Cubs waiting for breakthrough moment with Jon Lester’s throwing issue


Cubs waiting for breakthrough moment with Jon Lester’s throwing issue

Jon Lester admits he has a problem with throwing over to first base. It’s a weird mental block for a three-time All-Star with two World Series rings, one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation.

As long as Lester keeps performing like a frontline guy, the Cubs understand the issue can be minimized over the course of a 162-game season and a six-year contract. The yips didn’t stop Theo Epstein’s front office from giving Lester a $155 million megadeal.

But the stakes will be so high in a wild-card game or a short playoff series that how Lester controls the running game could be critical, something Cubs fans wind up talking about years later.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs still looking to add, but Phillies may not move Chase Utley]

So Lester, who has a no-nonsense personality and an obsession with routine, worked on his pickoff move before batting practice on Tuesday, preparing to face the Detroit Tigers the next night at Wrigley Field.

“That’s something we’ve been doing since spring training,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He does it all the time. It’s just something that we have to continue to do. Eventually, hopefully, at one point it’s going to be more comfortable for him. But in the meantime, just keep working at it.”

Lester apparently looks fine in an empty stadium, but…

“It’s the game – it’s so funny,” Maddon said. “That’s why when you talk about spring training and spring-training performances and people get all excited about it – it could not be any different.

“So, yeah, we have to keep working through it. I want to believe what you just saw out there – he’s going to do exactly the same thing in the game.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Lester went almost two full years in between pickoff moves until his second start for the Cubs on April 13 against the Cincinnati Reds. The lefty threw over twice and airmailed the second one.

Lester tried again last week and threw a ball that sailed wide past first baseman Anthony Rizzo. The Milwaukee Brewers stole five bases off Lester and still lost 9-2.

Again, Lester is having a very good season at 8-8 with a 3.21 ERA and 149 strikeouts in 145-plus innings. There are other ways to slow down the running game with personal catcher David Ross.

The Cubs are still waiting for a breakthrough moment with Lester.

“If he does it just once successfully like that, I think you’re going to see it happen more often,” Maddon said. “In the dugout, we talk about: Rossy, you take care of it until Jon’s comfortable doing that. So to this point, I think we’ve done a really good job with it.”

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


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.