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.”    

What Chicago sports fans should be thankful for

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USA TODAY

What Chicago sports fans should be thankful for

Families gather and people talk about things they are thankful for on Thanksgiving, but what are Chicago sports fans happy for now?

Raised expectations on the North Side

Got to be thankful that a “disappointing” season is winning the division and losing in the NLCS. The expectations have skyrocketed, and that’s thanks to a ridiculous nucleus of bats and a steady front office. Not many clubs can say that. Also, though, it’s important to be appreciative of the Wrigley bar stretch. They may charge $8 for a Miller Lite, but it’s always a damn good party.

Javy tags, too. Don't forget Javy tags.

Rebuild sparking hope in White Sox fans

Where to begin? Obviously, be thankful for the plethora of young talent that will soon take over the South Side. Be thankful for Avi Time (while you still can). Be thankful that taking your friends or family to a game won’t cause you to take out a second mortgage. Be thankful for the 2020 World Series and, of course, 2020 MVP Eloy Jimenez. But most importantly, be thankful that Rick Hahn’s phone stays buzzing.

Eddie O back in the booth for the Blackhawks

The Blackhawks are having a rough start to the season, but at least Eddie Olczyk is back in the booth. The longtime Blackhawks broadcaster returned to the booth on Oct. 18 after missing time while undergoing chemotherapy treatments for colon cancer.

With some of the key names from the Blackhawks’ title runs either leaving or being unable to play this season (in the case of Marian Hossa), Blackhawks fans are probably thankful to see a familiar face and hear a familiar voice during games.

Lauri Markkanen leading the Bulls rebuild

OK, there’s not much to be thankful for about the current Bulls team. At 3-13, the Bulls are tied for the fewest wins in the NBA (maybe in the long-term that’s something to be thankful for as well). However, Zach LaVine’s pending debut after his eventual return from injury should help create some excitement.

The thing Bulls fans really should be thankful for this year is the play of rookie Lauri Markkanen. The 20-year-old leads the team in scoring (14.6 points per game) and rebounds (8.3 per game) while shooting at a high percentage (34.2 percent on threes and 50.6 percent on twos). It’s only the beginning of the Bulls’ rebuild, but Markkanen is a good start.

Mitchapalooza

If a few things broke the Bears’ way, Chicagoans could have been grateful that the team was finally out of the cellar. Instead, we’ll settle for the fact that there seems to be some building blocks already in place. Mitchell Trubisky, Tarik Cohen, Leonard Floyd and Akiem Hicks seem to fit that category. Also, some may be thankful that this is likely John Fox’s last season at the helm.

Fire ending a playoff drought

After finishing dead last in MLS in 2015 and 2016, the Fire were one of the most improved teams in the league in 2017. After posting the third best record in the league, the Fire made a first playoff appearance since 2012.

The playoff run didn’t last long with the Fire losing a play-in game at home, but the arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger and the league’s leading goal-scorer, Nemanja Nikolic, helped fill the stadium with six sellouts and gave Fire fans something to cheer for.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Where do Cubs go from here with Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis?

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Where do Cubs go from here with Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis?

In the latest CubsTalk Podcast, Kelly Crull and David Kaplan look ahead to Thanksgiving and discuss the official coaching hires for the Cubs.

They also talk about where the Cubs go from here with Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis, whether Alex Cobb could factor into the rotation plans and Kap goes off on the 11:30 a.m. Opening Day start time.

Check out the entire podcast here: