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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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.”

Cubs need Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to produce or else their reign as defending World Series champs is over

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Cubs need Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to produce or else their reign as defending World Series champs is over

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are the yin and yang of the Cubs lineup, the right- and left-handed forces that feed off each other, two huge building blocks for a World Series team, the smiling faces of the franchise, an ideal brand for social media and two friends close enough that Rizzo became a groomsman at Bryant’s Las Vegas wedding in January.

With the defending champs now down 0-2 in a best-of-seven National League Championship Series – and the Los Angeles Dodgers looking like an updated version of the 2016 Cubs – winter is coming if Bryzzo Souvenir Co. doesn’t start producing soon.

Like Tuesday night in Game 3 at Wrigley Field. Take away the 9-8 outlier against the Washington Nationals – where an intentional walk, a passed ball on a swinging strike three, a catcher interference and a hit by pitch sparked a big rally – and the Cubs have scored 11 runs in six playoff games this October.

“Everybody in the lineup, they feel the same way: When you don’t produce, it’s like you let the team down,” Bryant said. “But that’s not the right way to feel, because not one person makes or breaks the team.

“I put that in perspective all the time, and realize it’s not what you do in the playoffs, it’s what the team does. And, obviously, we haven’t been getting it done so far in the series. But this is a totally unselfish team. I don’t think anybody here is pouting or down on themselves.”

Bryant (.179 average) has struck out 13 times in 28 postseason at-bats while working only one walk and hitting zero homers. Rizzo – who shouted “RESPECT ME!” at Dusty Baker and the Nationals during the divisional round and went 0-for-6 over the weekend at Dodger Stadium – dismissed the idea that he feels any extra responsibility to jumpstart the offense.

“I think that is selfish if you did,” Rizzo said. “One through nine, all 25 guys, we got to get going. Our pitching is doing a heck of a job. You need help from everyone in the lineup, not just one or two guys.”

But Bryant and Rizzo can certainly make Joe Maddon’s job a lot easier, not forcing the pinch-hitters as early for Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta, creating some breathing room for the middle relievers or just getting the lead and taking the guesswork out of the equation: Give the ball to All-Star closer Wade Davis.     

Even without launching home runs, Bryant and Rizzo also happen to be very good on the bases, with enough speed and instincts to make things happen when the Dodgers keep putting zeros on the scoreboard. The Cubs are already sacrificing offense for defense at second base (Javier Baez) and in right field (Jason Heyward) and don’t have their World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist) in peak condition.    

Bryant is exceptionally available to the media, and usually shrugs almost everything off with an upbeat answer, but even he sounded and looked a little different in terms of tone and body language on Sunday night in Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse.

Whether it was the nature of that walk-off loss – Where’s Wade? – or the reality of a different Dodger team or the jet lag, the Cubs seemed a little shell-shocked.

It was almost exactly a year ago when Bryant stood in the same room in front of the cameras and purposely said, “Nope,” when asked if there was any sense of panic creeping into the clubhouse after seeing Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill in back-to-back shutouts.

[MORE: Wade Davis won't second-guess Joe Maddon]      

But Bryant even admitted that defending a World Series title is more taxing than chasing a championship ring.  

“I wouldn’t say emotionally or mentally,” Bryant said. “Physically, yeah, I think some guys are tired. It’s been a really long year, (but) you only notice that before and after the game.

“During the game, there’s so much adrenaline and the fans cheering that you don’t really notice it. But then you sit down after a game, you feel pretty tired and beat. And then you wake up and do it all over again the next day.”

That has been the story of 2017 for Bryant, who followed up an MVP campaign with a 29-homer/.946 OPS season that drew attention for his lowered RBI total (73). But just like Rizzo, he has a tenacious competitive streak and a unique ability to separate one pitch from the next. The Cubs need all of that now, or else their reign as defending World Series champs is about to end.   

“I’ve put some good swings on some balls, but sometimes you just get beat,” Bryant said. “Sometimes you go through good stretches, bad stretches, stuff like that. I realize it’s all part of the game.

“It just stinks. You want to go out there and perform right now, because if you perform now, you’re winning. But you can’t force it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Where do Cubs go from here down 0-2 in NLCS?

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Where do Cubs go from here down 0-2 in NLCS?

Patrick Mooney and Tony Andracki analyze the Cubs' sub-optimal position in the NLCS, down two games to none to the Dodgers with a lack of offense and a struggling bullpen.

Plus, what was Joe Maddon thinking with his lineup and bullpen decisions in the first two games of the series? And what is really going with Wade Davis?

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below: