Cubs

Lester thinks Cubs will give Cardinals a run for their money

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Lester thinks Cubs will give Cardinals a run for their money

ST. LOUIS – This is why the Cubs gave Jon Lester six years and $155 million guaranteed: To beat the best team in baseball – the franchise’s biggest rival – and transform this group into the kind of contender they watch here seemingly every October.

These are the benefits that come with having an ace: Boosting clubhouse confidence, giving a beat-up bullpen a break and stopping the four-game losing streak.

This definitely wasn’t one of Joe Maddon’s oil paintings, and the degree of difficulty became higher than it probably needed to be. But the Cubs still hung on for a 6-5 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday night at Busch Stadium.

Lester beat St. Louis twice during the 2013 World Series to win his second ring with the Boston Red Sox. So he’s not going to concede anything, even with the Cubs (14-12) in the middle of their youth movement and the Cardinals (20-7) jumping out to a 5.5-game lead in the National League Central.

“It’s May – we got a long ways to go,” said Lester, who went seven innings, giving up four runs (one earned). “They’re obviously a very, very good team, a team that’s built on a history of winning. They’ve got a certain way they go about things. We got to find our way. This team hasn’t done anything. We got a bunch of talent. But that doesn’t get you anywhere.

“We got to keep grinding it out and keep playing these guys tough. We’ve been in every game that we’ve played these guys. It’s not like we’re coming in here and getting our butts kicked.

“You play 162 for a reason. We’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing and see where we’re at – at the end.”

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Lester finished April at 0-2 with a 6.23 ERA but has notched two wins within the first week of May, chopping that ERA down to 4.04. If the All-Star lefty sharpens his cutter and really gets rolling, maybe this team will take off this summer.

“We can play with these guys,” Maddon said. “Head-to-head, I like it. Not a little bit. A lot. … I really believe that. We need more experience. We need a little bit more salt and pepper, a little oregano.

“We have to do a better job once you get on top of making pitches – and being more assertive – and the kind of things that take you to that level. But purely when it comes man-for-man, I’m good right now. I feel good about it.”

Lester walked up the dugout steps at 7:32 p.m. and jogged out to the mound with a 2-0 lead before he threw his first pitch. But the Cardinals are relentless, capitalizing on mistakes and creating their own sense of momentum. Lester couldn’t handle a throw from Anthony Rizzo while covering first base in the second inning, and that led to one unearned run.

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Cubs fans must have been feeling like here we go again: With two outs in the sixth inning, Jhonny Peralta hit a sinking line drive that went underneath Addison Russell’s glove and through his legs for an “E4” that led to two more unearned runs.

But Lester ended that second-and-third threat by striking out pinch-hitter Matt Adams swinging. And Lester pumped his fist after freezing Mark Reynolds with a 92 mph fastball to end the seventh inning, leaving the potential game-tying run stranded at second base.

The Cubs survived, with Pedro Strop needing a double-play ball to escape an eighth-inning jam with only one run scoring. And Hector Rondon putting runners on the corners in the ninth before getting his sixth save. But you definitely notice a team with a lot more nerve this season, and that should start with Lester.

“We haven’t been playing all that great,” Lester said. “We’ve had our chances and everybody knows that. But (it’s being) able to separate it and just go play a game. Yesterday was yesterday and we’re going to worry about today. For the most part, I feel like these guys have done a great job of that this year. You worry about the task at hand.”

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.