Cubs

With playoffs looming, is Jon Lester back where he needs to be?

With playoffs looming, is Jon Lester back where he needs to be?

If Jon Lester is going to continue the recent tradition of taking the ball for every Game 1 of a Cubs postseason series, he's in a good spot.

The veteran southpaw tossed five shutout innings Saturday in a 9-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field in his final tune-up before the playoffs. 

That now makes just one earned run on nine hits and a pair of walks in 11 innings over the last week for Lester, a far cry from the 14 earned runs he gave up in 21.1 innings in his first four starts since returning from the disabled list on Sept. 2.

Lester struck out seven Reds and walked none, using 75 pitches to get through the five innings, a total Cubs manager Joe Maddon believes is a "theoretically perfect" number.

So is Lester back to where he needs to be?

"I feel good," he said. "The last two have been a lot better as far as being able to repeat and command the baseball and throw those different pitches. Kinda got back to throwing a lot more fastballs. But obviously, the teams and the guys that you face dictate that as well with what you're trying to do.

"It feels good to be crisp. ... Good to have good command. Mixed in all our pitches and threw some pitches in different counts that we normally don't throw. So it was good. Had some weak contact. They hit a couple balls hard, but guys made some good plays on'em, so that was good."

The Cubs are still mulling over who their Game 1 starter is Friday in Washington D.C., but it appears as if Lester and Kyle Hendricks are the two options with Maddon already confirming Jake Arrieta would be pushed back and Jose Quintana joining Arrieta in Wednesday's simulated game.

"I don't make those decisions," Lester said. "I told somebody the other day, if they so choose to make me Game 1, obviously that's a huge honor, a huge responsibility to put on your shoulders and go out there and try to get your team off to the best start.

"But if I'm in any of the other games, go out there and compete, just like I would any other start."

Maddon said there are still a "couple moving parts" to nail down before the Cubs make their final decision.

"I hope it's not complex. I don't like complex; I just like simplex," Maddon said, smirking.

Lester finishes the season with a 4.33 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, his worst yearly totals since 2012 (4.82 ERA, 1.38 WHIP). 2017 also marked only the second time over the last decade Lester has not reached the 200-inning plateau in a season.

But even for a guy who has a career 2.63 ERA in 133.2 postseason innings spanning 22 games, Lester admits he has some anxiety before every start.

Whether he goes Game 1 or Game 2 next weekend in D.C., he'll have Sunday through Thursday to go through his normal between-starts routine.

"I don't really get anxious until the day of," Lester said. "I think I'm so engrossed in my routine and what I'm doing and what I'm trying to prepare for.

"And then when you get to that day, it's kinda 'OK, I don't know what to do.' And then I have to pitch. That's when the anxiety and the nervousness kicks in."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”