Cubs

The telltale signs from Jon Lester that Cubs aren’t at all worried about Nationals yet

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USA TODAY

The telltale signs from Jon Lester that Cubs aren’t at all worried about Nationals yet

WASHINGTON – The franchise that gave Bartman a World Series ring and the team that took a selfie with Nacho Man watched some big dude in a white pinstriped Kris Bryant jersey make a one-handed catch in the first row of the right-field seats.

Whether or not manager Dusty Baker’s mind started racing and flashing back to the 2003 Cubs in that fourth-inning moment, the Washington Nationals had to be wondering: What happened to the rocket-launcher lineup that scored 800-plus runs during the regular season? How much does $210 million ace Max Scherzer have left for an elimination game after feeling a “tweak” in his dominant right hamstring? Why do these teams keep underperforming in October over and over again?

And then just when it looked like the Cubs had all the answers on Saturday night at Nationals Park, Bryce Harper slammed Carl Edwards Jr.’s curveball out to right field and into the second deck. Ryan Zimmerman beat Mike Montgomery by lifting a ball over the left-field fence. That bullpen meltdown in the eighth inning flipped a 3-1 lead into a 6-3 loss, ruining a vintage Jon Lester playoff performance in Game 2 and the latest advertisement for Bryzzo Souvenir Co.

“I’ll take C.J. in that situation 10 out of 10 times,” said Lester, dressed in a gray windowpane suit for the flight back to Chicago, where this National League Division Series now becomes a best-of-three matchup. “If they don’t feel any support in this room, then something’s wrong.

“We all got their backs. Hell, we’ve all been there. Whether it’s a starting pitcher or a bullpen guy or whatever, it doesn’t matter. We’ve all been there. We’ve all given up big hits. We’ve all given up big homers. Turn the page.”

Lester’s body language is always telling and you could see it when he escaped a bases-loaded jam in the fifth inning, screaming and shaking violently after striking out Trea Turner swinging. There were enough concerns about Lester’s overall health and late-season struggles that Kyle Hendricks cut in front of the $155 million ace and got the chance to paint a Game 1 masterpiece.

But Lester looked like a three-time World Series champion, allowing only one run on two hits across six innings, walking just two of the 22 hitters he faced, all good indicators for a team anticipating another long run into October, even if the Nationals suddenly have new life.

“I don’t think anybody in this room expected anything else,” Lester said. “They’re a good team. They’ve played well all year. They got a great pitching staff and their bullpen’s doing a hell of a job.

“We knew it was going to be a battle.”

Lester usually warms up the more he talks at his locker, but you could sense the frustrations with his lack of feel and baffling command issues near the end of the regular season, even after beating the St. Louis Cardinals on Sept. 25 at Busch Stadium as the Cubs closed in on another division title.  

While Addison Russell played along after diving into the stands and knocking over a fan’s tray of nachos, Lester took those 15 minutes of fame as another sign of the decline of Western civilization and his throwaway comments, of course, went viral.  

Fast forward to Anthony Rizzo crushing a Gio Gonzalez curveball that hit the railing and landed in the right hand of a Cubs fan from Virginia identified as Sean Thompson, who didn’t really need the camera hanging around his neck.

The TBS broadcast went to split screens: Home Run Dude, Rizzo pacing the visiting dugout and the umpires huddled on the field for a review that lasted 2 minutes and 16 seconds. The sellout crowd booed when the replayed confirmed Rizzo’s two-run homer.

Near the end of a Q&A that lasted more than seven minutes, Lester smiled and started laughing when asked to compare the two plays.  

“I need to clarify something about old Nacho Man here,” Lester said. “I wasn’t saying nothing about him personally. I was saying the fact that people were asking for his autograph and taking pictures and him doing interviews…I have no quarrel with Nacho Man.”    

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: