Cubs

Cubs see Jon Lester trending in the right direction

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Cubs see Jon Lester trending in the right direction

Has Jon Lester turned a corner with the Cubs?

The $155-million ace wasn't willing to go that far after Friday night's outing against the Reds, but he and the Cubs saw some positive signs that could point to a turnaround.

Lester picked up a no-decision in the 11-inning 7-3 Cubs win, but did collect his first quality start with the new team, going six innings and allowing three runs on five hits and a walk. He struck out 10 while throwing 104 pitches, lowering his ERA (6.23) and WHIP (1.57) in the process.

That's a step up from his first three starts, in which he gave up 12 earned runs and 24 hits in 15.2 innings.

"His last two innings were his best," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "I keep saying - it's getting better, better, better. It's trending in the right direction. He felt really good. I think he had a lot of fun tonight, which is a good thing."

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Lester got out to a rough start, surrendering a single to Reds speed demon Billy Hamilton to lead off the first inning. Hamilton immediately stole second, scooted to third on a wild pitch and then scored on a Joey Votto groundout.

It was Hamilton again in the third, who led off with another single, stole second and third and then scored on a Brandon Phillips groundout.

But Lester settled in after that, allowing only a solo run in the fourth - on a sacrifice fly by Cincinnati shortstop Zack Cozart - and retired the final nine hitters he faced.

"After about the second inning, I got in a little better rhythm," Lester said. "Kept some guys off the bases. That's been kind of the thing that's been plaguing me - just the continued baserunners.

"It was a lot better. Had a better feel for my cutter tonight. I'm learning. New league, new faces, new guys, kind of figuring it out as we go and keep adjusting."

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Lester was sidelined for part of spring training with a "dead arm" period and Maddon believes that has played a factor in the southpaw's slow start. The Cubs manager also admitted Lester may have been feeling some pressure from the megadeal he signed as a free agent over the winter.

Lester said he has gotten back on the right track by focusing on the task at hand, instead of looking at the past start or the next outing coming up.

"It's a work in progress," he said. "It's a constant adjustment for me right now. We'll take what I did five days ago into today and what I did today into the next one and we'll just keep building.

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

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.