Cubs

Joe Maddon went into 'must-win' mode in Game 4, so how will he line up his pitchers for Game 5?

Joe Maddon went into 'must-win' mode in Game 4, so how will he line up his pitchers for Game 5?

“Jon Lester is warming up in the Cubs’ bullpen.”

Come again?

That was a surprising announcement to hear over the speaker in the middle of Game 4 of this NLDS, a game in which the Cubs’ season was not on the line, a game in which the score was a razor-thin 1-0 in the fifth inning.

Lester, of course, pitched in relief last postseason, when he relieved Kyle Hendricks in Game 7 of the World Series. This time, though, manager Joe Maddon wasn’t calling on Lester to save his team with a championship on the line. He called on him to take the baton from Jake Arrieta and prevent a return flight to Washington for a Game 5.

Of course, that’s not how it played out. Lester was mostly terrific in his 3.2 innings of work, going nine up, nine down through three frames before getting two outs — including a pickoff at first base that had Wrigley Field exploding — in the top of the eighth. But lifted before getting out of that inning, Lester was relieved by Carl Edwards Jr. and Wade Davis. Edwards issued back-to-back walks to load the bases, and Davis served up the grand slam to Michael Taylor that landed in the right-field basket and flipped this NLDS on its head.

Despite what came after he left, it was the kind of performance Maddon was looking for out of Lester, one of the best postseason pitchers ever.

“The fact that he was available,” Maddon said when asked why he turned to Lester as the first man out of the ‘pen to relief Arrieta. “We could have done him or (Jose) Quintana, but he pitched before Q, so we went with him first.

“We didn't know exactly where Jake was going to be tonight, so we talked about that in advance. Now, when that showed up, if this score was like we're losing 4-0, (Lester) would not have pitched tonight. It would have been (Mike) Montgomery and the rest of the bullpen. But that part of ballgame, I felt strongly about it. It was the fact we predetermined that he's going to back up Jake tonight, and then Q would back up Kyle (Hendricks) tomorrow night because we're able to do that. That was it.”

As Maddon alluded to, we could see a similar scene play out Thursday night in the do-or-die Game 5 in Washington. Hendricks will get the start, but Quintana, who started and pitched wonderfully in the Cubs’ Game 3 win on Monday, figures to be the first guy out of the chute.

“You've got obviously starting, Kyle, and then Quintana will play the role of Jon Lester tomorrow if it's necessary,” Maddon said. “We talked about that pregame. If, in fact, it was really close, which it was — that was a good spot for Lester tonight — and then tomorrow, just everybody's available tomorrow. So it will start with Kyle, and Q is ready tomorrow to back up like Jon did tonight and the entire bullpen.

“We'll be fine tomorrow.”

Earlier Wednesday, it was Nationals manager Dusty Baker talking about the “all hands on deck” approach to Game 4, his team a loss away from being eliminated from the 2017 postseason. Now, the Cubs are in the same boat. It seems they used the “all hands on deck” approach a night early, with Lester relieving Arrieta, whose performance coming in was a bit of a mystery given the long layoff while dealing with a hamstring injury.

But now that approach spins into Thursday, too. And while Quintana has been terrific for the Cubs, he’ll be the only piece of this postseason rotation available to help out Hendricks because Arrieta and Lester likely won’t be available.

And this is all without mentioning John Lackey, who’s yet to be used in this series. The aforementioned Montgomery has faced just four batters. And what becomes of Edwards, who has had two disastrous outings in this series?

The Cubs know Hendricks will pitch tomorrow. It sounds pretty likely that Quintana will, too.

While some folks might instantly start thinking what the heck this all means for the NLCS, pump the brakes. The Cubs need to get there first.

Javier Baez does more Javier Baez things in Cubs' blowout win over Rockies

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USA TODAY

Javier Baez does more Javier Baez things in Cubs' blowout win over Rockies

Javier Baez continued his hot streak on Friday night.

The 25-year-old infielder went 4-for-6 with a homer, a double and four RBIs as the Cubs cruised past the Colorado Rockies, 16-5. Batting in the second spot, he fell a triple short of the cycle.

This GIF was basically Baez all night: 

His night started with a two-run homer in the first inning. Did it look familiar?

Baez now has nine hits in his last 16 at-bats. He also ranks second in the league in RBIs this season with 20, trailing Jed Lowrie (21) of the Oakland A's.

On Friday night, his play drew some "Javy! Javy! Javy!" chants multiple times from the Coors Field crowd, one of which came after a risky baserunning play in the fifth inning. Baez was on second base when Kris Bryant hit a chopper to the shortstop. Baez took off for third. He was initially called out, but it was overturned after a video review. Two runs would go on to score, and the Cubs would continue to pour it on the rest of the game.

Just another game of Javy doing Javy things.

Meet the new Kyle Schwarber

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AP

Meet the new Kyle Schwarber

It would be easy to point to Kyle Schwarber's new six-pack as the main reason why he's off to a solid start at the plate.

But Schwarber's offensive prowess is more related to the work he's done inside his own head, not on being in the Best Shape of His Life.

He's out to prove he's more than just a three true outcomes guy.

In the Cubs' 8-5 win over the St. Louis Cardinals Thursday, Schwarber flashed a different part of his game with a pair of groundball RBI singles that helped stake his team to an early lead.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon also pointed to Schwarber's lineout up the middle in the eighth inning as his favorite at-bat, even above the run-scoring hits.

"That's as good as I've seen him in a while," Maddon said.

Schwarber is hitting the ball with authority up the middle and the other way, shortening up his swing with two strikes and finding ways to beat the shift by just sticking his bat out and directing the ball to the left side of second base, where teams only have one defender.

Schwarber is still largely a three true outcomes guy, on pace for 30 homers, 101 walks and 172 strikeouts.

But he no longer looks so stressed/anxious with runners in scoring position. He's been working toward relaxing with guys on base and instead of trying to put every ball out onto Sheffield Ave., he's doing what he can to just put the ball in play.

He insists his thought process with runners in scoring position hasn't changed since last year, but he is definitely getting better results now.

After starting the year 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, Schwarber went 3-for-6 in such situations on the Cubs' recent homestand. Even more impressive: All three hits have come with two outs and went to center or left field.

"I'm not trying to go out there and put a lot of pressure on myself because that's when negative things are gonna happen," Schwarber said. "You just gotta be able to have that same approach you have when there's no one on base."

Since the start of the 2017 season, here are Schwarber's numbers based on runners:

Bases empty: .220 AVG, .831 OPS
Runners on: .206 AVG, .730 OPS

The Cubs are trying to get him back to his 2015 form when he exploded onto the major-league scene to hit .270 with a .914 OPS with runners on base.

There is reason for optimism and the numbers back up Schwarber's progress.

In 2017, 83 percent of his season RBI came on home runs — he only had 10 RBI that didn't come from longballs.

This year, he already has 5 RBI on non-homers and there is still roughly 90 percent of the season remaining. Only 44 percent of his 2018 RBI have come on dingers.

As impressive as anything, Schwarber ranks 17th in baseball in walk percentage (16.9 percent) while also reducing his strikeout percentage slightly from last year's struggles

Schwarber has spent a lot of time working with new hitting coach Chili Davis, but he won't allow himself to ride the daily roller coaster based off recent success, even if it is helping his confidence.

"Yeah, I've been feeling good," Schwarber said. "There's been some tough at-bats here and there, but still taking the walks and also trying to get those guys in when they're on and go from there.

"Not gonna get too high, not gonna get too low when things are going bad. Just stay right in the middle."

When Schwarber is producing like this and Javy Baez is ascending to star status, this Cubs offense won't be struggling to find consistency for long.

"If these two guys keep on doing [this], wow," Maddon said. "Sky's the limit."