Cubs

Lester, Cubs continue dominance in Cincinnati, move to MLB-best 13-4

Lester, Cubs continue dominance in Cincinnati, move to MLB-best 13-4

CINCINNATI (AP) Jon Lester had a no-hitter in the back of his mind. He wound up giving up five hits, but gave the Chicago Cubs what they needed most.

Lester provided a fitting follow-up to Jake Arrieta's no-hitter by going seven innings on Friday night, and Anthony Rizzohomered for the third consecutive game, leading Chicago to an 8-1 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

The Cubs improved to 13-4, the best record in the majors and one of the best starts in the last 100 years. They also opened 13-4 in 1908 - the last time they won the World Series - and in 1970. The 1907 team went 14-3 on its way to a Series title.

"It just helps us relax," Lester said of the impressive start. "The scary part for opponents is you look up and some of our guys are not swinging the bat too great. But our pitching has been real consistent. It's going to be the backbone of this team and take us where we want to go."

Arrieta threw his second career no-hitter in the series opener on Thursday night, a 16-0 win. Lester (2-1) limited the Reds to four singles and Zack Cozart's solo homer.

Pitchers always try to match each other, and Lester had Arietta's no-hitter in mind when he took the mound.

"We think about it, the possibilities of `what if,'" Lester said.

Against the Reds, they've done a little of everything, outscoring them 46-7 while winning their five games this season.

"They have a nice club, and they do the type of things they have to do to get pitches to hit," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "Give them credit."

Rizzo had a three-run homer during the series opener. He hit a solo shot - his team-high sixth - off Jon Moscot (0-1) as the Cubs pulled ahead 4-0 in the fourth inning. They are 12-0 this season when scoring at least four runs. David Ross had a sacrifice fly, and Ross and Lester squeezed home runs with sacrifice bunts.

The Cubs put it away with four runs in the ninth off J.J. HooverJavier Baez hit a solo homer - the 16th allowed by Cincinnati's bullpen in 17 games - and the Cubs hit three consecutive RBI doubles.

The Cubs have won their last eight games overall against the Reds. They have taken six straight in Cincinnati, their longest such streak since 1945-46.

Cincinnati managed to hit only six balls out of the infield during Arrieta's no-hitter. They got their first hit in the series in the first inning off Lester when Joey Votto snapped his 0-for-19 slump with a check-swing single. They failed to get a runner to third base until Cozart led off the sixth inning with his first homer.

ROAD SUCCESS

Chicago is 18-2 on the road since the end of last season, including 9-2 this year.

SELLING FAST

Cubs fans bristled that their "Try Not To Suck" T-shirts weren't allowed at Busch Stadium this week because of the Cardinals' long-standing policy prohibiting shirts with the word. Cubs manager Joe Maddon came up with the slogan and designed the shirt to raise money for his foundation. The dust-up resulted in a spike in sales of the $30 shirts, with $56,000 raised in the last two days. That puts the season total over $500,000 from shirt sales.

SHUFFLING THE `PEN

The Reds reshuffled their struggling bullpen, designating RHP Tim Melville for assignment and calling up RHP J.C. Ramirez. Melville gave up four runs and two homers during the 16-0 loss on Thursday. Cincinnati's bullpen has a 6.89 ERA that's worst in the NL. Reds relievers have thrown the most innings in the NL (62 2/3) and allowed the most homers (16) and walks (37).

TRAINER'S ROOM

Reds: CF Billy Hamilton missed a second straight game with a sore left thumb, injured while trying to make a catch at the wall in St. Louis last weekend.

UP NEXT

Cubs: John Lackey tries to open a season 4-0 for the first time in his career. He threw seven innings at St. Louis for a 5-0 win on Monday.

Reds: Dan Straily (0-0) makes his first appearance and second career start. He opened the season in the bullpen but was moved into the injury-depleted rotation.

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.