Cubs

Cubs say this isn’t the beginning of the end for their ace: ‘I believe in Jon Lester’

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USA TODAY

Cubs say this isn’t the beginning of the end for their ace: ‘I believe in Jon Lester’

MILWAUKEE – Cubs executives bet on Jon Lester because they had so much inside information from their time together with the Boston Red Sox and believed he would age gracefully with his fluid left-handed delivery, imposing physical presence and competitive personality.

The Cubs also went into it with their eyes wide open, knowing the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers and how those megadeals usually lead to a crash.

“I think it’s way too early to talk about that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said Thursday at Miller Park, where Lester’s mysterious struggles overshadowed the beginning of a four-game showdown against the Milwaukee Brewers that could decide the National League Central race.

The night before at Tropicana Field, Lester got rocked in an 8-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, leaving him with a 5.91 ERA in four September starts since coming off the disabled list. Lester has a body of work that will make him a borderline Hall of Famer, but he’s given up 27 hits and 12 walks in 21.1 innings since the Cubs activated him after a left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue diagnosis in the middle of August.

“With any pitcher, you want to have that guy pitching at the top of his game going into October,” Hoyer said. “There’s no question. The timing of last night’s game, obviously, isn’t ideal. But we have two starts and we’ll hope he bounces back from that. We can’t control the timing.”

Almost exactly halfway through a six-year, $155 million commitment, the Lester investment has already paid for itself, because the Cubs are the defending World Series champs and couldn’t have done it without him. Period. But Lester is also 33 years old and has already thrown almost 2,200 innings in The Show, plus nearly another season in 14 career playoff series.

“Nope, nope, nope,” manager Joe Maddon said when asked if Lester was getting examined.

“Listen, I know a lot of people are concerned,” Maddon said. “I’m not overly concerned, because the guy’s been good for a long time. As long as he says he’s healthy – which he has – I’m fine. If he’s hurting at all – but he’s not revealing – that’s a different story entirely.

“But for right now, I believe he’s well, so I anticipate good.”

Maddon’s answers left a little wiggle room, but Lester didn’t want to make excuses and said there’s nothing wrong physically. If that’s the case, it would be foolish to write off someone who’s survived a cancer scare, thrived in the American League East, embraced the challenge of playing in two of baseball’s biggest markets and won three World Series rings.

“He has evolved as a pitcher,” Hoyer said. “When we first had him with the Red Sox, he was throwing 97 (mph). With most guys, you have to get past that loss of velocity, and the great ones do that.

“He’s always thrown hard, but he’s been kind of 93-94 tops the last few years. He’s got four pitches. He’s got a good sinker now. He’s got a good cutter. A changeup, curveball – they all come out of the same place. I think right now it’s about making some mistakes at the wrong time, and his stuff hasn’t been probably as dominant as he would want.”

This could just be a blip on the radar. But the Cubs didn’t earn the luxury of treating late September like spring training and warming up for the playoffs. These games matter, and that usually brings out the best in their ace.

“I believe in Jon Lester,” Maddon said, writing it off as a few “hiccup” games. “It’s unusual to see him struggle like that, primarily with his command. The velocity was down – but where the pitches were going – I’m not used to seeing that.

“I got to believe that’s going to get rectified soon. Guys like him, I’m normally not into physical mechanics this time of the year. But I’d bet if, in fact, there’s something wrong, it’s going to be more mechanically speaking.

“I just want to be very patient about this. I think he’s fine. Until I hear that he’s not well – which I’ve not heard at all – I think he’ll be fine.”

Even the Indians can't deny the lasting impact Cubs have on Progressive Field

Even the Indians can't deny the lasting impact Cubs have on Progressive Field

CLEVELAND — Even the Indians can't deny the lasting impact Cubs have on Progressive Field.

Namely, the impact the Cubs left on the floor of the visiting locker room.

With 18 months in between visits, one of the first things the Cubs noticed about their clubhouse at Progressive Field was the new carpet.

"It's probably necessary," Joe Maddon said with a smile. "So some good things have come from all that stuff, too, for the visitors. You get new interior decorating."

After the Indians blew a 3-1 lead in the 2016 World Series, the Cubs — and Bill Murray — dumped an awful lot of champagne and Budwesier on the old carpets.

Like, A LOT. 

"Oh yeah," Addison Russell said, "I think we messed it up pretty good."

It'd be hard to fault the Cubs for an epic celebration to honor the end of a 108-year championship drought, especially the way in which they accomplished the feat with maybe the most incredible baseball game ever played.

As the Cubs returned to the emotional, nostalgic-riddled scene of that historic fall, the parallels were striking.

Exactly 18 months before Tuesday, the Cubs walked into Progressive Field for the start of the World Series in 54 degree Cleveland weather with overcast skies and a pestering little drizzle.

Tuesday, the Cubs walked back into Progressive Field in 54 degree Cleveland weather with overcast skies and a pestering little drizzle.

A bunch of Cubs also found their lockers in the same place in that visiting locker room.

Russell, Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester all have their lockers in the same spots this week as they had for the 2016 Fall Classic.

Some clubhouses go in numerical order, some go based on position groups. The Indians don't really seem to fall under either camp, considering Lester was surrounded by all position players in the corner of the locker room, where — before Tuesday —was last seen giving a heartfelt "thank you" to the media for "putting up with him" all season.

"Just walking back into the stadium from the bus into the clubhouse, you get the sense of nostalgia," Russell said. "I see that they replaced the carpet, which is nice. But yeah, the weight room, the food room, I just remember walking around here having that World Series Champs shirt on.

"It's a great memory. I think this is the same locker I had as well. Everything's just fitting like a puzzle piece right now and it's pretty awesome."

Kyle Schwarber is basically Superman in Cleveland

Kyle Schwarber is basically Superman in Cleveland

CLEVELAND — Kyle Schwarber LOVES hitting in Cleveland.

It's like he morphs into a superhero just by stepping foot into the left-handed batter's box at Progressive Field.

Playing in Cleveland for the first time since his legendary return to the field in the 2016 World Series, Schwarber went absolutely bonkers on a Josh Tomlin pitch in the second inning Tuesday night:

That wasn't just any homer, however. 

The 117.1 mph dinger was the hardest-hit ball by any Cubs hitter in the era of exit velocity, aka since Statcast was invented in 2015:

Schwarber followed that up with another solo blast into the right-field bleachers in the fourth inning off Tomlin.

Schwarber — an Ohio native — collected his first MLB hit at Progressive Field back on June 17, 2015 in his second career game. He went 6-for-9 in that series with a triple, homer and 4 RBI.

Couple that with his World Series totals and the first two times up Tuesday and Schwarber has hit .500 with a .545 on-base percentage and .900 slugging percentage in his first 33 trips to the plate in Cleveland.