubs, that’s exactly what they’re doing of late.

Lester was placed on the disabled list ahead of Friday’s 7-4 win over the visiting Toronto Blue Jays, but the news was about as good as it could’ve been for the North Siders. Lester’s DL stint will effectively be just a stretch of time off to rest after pitching so deep into October in recent seasons. The official description of his injury is left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

Of course the team will miss the ace of its starting staff while he’s on the shelf, but there’s a perfectly good way to make up for his absence: the rest of the pitchers pitch in a Lester-like fashion.

Jake Arrieta did just that Friday, turning in another stellar start with 6.1 innings of one-run ball.

“Jake was outstanding,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You could see it, fastball command, man. When it’s there, this guy’s pitching deep into games and he’s giving up very few runs. He just had good stuff again.”

It’s been a trend of late for Arrieta, who after a shaky start to the season has been terrific since the start of July. In his last nine starts, Arrieta has a pencil-thin 2.03 ERA, giving up more than two earned runs in just one of those starts (and he gave up just three in that one).

He was at it again Friday, with minimal damage done by a Blue Jays lineup featuring the likes of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Justin Smoak.

“I’ve located the ball really well,” Arrieta said, describing what he’s done lately that’s made him so good. “I've established certain things early on in the ballgame that allow me to do certain things differently as the game progresses. I’ve shown the ability to spin multiple breaking balls for strikes and for put-away (pitches) late in the count. And then obviously, pitching to contact early in the game and having certain things that I can use for put-away pitches later on is really the way you pitch and the way you pitch successfully. I think the game plan is always to utilize strengths, point out and try to expose a weakness here and there with the opposing offense and try and pitch into the seventh inning.”

“I love the way he’s gone about his business this year,” Maddon said. “There was a moment there when he was struggling. A lot of people were asking him different questions. He did not alter, he continued along the same path. Right now, maybe he’s not as good as he was a couple years ago, but he’s pretty darn close.”

Arrieta isn’t the only Cubs starter to pick things up of late, either. Kyle Hendricks has been great since his return from the disabled list, boasting a 2.00 ERA in his last five starts even if longevity hasn’t necessarily been there. Even John Lackey, who has surrendered more homers than any other National League pitcher, has a 3.29 ERA in seven starts since the beginning of July.

A lack of consistency in the starting rotation was the No. 1 issue for the Cubs during their sub-.500 first half. Now consistency is starting to come for those who struggled to find it during the season’s first three months.

The continued strong performances from these starters is the best way to make sure the Cubs stay on top of the NL Central standings — with and without Lester.

“It balances the whole thing out. We definitely need that,” Maddon said. “We got on a nice roll post-break because we pitched so well. And the next roll is going to be because we pitch so well. We’ve got to pitch well and catch it, give them their minimum number of outs per game. And when we start doing that consistently, you’re going to see us start piling up five out of six, eight out of 10, et cetera. But you need to pitch and play defense well to do that.”

See, even with Lester making his starts in recent weeks, the rest of the rotation has been shouldering the load. That’s the reason Lester went on the DL in the first place. After that nightmarish final start before the All-Star break in which he allowed 10 runs in less than an inning to the Pittsburgh Pirates, he had three tremendous outings after the break. But in four August starts, Lester turned in a grotesque 7.85 ERA. Thursday’s start was the straw that broke the camel’s back, Lester allowing eight runs and recording just five outs against the Cincinnati Reds.

“I think the big thing is obviously the overall performance wasn’t there,” Lester said. “That’s just something that we’ve tried to manage for a while and get through. And it just got to a point where you’re doing a disservice to your team by going out there and not being able to perform. It sucks going on the DL, feel like you can’t help. But at the same time, I wasn’t helping out there, so let’s get this thing right and get back to being myself.”

Much pregame attention was devoted to Mike Montgomery, who will start in Lester’s place during the DL stay. Maddon, team president Theo Epstein and other Cubs pitchers have plenty of faith in Montgomery, who has been very good out of the bullpen for the Cubs this season, posting a 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances. As a starter, though, Montgomery’s numbers are much worse: a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.

While Arrieta, Hendricks, Lackey and the heretofore unmentioned Jose Quintana up their games in their starts to help make up for Lester’s absence, Montgomery will have to do the same.

The Cubs have been hit with a lot of problems in this follow-up season to that curse-smashing World Series win. Underwhelming play told the story of the first half, while critical injuries seem to be telling the story of the second. Lester joins everyday players Addison Russell and Willson Contreras on the DL. All this while the NL Central race is as tight as can be, with both the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals within two games of the Cubs heading into their games on Friday night.

But even with all that, the Cubs are still in first place. There’s a lot of baseball left, and the team expects Lester to be there for much of it. While he isn’t, though, it’s on the rest of the starting staff to pick things up.

They have. Now they have to continue to.

“I still feel that way,” Arrieta said, reminded of his own declaration that his best pitching is still to come. “I think a lot of guys in the clubhouse feel that way about themselves. That’s the way we need to do moving forward.”

What Chicago sports fans should be thankful for

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USA TODAY

What Chicago sports fans should be thankful for

Families gather and people talk about things they are thankful for on Thanksgiving, but what are Chicago sports fans happy for now?

Raised expectations on the North Side

Got to be thankful that a “disappointing” season is winning the division and losing in the NLCS. The expectations have skyrocketed, and that’s thanks to a ridiculous nucleus of bats and a steady front office. Not many clubs can say that. Also, though, it’s important to be appreciative of the Wrigley bar stretch. They may charge $8 for a Miller Lite, but it’s always a damn good party.

Javy tags, too. Don't forget Javy tags.

Rebuild sparking hope in White Sox fans

Where to begin? Obviously, be thankful for the plethora of young talent that will soon take over the South Side. Be thankful for Avi Time (while you still can). Be thankful that taking your friends or family to a game won’t cause you to take out a second mortgage. Be thankful for the 2020 World Series and, of course, 2020 MVP Eloy Jimenez. But most importantly, be thankful that Rick Hahn’s phone stays buzzing.

Eddie O back in the booth for the Blackhawks

The Blackhawks are having a rough start to the season, but at least Eddie Olczyk is back in the booth. The longtime Blackhawks broadcaster returned to the booth on Oct. 18 after missing time while undergoing chemotherapy treatments for colon cancer.

With some of the key names from the Blackhawks’ title runs either leaving or being unable to play this season (in the case of Marian Hossa), Blackhawks fans are probably thankful to see a familiar face and hear a familiar voice during games.

Lauri Markkanen leading the Bulls rebuild

OK, there’s not much to be thankful for about the current Bulls team. At 3-13, the Bulls are tied for the fewest wins in the NBA (maybe in the long-term that’s something to be thankful for as well). However, Zach LaVine’s pending debut after his eventual return from injury should help create some excitement.

The thing Bulls fans really should be thankful for this year is the play of rookie Lauri Markkanen. The 20-year-old leads the team in scoring (14.6 points per game) and rebounds (8.3 per game) while shooting at a high percentage (34.2 percent on threes and 50.6 percent on twos). It’s only the beginning of the Bulls’ rebuild, but Markkanen is a good start.

Mitchapalooza

If a few things broke the Bears’ way, Chicagoans could have been grateful that the team was finally out of the cellar. Instead, we’ll settle for the fact that there seems to be some building blocks already in place. Mitchell Trubisky, Tarik Cohen, Leonard Floyd and Akiem Hicks seem to fit that category. Also, some may be thankful that this is likely John Fox’s last season at the helm.

Fire ending a playoff drought

After finishing dead last in MLS in 2015 and 2016, the Fire were one of the most improved teams in the league in 2017. After posting the third best record in the league, the Fire made a first playoff appearance since 2012.

The playoff run didn’t last long with the Fire losing a play-in game at home, but the arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger and the league’s leading goal-scorer, Nemanja Nikolic, helped fill the stadium with six sellouts and gave Fire fans something to cheer for.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Where do Cubs go from here with Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis?

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Where do Cubs go from here with Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis?

In the latest CubsTalk Podcast, Kelly Crull and David Kaplan look ahead to Thanksgiving and discuss the official coaching hires for the Cubs.

They also talk about where the Cubs go from here with Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis, whether Alex Cobb could factor into the rotation plans and Kap goes off on the 11:30 a.m. Opening Day start time.

Check out the entire podcast here: