Typically, you wouldn’t expect there to be anything wrong with playing deep into the month of October in back-to-back seasons.
Indeed only the back-to-back world-championship campaigns in 1907 and 1908 have produced a better two-season stretch of Cubs baseball than what the team has done the past couple of years. A run to the National League Championship Series in 2015 was followed up by last season’s curse-smashing World Series win, which still has much of Lakeview in a pretty euphoric state.
But not every effect is a positive one, as the 2017 edition of the Cubs are finding out.
The debate over a so-called “World Series hangover” aside, the Cubs were hit with a more tangible detriment from playing so many postseason games Friday, when Jon Lester was placed on the disabled list with what was described as left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.
The news on Lester, of course, could’ve been far worse. In fact, many were expecting far worse, making Friday’s news qualify as a sigh of relief for a team that will need every one of its weapons to battle through an extremely tight division race. Lester, according to the Cubs, has no structural damage and is getting put on the shelf mostly to rest up after back-to-back seasons of deep playoff runs.
“His arm is tired, which is understandable,” team president Theo Epstein said. “If you look at the load that he’s carried, pitching seven months the last couple years, taking the ball every fifth day. There comes a time where all pitchers need a breather, and this is his time.
“He’s actually told us he’s been dealing with it for a good bit now, so this was probably inevitable. He’s getting the break before anything serious happens. He’ll be down for a little while, but he’ll come back to finish the year really solid note, pitch a lot of important games the rest of the way.
“It’s a grind. Especially when you pitch through October a couple years in a row, things tend to add up. This hasn’t been a year where we’ve been able to open up any kind of lead (in the division) and proactively give guys as much rest as we would like. Now Jon’s going to get that blow, which in the long run will serve him well.”
After back-to-back seasons of sensational starting pitching up and down the Cubs’ rotation — Jake Arrieta won the Cy Young Award in 2015, while Lester and Kyle Hendricks were finalists last year — this season has seen consistency among those same pitchers be a big issue. It was the team’s No. 1 issue, per Joe Maddon, during that sub-.500 first half.
And while things have picked up dramatically since the All-Star break, Lester’s disastrous outing Thursday wasn’t the first such performance of his season. Four times since late May, Lester has thrown four innings or fewer. Thursday’s nasty 1.2-inning, eight-run shellacking was like a replay of his final start prior to the All-Star break, when he was tagged for 10 runs and recorded just two outs against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In a season when breaking away from a mediocre pack of teams in the NL Central has yet to happen, fatigue is becoming a recurring theme.
“Jon has just pitched a lot,” Maddon said. “He’s pitched a lot over the last several years. And that’s what I keep talking about with a lot of our guys, when you take them out after 85, 90, 95 pitches, sometimes they don’t like it. But it’s a cumulative kind of effect that it’s going to have where all of a sudden it piles up and guys become tired or fatigued or they start doing something differently and all of a sudden they get some tightness.
“He probably was a little bit tired before the break. I think the break helped him a lot, he came out of the break well. Recently he’s felt a little bit of that tightness and just a general malaise. The fatigue is taking over. So we’re a little bit concerned about all of that. Give him a couple days off. I anticipate when he comes back you’re going to see a lot of what you saw post All-Star break.”
Lester’s trip to the disabled list coincides with a pair of other key performers spending time on the shelf. There seems to be no return in sight for injured shortstop Addison Russell, and the only update Maddon had on Willson Contreras was that the injured catcher “feels good.”
The good news for the Cubs is that they don’t expect to be without their ace long. Maybe just one or two missed starts. They’re mighty confident in their stopgap replacement plan, Mike Montgomery. So Lester’s injury doesn’t seem like it could have the same earth-shattering effect as losing the team’s hottest hitter, like they did when they lost Contreras.
Maddon, though, does see one of the team’s major injuries as an issue.
“The thing I’m concerned about is Javy (Baez)’s playing so much at shortstop right now. Among all the injuries, Addison impacts down the road more just because of what it’s doing,” Maddon said. “But Javy’s been playing with a lot of energy.
“I’ve been really watching him more than anybody because the outfielders are all getting breaks. (Kris Bryant) has not, (Anthony) Rizzo has not, but I get them out in a bad game or a good game, giving them some innings that way. So it’s been primarily Javy that I’m most concerned about, only because I’m worried about the latter part of the season. This guy’s played a lot. If and when we can get Addy back in there and get Javy on a more civil method regarding playing, I think that would be the one area that I’m most concerned about.”
Call it a World Series hangover. Call it just being tired. The Cubs’ rise over the past two seasons is having some ill effects as they look to repeat as World Series champs. They’re just hoping this banged-up month of August won’t prevent them from playing in three straight Octobers.