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Cubs' Jon Lester back on track: 'Tonight was back to being me'

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Cubs' Jon Lester back on track: 'Tonight was back to being me'

Jon Lester hadn't been Jon Lester for a while.

The last time the high-priced free-agent left-hander won a game was May 16. He had an 0-3 record, his team had an 0-4 record in the previous four games he pitched. In his previous two starts, Lester had given up 11 runs in 9 1/3 innings.

That's why in Sunday's 2-1 extra-inning win over the Reds, it was refreshing to see the Cubs' big-money ace be himself again.

“The results were there," Lester said after the game. "We can all sit up here and say, hitters, ‘Swinging the bat well, just hitting the ball right at people.’ Pitchers, same thing. You feel like you make good pitches, but they find holes. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you don’t get outs.

"Tonight was better. Tonight was back to being me."

[MORE CUBS: Call him Mr. Walk-Off: Starlin Castro does it again for Cubs]

Sunday, Lester was the guy the Cubs thought he was going to be when they gave him that monstrous contract this offseason. He pretty much silenced the Reds over his seven innings of work, allowing just one run on five hits. He retired 20 of the 25 hitters he faced and squashed the limited uprisings.

Lester allowed just two base runners through the first five innings. The only real thorn in his side was Reds speedster Billy Hamilton. Hamilton reached on a single in the top of the third and stole his way to third base with two outs. For Lester, who's had well-documented struggles with keeping base runners at bay, Hamilton was untouchable on the basepaths. But the pitcher coaxed a groundout to end the threat and leave Hamilton at third base.

In the sixth, Hamilton led off with a double, and after another steal of third, he scored this time when Brandon Phillips singled him in. With a big inning looming, Lester's defense bailed him out. A Joey Votto double followed the Phillips hit, and Phillips attempted to score from first. But Chris Coghlan threw the ball in for Starlin Castro, who relayed on to David Ross, with the catcher applying a sensational tag on Phillips for the out at home. From there, Lester refocused and got a pair of flyouts to end another Reds threat.

It was a solid redemption after a pair of very un-Lester starts, losses to the Marlins and Tigers in which he was knocked around the yard.

“I think any time you have two starts like I did, you’re going to have some mental questions, you’re going to have some doubts," Lester said Sunday. "You’re going to have one of those, sitting there going, ‘OK, what am I doing wrong?’ You just have to kind of believe in what you’ve done, or what I’ve done, in the past and what’s kind of gotten me here. There’s a few mechanical things that we’ve been working on, just trying to have better direction, better line. I’m getting the ball to the side of the plate that I want to get it to. … Any time you have a couple bad ones, you always kind of sit back and go, ‘OK, what’s going on? What am I doing?’ … But as you get closer to your start, you kind of forget those things and worry about executing after that.”

[MORE CUBS: Don't look at it! Offense hardly the focus as Cubs do it all in win]

Hamilton proved to be the only real problem for Lester on Sunday. The Cincinnati speedster swiped a career-high five bases, tying a Reds record. He stole third base three times.

Lester might not have been able to slow down Hamilton, but the pitcher admitted that that's a pretty impossible task.

“You don’t," Lester responded when asked how one contains Hamilton. "You worry about the hitter, plain and simple. How many times did (Edwin Jackson) pick over there? Two, three times, and he still stole second, stole third. A guy like that, the biggest thing is you try to keep the guys that are at the plate from driving him in. That’s what it comes down to. The guy’s speed — he outruns the baseball. I haven’t seen many guys do that.

"It doesn’t matter how quick you are to home plate, it doesn’t matter how many times you pick over to first, he flat-out outruns the baseball. Nothing you can do with that. You can’t defend it. You just hope he doesn’t get a great jump or slips or something and the catcher throws the ball right on the bag and he just happens to slide into the glove. A guy like that, you’ve got to worry about the hitter, you’ve got to worry about not giving up the basehit to those guys. He’s going to run around the bases. It is what it is.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get a Jon Lester jersey right here]

But even with Hamilton creating havoc for Lester and the Cubs, the left-hander still managed to turn in a pretty sparkling outing. After a terrific May in which Lester posted a dazzling 1.76 ERA, June got off to a rocky start. But perhaps Sunday's performance was the one to get things back on track.

It was certainly a good game for the Cubs as a whole, getting their second walk-off win in as many days.

Lester's happy to be a part of this team, and if his goal is to lead the pitching rotation into October, outings like Sunday's will help make that a reality.

“Mentally focused. We had the two-and-a-half-hour rain delay last night. Guys came in and kept battling. We could’ve easily — especially with a young team not used to that stuff — could have cashed it in and shown up when the game started and got our butts kicked. But we kept battling," Lester said. "I keep saying it over and over, just to see these guys night in and night out battle. We have good, quality ABs. It seems like every night we keep our team in the ballgame as far as pitching. And our defense has gotten a lot better as the year’s gone on. Guys I think are just feeling more comfortable with where they’re at. But these guys have done a great job from top to bottom.”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.