Cubs

Jon Lester beats LA, Cubs could take over SD for All-Star Game

Jon Lester beats LA, Cubs could take over SD for All-Star Game

The Cubs dominated the early returns in the National League All-Star voting, which is about as surprising as Marlon Byrd getting busted for using performance-enhancing drugs.

Those two press releases on Wednesday afternoon — a Twitter update from Major League Baseball’s communications department and the hollow 245-word statement Byrd issued through the union — showed just how far the Cubs have come as an organization.

That night, the recruiting promises Jon Lester listened to during his initial free-agent visit to Wrigley Field again came to life. A crowd of 36,426 on its feet with two outs in the ninth inning, watching the best team in baseball, chanting “Let’s Go, Cubbies!”

Lester — the $155 million lefty who appears to be so much more comfortable in the second season of that megadeal — struck out Howie Kendrick swinging at a 94-mph fastball to end the game. Lester flexed and screamed, and fireworks exploded beyond the iconic center-field scoreboard after a 2-1 complete-game victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Last year, we showed up and the bleachers weren’t done and it was kind of weird and rainy and cold,” Lester said. “All of a sudden, summer rolls around and we’re pretty good. You look at our young guys, last year I bragged about how mature they were going through that season and dealing with 97 wins and going to the playoffs for the first time.

“This year, they’ve just blown that out of the water. These guys are unbelievable, far beyond their years, and the thing that impresses me the most is they’re baseball smart. They’re not just talented guys going out there and swinging the bat and running around with their heads cut off trying to play defense. They know what they’re doing.”

This seems like ancient history. But remember that Byrd — who famously worked with BALCO kingpin Victor Conte and accepted a one-year suspension after his second violation of the joint-drug agreement — had once represented the Cubs at the 2010 All-Star Game.

This was in the middle of an 87-loss season, approaching Lou Piniella’s final days in the dugout, the first of five straight fifth-place finishes and their window to contend slamming shut. Now the Cubs can think about matching their eight All-Stars selected for the 2008 showcase event at Yankee Stadium.

The entire infield — Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant — showed up as leaders at their respective positions. Dexter Fowler ranked second among outfielders, in between Washington Nationals superstar Bryce Harper and New York Mets slugger Yoenis Cespedes. Plus reigning Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta would be a good choice to start for the NL on July 12 at San Diego’s Petco Park.

The big-market Cubs should be front and center if MLB and its TV partners want to reach the generation that isn’t hooked on the game and has so many other entertainment options. There’s the quest to win the franchise’s first World Series since 1908. There’s the new clubhouse filled with social-media savvy players and young stars lining up endorsement deals. There’s the manager who hates baseball’s unwritten rules and conformist mentality.

“When young people tune into our group, they can identify with them,” Joe Maddon said. “Our guys are likable. They’re approachable. They’re blue-collar, man. There’s not a white-collar guy among them. They get their fingernails dirty, and I think people appreciate that. I think they’re very Chicago.”

Lester (6-3, 2.29 ERA) seems to have relaxed here after spending almost his entire career with the Boston Red Sox inside the Fenway Park pressure cooker. Maddon thought this was Lester at his best in a Cubs uniform, allowing a home run to leadoff guy Kike Hernandez on his second pitch and dominating for the next 111 pitches, finishing with 10 strikeouts against zero walks.

Bryant generated all the offense with one swing in the third inning, driving a Mike Bolsinger curveball out toward the batter’s eye in center field for a two-run homer. The NL’s reigning Rookie of the Year leads the Cubs in homers (12) and RBIs (39) and can play all over the infield and outfield.

Already 21 games over .500, the Cubs selected for the All-Star Game will have something to play for — home-field advantage in the World Series.

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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USA TODAY

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: