Jon Lester pushes Cubs to verge of division title (while still thinking World Series)

Jon Lester pushes Cubs to verge of division title (while still thinking World Series)

ST. LOUIS – Jon Lester didn’t come here for a haircut, either, to quote cowboy philosopher John Lackey. This year is all about jewelry and Big Boy Games. If the Cubs don’t win the World Series, it will be a massive letdown and a total shock to the system. That’s how 2016 is set up for a too-big-to-fail team.

With TV cameras taking up more and more clubhouse space, Lester reminded the swelling group of reporters who traveled to Busch Stadium for a potential clinch party that the Cubs haven’t accomplished anything yet, that this team will ultimately be judged in October.

This is why the Cubs handed the big-market-tested, two-time World Series champion with the Boston Red Sox a $155 million contract. Lester absolutely looked like a Game 1 starter on Wednesday afternoon, dominating the St. Louis Cardinals in a 7-0 victory that chopped the magic number to win the National League Central down to one.

Beat the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday night at Wrigley Field on CSN and the Cubs can pop champagne bottles and celebrate in front of their fans, friends and families.

“You guys have seen our team,” Lester said with a smirk to the reporters crammed into a clubhouse hallway for a makeshift press conference. “We definitely don’t like to party too much. I’m sure it will be fairly low-key.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Less than 48 hours after Kyle Hendricks almost threw a no-hitter, Lester responded with his own Cy Young Award statement, accounting for eight scoreless innings and limiting a strong St. Louis lineup to three singles while finishing with eight strikeouts against one walk.

So the clubhouse guys will have goggles and cover the lockers in plastic inside that new state-of-the-art facility. The Cubs should enjoy this moment, because winning 93 games by Sept. 14 is extremely difficult and a reflection of the entire organization.

But when you wear “Embrace The Target” T-shirts, market the idea of “When It Happens” and sell free agents like Lester and Lackey on the idea of making history, does winning the division even matter if you don’t win the World Series?

“That’s conjecture,” manager Joe Maddon. “I’m just worried about winning the division. And then keep moving it from there.

“Of course, if you win it, then it’s easy. Everything’s easy. The beautiful prose is written. Everybody’s wonderful.

“If it weren’t to occur, then it’s up to whomever wants to write whatever they want to write. Whatever your perception is – I’m not even there yet. I cannot emphasize enough – it’s about today.

“It’s going back home, clinching soon, building the method to get ready for the playoffs. And then attack the playoffs. That’s it. All that other stuff – I understand. I get it. But I don’t worry about things like that.”

The Cubs will have even more confidence if Lester (17-4, 2.40 ERA) keeps pitching like an ace, freed from some of the first-year pressures and dead-arm issues that bothered the lefty last season.

Lester faced only two batters over the minimum through eight innings, with assists from personal catcher David Ross, who threw out two runners trying to steal second base. And on a day where Carlos Martinez struck out five of the first eight Cubs who came to the plate, Lester (.077 average) drove in the first run with a line-drive single up the middle in the third inning.

[RELATED - Joe Maddon doesn't worry about post-clinch hangover for Cubs]

Lester is now 7-0 with a 1.02 ERA in his last nine starts, a stretch where the Cubs have won all those games except for a 1-0 loss at Dodger Stadium.

“This whole run he’s been on is maybe as good as I’ve seen,” said Ross, who blasted a two-run homer off Martinez that traveled 429 feet onto the center-field berm in the fifth inning. “In ’13, I think he gave up a run in the (World Series), so that was pretty impressive, too.

“But right now, he’s the complete pitcher. He’s sinking it. He’s throwing his cutter. He’s got a four-seam (fastball moving) in and out. He’s got a really good changeup and his curveball. It’s nice for me to have that many options to call a game. It makes my job really easy.”

This isn’t the time for guarantees or predictions, but Lester certainly appears to be peaking at the right time. 

“Everybody’s goal coming into spring training is to win the World Series,” Lester said. “Hopefully, we’ll save some bullets and guys are feeling good going into October. We’ll put one good, last run into it and see where we’re at.”

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

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


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: