Cubs

Messing with Jon Lester gets Dodgers nowhere as Cubs move closer to World Series

Messing with Jon Lester gets Dodgers nowhere as Cubs move closer to World Series

LOS ANGELES – This isn’t some WikiLeaks bombshell: Jon Lester has the yips. It must be in every scouting report by now, the reminder to get inside his head and make him feel uncomfortable, forcing him to field his position, throw to first base and become distracted with the running game.  

It’s not a secret, since the Cubs have openly answered those questions for the last two years, a timeframe that has seen the beginning of Lester’s $155 million megadeal and back-to-back trips to the National League Championship Series. 

It’s just so much easier said than done. The Los Angeles Dodgers got cute and tried to toy with Lester, and now they are one loss away from going home for the winter and wondering how good they could have been with another No. 1 starter to pair with Clayton Kershaw.  

Lester did not look like someone you would want to mess with on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, channeling all that adrenaline into an 8-4 victory that gave the Cubs a 3-2 lead in this NLCS. A big Game 5 performance means the Cubs could clinch their first NL pennant in 71 years by beating Kershaw on Saturday night at Wrigley Field, which would set up an irresistible World Series matchup against the Cleveland Indians.  

“I play this game with emotion,” Lester said. “And if it rubs people the wrong way, oh well.”

A Dodgers team that can’t handle left-handed pitching (major-league-worst .622 OPS during the regular season) didn’t have any other answers for Lester, who unloaded 108 pitches and allowed only one run across seven intense innings.

Lester’s first inning began with his only walk, throwing four straight balls to Kike Hernandez, who showed bunt and then danced and hopped off first base. Hernandez never scored and the diversionary tactics simply didn’t work.

“It is what it is,” Lester said. “People have been doing it all year. I’d prefer Adrian Gonzalez and Joc Pederson to try to bunt. They’re home-run guys. They hit 30 homers, so I’d rather them put the ball on the ground and let these guys try to field it and take my chances that way.”

Lester didn’t let one of his infielders grab the ball Pederson bunted toward the left side of the mound, making a one-hop throw to first base to end the second inning. Lester looked back at the home dugout and gave the Dodgers a death stare.

When Lester felt like he got squeezed and finally struck out Corey Seager swinging to end the third inning, he screamed, flexed his muscles and glared at umpire Alfonso Marquez behind the plate.

The Dodgers did manufacture a run in the fourth inning with Howie Kendrick’s double down the left-field line, headfirst slide to steal third base (verified on replay review) and a Gonzalez groundball. But the Cubs have so many ways to counteract anyone thinking about exploiting that weakness, from Lester’s quick delivery to personal catcher David Ross to changing tempos to the explosive stuff that made a Cy Young Award contender this year. 

“They’re trying to find a way to beat one of the best pitchers in the game, and I don’t blame ‘em for that,” Ross said. “They were trying to rattle him a little bit. We’ve dealt with that all year, so it’s nothing new. 

“I want them to bunt. I want them to give us free outs. That’s fine. We have great athletes in the infield. Guys are ready for it.

“Every out matters in the playoffs, every pitch matters. And so you give one away, that’s one you’re not getting back.”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

There is also something about October that brings out the best in Lester, a money player who’s allowed two runs in 13 innings during this NLCS, to go along with his 1-0 win over Johnny Cueto and the San Francisco Giants in the divisional round.  

Lester (.064 career batting average) even did an over-the-top bat flip after flying out to left field in the seventh inning, moments after NLCS LVP Joe Blanton gave up the go-ahead, two-run homer to Addison Russell, one of the dynamic young talents Theo Epstein’s baseball-operations group once sold the big-name free agent.

The Cubs caught fire last year and won 97 games, but 2016 was really supposed to be The Year where The Plan came together. When Lester made his recruiting trip to Chicago to check out a last-place team just before Thanksgiving 2014, he kept telling Epstein: “They’re going to burn this city down again when we win the World Series.”

Lester missed being on that 2004 team that forever changed the Boston Red Sox by two years, earning World Series rings in 2007 and 2013. Now the Cubs are on the verge of making history – and there will be no running from that. 

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.