Cubs

Get off my lawn: Jon Lester breaks down big Cubs win

Get off my lawn: Jon Lester breaks down big Cubs win

ST. LOUIS – Jon Lester went into get-off-my-lawn-mode, tired of math nerds and people being famous for no reason and the questions about whether or not he will be ready for the playoffs.   

Lester is actually a great talker when he gets going, introspective, self-deprecating and a voice of authority after winning three World Series rings with the Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

But Lester didn’t exactly sound ready to pop champagne bottles after Monday night’s 10-2 win at Busch Stadium eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals from the National League Central race and guaranteed at least a tie with the Milwaukee Brewers for the division title.  

Whether it was Lester’s brutal honesty, simmering frustration or high expectations for himself, he downplayed a quality start against a team still battling for a wild-card spot. He also took a subtle jab at the team’s sophisticated game-planning system and ripped the culture that brought us “Nacho Man.”

“I got to get back to being me,” said Lester, who had given up 27 hits and 12 walks in his previous four September starts since coming off the disabled list with what the Cubs termed left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue. “I got to get back to putting the hitters on a defensive mode, as opposed to trying to pitch to a scouting report from pitch 1.

“That was a conscious effort going into tonight, and I felt a lot better with everything, based off of that.”

Lester attacked the Cardinals with fastballs, working with 4-0, 5-0 and 8-1 leads across six innings. Once again, he found his rhythm later, giving up two walks in the fourth, getting his only 1-2-3 innings in the fifth and sixth and maxing out at 103 pitches.

The Cardinals scored their only run off Lester in the second inning when Jedd Gyorko launched a ball 410 feet out toward left field and “Big Mac Land” – in the same at-bat where shortstop Addison Russell almost made a Derek Jeter catch and turned “Nacho Man” into an instant celebrity.   

“I’m laughing more at the fact that the guy’s taking pictures and signing autographs,” Lester said. “I really don’t know what he did. A guy fell into him and got nacho cheese on his arm and now he’s taking pictures and signing autographs. I guess that shows you where our society is at right now with all that stuff.

“I really didn’t think it was that far foul. I thought it was a pretty routine play that just kept going. And I think it surprised Addie as well. So great effort, but I don’t understand the other stuff.”

Classic Lester, who changed the clubhouse vibe and fundamental nature of this rivalry when he decided to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season and will be 3-for-3 in playoff seasons as a Cub.

“I don’t know,” Lester said three times when asked if those command issues are rooted in taking more than two weeks off in the middle of the season. “I haven’t had stuff like this before, so figure it out as we go.”

How close are you to where you want to be?

“I don’t know,” Lester said. “I was good tonight, so let’s go with that.”

The Cubs trusted Lester enough to give him $155 million guaranteed and make him their Game 1 starter in all three playoff rounds last year. But the team’s inner circle of decision-makers had to be breathing a sign of relief, knowing that plans will take shape before Lester’s final regular-season start, what should be a meaningless Game 161 against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.  

“He’s just been searching, command-wise, (and) I can’t give you an exact reason why,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We just need to get him out of the gate a little bit more on top of his game. Again, I can’t give you a solid reason. He’s well. The numbers on the gun are good. It’s just a matter of executing his pitches and finishing them.”   

Lester always seems to be so hard on himself on the mound, and that competitive fire has made him one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation. The Cubs expect to see that guy show up in October against the Washington Nationals.   

“Everything was just a little bit sharper today than it has been in a little while, so that’s good, moving in the right direction,” Lester said. “There’s a few things in there that I need to clean up. But as far as overall, it’s definitely a positive."

Predicting NLCS Game 3: Joe Maddon tinkers with Cubs lineup hoping to jumpstart offense

Predicting NLCS Game 3: Joe Maddon tinkers with Cubs lineup hoping to jumpstart offense

The Cubs are "due."

That's a funny thought in general. For anybody or any team to be "due," that's saying that everything will even out eventually.

That's often true in baseball. But that's over the course of a 162-game season, far and away the longest sample size in professional sports. 

In an abbreviated postseason series, there really is no such thing as "due" because the season's over before you get a chance to see things even out.

The baseball gods don't ensure that everybody gets the same amount of luck at the same time. The sample size is absolutely too small for that. Plus, the Cubs have had plenty of luck and caught their fair share of breaks already this postseason.

So while it's easy to point to some of the Cubs numbers and say things like "they're not going to hit .162 as a team forever," that's not necessarily true because there are only two guaranteed games left in the 2017 for Joe Maddon and Co. It is absolutely possible the Cubs' season is over before they get a chance to correct their offensive woes.

Though, it would be pretty stunning to see the Cubs offense finish a 9-game October stint with Jon Lester and Jose Quintana as the team's leading hitters (both are 1-for-4, .250 average). 

Like a deliriously-happy, champagne-soaked Theo Epstein said early Friday morning in our nation's capital, "we always hit eventually."

So if I'm a betting man (which I'm not, unless you count fantasy sports), I'm betting on the Cubs offense finally waking from their fall slumber. 

They're simply too good to continue these numbers. This team has combined for a .513 OPS, which is essentially a team of Andres Blancos, a 33-year-old backup infielder who defined "light-hitting" with a .192 average and .549 OPS in 144 plate appearances this season.

The urgency is now a very real thing with the Cubs, and that's something — maybe the ONLY thing — that has really motivated this 2017 squad. They've really only played well when they've had a sense of urgency and they did not have that the first two games in Los Angeles.

Which is understandable. After such a physically, emotionally and mentally draining Game 5 that didn't end until early Friday morning, the team had to travel all the way across the entire continental U.S. only to wind up getting diverted to New Mexico where they sat on the tarmac for five hours.

Every single starting pitcher on the team was exhausted and working on short rest, and that's not to say anything about Wade Davis, who gave everything he had just to get the Cubs to the NLCS.

The Cubs have now had a full day off to clear their heads, get back to center and find their mojo again.

I'm betting that's exactly what they've done, because this team has proved over and over again how resilient they are. I mean, really, a 2-0 deficit is nothing for a team that stared down a 3-1 deficit in the World Series a year ago.

In an effort to help jump-start the offense, Maddon has switched around the Cubs lineup for Game 3:

1. Ben Zobrist - 2B
2. Kyle Schwarber - LF
3. Kris Bryant - 3B
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Willson Contreras - C
6. Jon Jay - CF
7. Addison Russell - SS
8. Jason Heyward - RF
9. Kyle Hendricks - P

Schwarber hitting second is how the Cubs won Games 6 and 7 of the World Series last year, though Zobrist was hitting fifth at the time. 

No Baez to start the game, as he's a bad matchup for Yu Darvish - who is tough on right-handers - and is in the midst of an 0-for-19 stretch to start the postseason.

Prediction

Cubs 5, Dodgers 2

The Cubs started out the two-game set in LA by having a few good at-bats against the game's best pitcher (Clayton Kershaw) before things got awful against the Dodgers bullpen.

But if we're talking about being "due," that Dodgers bullpen is due for a regression on some level. They've been absolutely incredible this postseason, allowing only one baserunner to the Cubs in eight innings thus far.

Breaking things down individually, there are positive signs for several guys:

—Kris Bryant struck out only three times in 8 at-bats in LA, which is actually an improvement considering he struck out 10 times in 20 at-bats in the NLDS.

—Addison Russell lined a homer to left off Rich Hill for the Cubs' only run in Game 2. He had some really good at-bats in Game 5 and the game's biggest hit when he doubled home two runs off Max Scherzer.

—Javy Baez walked in Game 2. I mean, if that's not enough of a reason for positivity, what is??

Either way, the Cubs offense has their hands full against Yu Darvish (10-12, 3.86 ERA) and Alex Wood (16-3, 2.72 ERA) the next two games and if they win one of those two, Kershaw awaits in Game 5 Thursday.

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

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USA TODAY

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

“Sometimes, you got to lay your marbles out there,” Jon Lester said Sunday night inside Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse, before the Cubs flew home from Los Angeles down 0-2 in the National League Championship Series. “And you get beat.”

It will be extremely difficult for the Cubs to win four of the next five games against the Dodgers, starting Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. But the Cubs had the, uh, marbles to win last year’s World Series and have developed the muscle memory from winning six playoff rounds and playing in 33 postseason games since October 2015.

There is a cross section left of the 2015 team that beat the Pittsburgh Pirates and silenced PNC Park’s blackout crowd in a sudden-death wild-card game. While 2016 is seen in hindsight as a year of destiny, those Cubs still had to kill the myths about the even-year San Francisco Giants, survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Dodgers and win Games 5, 6, 7 against the Cleveland Indians under enormous stress.

There is at least a baseline of experience to draw from and the sense that the Cubs won’t panic and beat themselves, the way the Washington Nationals broke down in the NL Division Series.

· Remember the Cubs pointed to how their rotation set up as soon as Cleveland took a 3-1 lead in last year’s World Series: Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks would each give them a chance to win that night. The Dodgers will now have to deal with last year’s major-league ERA leader (Hendricks) in Game 3 and a Cy Young Award winner (Arrieta) on Wednesday night in Game 4.

“Obviously, we know we need to get wins at this point,” Hendricks said. “But approaching it as a must-win is a little extreme. We've just got to go out there and play our brand of baseball.

“Since we accomplished that, we know we just have to take it game by game. Even being down 3-1 (in the World Series), we worry about the next game. In that situation, we didn’t think we had to win three in a row or anything like that. We just came to the ballpark the next day and worried about what we had to do that day.”

· The history lessons only go so far when the Dodgers can line up Yu Darvish as their Game 3 starter instead of, say, Josh Tomlin. There is also a huge difference between facing a worn-down Cleveland staff in late October/early November and a rested Dodger team that clinched a division title on Sept. 22 and swept the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first round. Joe Blanton and Pedro Baez aren’t walking through that bullpen door, either.

“We’ve done it before. We’ve been there before,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “But this year’s a new year. That’s a different ballclub. We’re definitely going to have to bring it.”

· Outside of Kenley Jansen, can you name anyone else in the Los Angeles bullpen off the top of your head? No doubt, the Dodger relievers have been awesome in Games 1 and 2 combined: Eight scoreless innings, zero hits, zero walks and Anthony Rizzo the only one out of 25 batters to reach base when Jansen hit him with a 93.7-mph pitch.

But the Dodgers are going to make mistakes, and the Cubs will have to capitalize. Unless this is the same kind of synthesis from the 2015 NLCS, when the New York Mets used exhaustive scouting reports, power pitching and pinpoint execution to sweep a Cubs team that had already hit the wall.

“Their bullpen is a lot stronger than it was last year,” Kris Bryant said. “They’re really good at throwing high fastballs in the zone. A lot of other teams try to, and they might hit it one out of every four. But this team, it seems like they really can hammer the top of the zone. And they have guys that throw in the upper 90s, so when you mix those two, it’s tough to catch up.”

· Bryant is not having a good October (5-for-28 with 13 strikeouts) and both Lester and Jose Quintana have more hits (one each) than Javier Baez (0-for-19 with eight strikeouts) during the playoffs. But we are still talking about the reigning NL MVP and last year’s NLCS co-MVP.

Ben Zobrist is clearly diminished and no longer the switch-hitting force who became last year’s World Series MVP. Kyle Schwarber doesn’t have the same intimidation factor or playoff aura right now. But one well-timed bunt from Zobrist or a “Schwarbomb” onto the video board could change the entire direction of this series and put the pressure on a Dodger team that knows this year is World Series or bust.

“We need to hit a couple balls hard consecutively,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Once we’re able to do that, we’ll gain our offensive mojo back. That's all that’s going on.

“I inherited something from my dad, and that was patience. So you’ve got to be patient right now. You’ve got to keep putting the boys back out there. You keep believing in them, and eventually it comes back to you.”

· Maddon is a 63-year-old man who opened Monday’s stadium club press conference at Wrigley Field by talking about dry-humping, clearly annoyed by all the second-guessers on Twitter and know-it-all sports writers who couldn’t believe All-Star closer Wade Davis got stranded in the bullpen, watching the ninth inning of Sunday’s 1-1 game turn into a 4-1 walk-off loss.

By the time a potential save situation develops on Tuesday night, roughly 120 hours will have passed since Davis threw his 44th and final pitch at Nationals Park, striking out Bryce Harper to end an instant classic. Just guessing that Maddon will be in the mood to unleash Davis.