Cubs

Giants knock out Jon Lester in heavyweight matchup vs. Cubs

Giants knock out Jon Lester in heavyweight matchup vs. Cubs

SAN FRANCISCO – Joe Maddon’s zany stunts, Jake Arrieta’s individual brilliance and all these star hitters generate most of the headlines about the team with the best record in baseball.

But the game still revolves around pitching, even if it sometimes feels like the Cubs rotation only gets noticed when it doesn’t do its job, or in the context of which big-name starter Theo Epstein’s front office should add by the trade deadline. 

Case in point: Saturday’s 5-3 loss at AT&T Park, where the San Francisco Giants knocked out Jon Lester in the third inning of what’s been billed as a potential playoff preview.

You can find all sorts of distracting stats and invented streaks, but this one actually mattered: Until this clunker, the Cubs had 48 straight regular-season games where their starter had gone at least five innings, the franchise’s longest stretch since 1910.

“Everybody’s talking about run differential and all this other stuff – fine,” Maddon said. “A lot of that’s based on the fact that our pitchers are so good.”

The Giants can compete with anyone. Just look at the 2010, 2012 and 2014 World Series flags flying above the center-field video board at their beautiful waterfront stadium that draws the younger, engaged, energetic crowds Major League Baseball is desperate to connect with now.      

This is a great city and a relaxed West Coast media market that doesn’t smother players. The Giants have a potential Hall of Fame manager (Bruce Bochy), an MVP catcher (Buster Posey) and an overall baseball-operations/business-side efficiency/harmony that’s become the industry’s gold standard.

All that synergy and postcard-perfect scenery – and more guaranteed money – still couldn’t convince Lester to change his mind before agreeing to the six-year, $155 million megadeal that shook the 2014 winter meetings.

The 431st straight regular-season sellout crowd here watched Giants pitcher Matt Cain snap an 0-for-46 streak in the second inning, blasting a two-out, two-run double off Lester and over the head of center fielder Dexter Fowler. Posey later drilled a two-run homer into the left-field seats off Lester in the third inning.

“I can’t walk the pitcher,” Lester said. “I got to take my chances with a heater and pulled it middle and he put a good swing on it. I can live with the Poseys of the world hitting homers. But to put myself in a 3-2 count with a pitcher and allowing him to do damage – that’s obviously not good.

“(There’s) a lot of things in the game that I wish I could go back (to) and rethink through or throw another pitch. But it is what it is.”

It doesn’t change the outlook for a 29-12 team that’s lost four of its last six games, and six of its last 10. Or a pitching staff that began the day with three top-seven pitchers among the National League ERA leaders: Arrieta (1.29); Lester (1.88); and Jason Hammel (2.31).

“Our rotation’s been pretty solid,” said Lester, who’s now 4-3 with a 2.60 ERA after giving up five runs in 2.2 innings against the first-place Giants. “We’ve been doing what we’re supposed to do – keep our team in the ballgame and put up innings – with the exception of today.

“We all knew coming in that our rotation was going to be pretty strong. And we have to be strong if we want to go where we want to go.”

Or as All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said: “If anyone thought that we were going to win 140 games, I want to know what they’re taking.”

Up next is ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” and Madison Bumgarner, the 2014 World Series MVP who thought Fowler and Jason Heyward had been tipping pitches during a Cactus League game and almost sparked a bench-clearing incident two months ago in Arizona.

If it could get that heated in spring training, imagine October with Arrieta vs. Bumgarner and Lester vs. Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija wearing black and orange making a playoff start at Wrigley Field.

“We’ll see,” Lester said. “We got a long season. There’s a lot of what-ifs and all this stuff that can happen along the way. We got to stay healthy and worry about the Cubs. If we’re able to get to that position, we’ll worry about the opponent when we get there. But they definitely have a good team. They’re a scrappy team. They put up good, quality at-bats. They make you work.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”