Cubs

Mets knock out Jon Lester and give Cubs another reality check

Mets knock out Jon Lester and give Cubs another reality check

NEW YORK – This played out like an October rerun, the Cubs looking lost and overmatched against the New York Mets and trying to figure out what just happened. 

This four-game sweep at Citi Field became another reality check for an anointed team, a giddy media corps and a fan base expecting a World Series parade down Michigan Avenue.    
 
It ended with Sunday afternoon’s 14-3 blowout, a resurgent Mets lineup absolutely rocking Jon Lester while Noah Syndergaard unleashed 100-mph heat on Cubs hitters in a rematch of last year’s National League Championship Series.

“We came in probably too excited about playing them again and getting revenge over what happened in the playoffs,” Miguel Montero said, “which I don’t think is a smart thing to do. You just got to play your game and forget. It’s already over.”

A showcase series between two big-market teams with star power devolved into Montero pitching in a 12-run game and getting the last four outs, because Lester could only get four outs at the start. Manager Joe Maddon likes to change the subject and play up the idea of esprit de corps when a veteran catcher pitches. But all jokes aside, Montero wasn’t quite feeling that spin.

“It’s terrible,” Montero said. “It’s just bad. They outplayed us, simple as that. We didn’t play good enough. We didn’t hit good enough. We didn’t pitch good enough. Overall, it was just a sloppy performance.”

The day after being named the NL pitcher of the month for June – during what’s been a terrific Year 2 (9-4, 2.67 ERA) of that $155 million megadeal – Lester walked off the mound in the second inning while a crowd of 36,137 stood and cheered.

“Guys have turned the page on last year,” said Lester, who faced 14 hitters and allowed nine hits, three homers, one walk and eight runs. “They’re swinging the bats really well right now, and they made us pay for our mistakes. I feel like they didn’t make a mistake the whole series. Sometimes, you run into a buzz saw like that.” 

Yes, the Cubs reached the halfway point of their schedule with a 51-30 record, an eight-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals, maybe seven All-Stars who will get all-expenses paid trips to San Diego and a creative front office that can make changes at the trade deadline.

That 25-6 start wasn’t a total mirage. The Cubs have playoff-tested veterans, premium young talent and a manager who knows what he’s doing. No one will be surprised when this lineup creates fireworks on the Fourth of July at Wrigley Field against the Cincinnati Reds and their Triple-A pitchers.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

But you also can’t ignore how the Cubs have played against teams trying to win now, losing series to the Washington Nationals, Cardinals, Miami Marlins and Mets since the middle of June.

“It’s not a matter of anybody in this clubhouse panicking by any means,” Lester said. “Let’s be honest, we weren’t going to be on that pace (for) the entire season. It’s 162 games. It’s a long year. There’s a lot of things that can happen. You guys are seeing them now.”

This can’t all be explained away by injuries, youthful mistakes and the natural ebb and flow of the season. The Cubs threw almost $290 million at their problems after an NLCS sweep where they never led at any point – and the Mets (44-37) again exposed some of those fundamental issues that haven’t completely gone away with the arrival of big-name free agents. 

The Cubs went 0-for-17 with runners in scoring position during the first three games in Queens, struck out 44 times overall against New York’s high-octane pitching staff, allowed 22 hits on getaway day and got outscored by a 32-11 aggregate. 

Good luck against Syndergaard, a 6-foot-6 beast with triple-digit velocity and pinpoint control. “Thor” didn’t seem bothered by that bone spur in his right elbow, allowing one run across seven low-stress innings and finishing with eight strikeouts against zero walks.

[RELATED: What if Cubs don’t get Jake Arrieta back pitching at a Cy Young Award level?]

If Jake Arrieta loses that intimidation factor – and starts to look more like a pretty good pitcher rather than an ace – then the Cubs can shred their World Series blueprint. 

But 81 games in, and with New York in their heads, all the Cubs can do is write this off, remembering how much it meant to beat the Mets seven times during the first half of last season.

“When you get two evenly matched teams, a lot of it has to do with what’s going on dynamically with the group at that particular moment,” Maddon said. “At the end of a pretty rugged road trip with a lot of banged-up guys, it happens. I don’t think you try to overanalyze it. You just move on to the next day and understand that our next really good run’s right around the corner.”

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

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USA TODAY

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: