Cubs

Lester or Arrieta? Who would Cubs start in one-game playoff?

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Lester or Arrieta? Who would Cubs start in one-game playoff?

If the Cubs make it into the postseason as a wild card team, who will start the one-game playoff: Jon Lester or Jake Arrieta?

Of course, there are still six weeks left in the regular season and even if the Cubs were in that position, it would depend heavily on how much rest each pitcher was working on.

But it makes for an interesting debate inside Chicago bars in mid-August.

Joe Maddon has a simple solution:

"Let's win the division," he said.

The Cubs entered play Friday 7.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central and 1.5 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for the first wild card spot. 

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the stretch run, Cubs fans]

Cubs GM Jed Hoyer cautions how much things can change in the final month-and-a-half of the season, even if the team has won 13 of 14 coming into the Crosstown showdown at U.S. Cellular Field.

"I thought Joe's answer was the right answer," Hoyer said. "Let's have a five-game series and forget about it. First of all, I think it's great that we have two guys you can have that discussion about. The fact both these guys are pitching so well is part of why we're here in a lot of ways.

"But also, I look at it as, this is a moment in time right now. We've been really hot. We put ourselves in a great position. ... We have a long way to go, so to even talk about that kind of stuff is so incredibly premature. We have to grind it out, game after game.

"The hot streak is great, but we still gotta play the next six weeks. And the next six weeks have a lot of challenges ahead. I think we've answered all our challenges so far and hopefully we'll keep on answering them."

The Cubs signed Jon Lester to a $155 million deal in the offseason to come in and lead the pitching staff after winning two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox and starting that epic AL wild card game for the Oakland A's against the Royals last season.

Lester got off to a rough start in Chicago, with a 6.23 ERA in four April starts. But since May 1, the 31-year-old lefty has gone 8-6 with a 2.69 ERA.

He's been especially hot the last six weeks with a 1.92 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 56.1 innings over eight starts.

But Arrieta has put up one of the best seasons of any pitcher in Major League Baseball, going 13-6 with a 2.38 ERA and 0.99 WHIP, including a 7-1 record and 1.23 ERA since June 21.

Lester has also had issues throwing to first base this season, allowing the most stolen bases among all big-league pitchers (35, six more than the next closest guy), including five against the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday at Wrigley Field.

[RELATED - Cubs keeping Jon Lester’s yips in perspective]

Three of those stolen bases came during a third inning that also featured a throwing error by Lester on an attempted pickoff.

An opposing team can really take advantage of that in a one-game, winner-take-all situation.

But the Cubs don't appear very concerned with Lester's "yips," as Hoyer pointed to David Ross' ability at "back-picking" runners on base and referencing Lester's delivery time to home plate.

"Yesterday, obviously, that third inning was uncomfortable for everyone," Hoyer said. "But then you go back to May 1, after his April starts, and Jon's been one of the best pitchers in baseball. He hasn't been giving up many hits, his walk-to-strikeout ratio has been great.

"The focus is he's been one of the best pitchers in baseball for the last three-and-a-half months. I think it's something he certainly knows he has to work on and he will work on, but at the same time, David and Jon have done a good job limiting that. I just expect he'll continue to pitch the way he is."

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.