Cubs

Will Cubs regret playing their Jon Lester card too early?

Will Cubs regret playing their Jon Lester card too early?

Instead of spraying champagne all around the Wrigley Field clubhouse, Jon Lester had a gaudy 2016 World Series ring on his right hand as he placed a Miller Lite can on the ledge of an empty locker and began talking with the waiting reporters.

Instead of wearing goggles and a soaking-wet, officially-licensed T-shirt on Wednesday night, Lester had already showered and changed into a gray windowpane jacket and dress pants for the business trip to Washington. Whatever happens next to the defending champs, it’s out of his hands.

Will the Cubs regret playing their Lester card too early against the Nationals? Who knows? That’s the nature of unpredictable playoff baseball and the “barroom banter” manager Joe Maddon likes to reference after growing up in Pennsylvania’s blue-collar, coal-mining region.

But Lester emerging from the bullpen in the fifth inning and getting 10 straight outs sure looked like a statement on how much the Cubs wanted to end this National League Division Series and avoid Thursday night’s Game 5 at Nationals Park.

“I don’t know,” Lester said after a 5-0 loss. “I just do what I’m told. I don’t even know what today is, what, Wednesday? I asked Monday night if they wanted me in the ‘pen on Tuesday and we got rained out. They came to me yesterday and said: ‘Hey, you’re in there tomorrow.’

“Like I said, I don’t ask questions. I don’t really read into things. They wanted me down there, and Joe called my name, so you got to try to go out there and do your job. I was able to keep us in it there until the end.”

Exactly one year to the day the Cubs pulled off a stunning ninth-inning comeback at AT&T Park to eliminate the even-year San Francisco Giants – and avoid a bad-vibes elimination game against Johnny Cueto at Wrigley Field – Maddon felt the sense of urgency to use Lester as a $155 million lefty reliever.

The Cubs took into account their Game 5 alignment – Kyle Hendricks (1.98 ERA in eight career playoff starts) with Jose Quintana (zero relief appearances in the last five seasons) waiting in the wings – plus Jake Arrieta seeing his first action since Sept. 25 as he recovered from a Grade 1 right hamstring strain.

Arrieta battled, needing 90 pitches to get through four innings on a day where Stephen Strasburg drew all the pregame attention. Arrieta worked around five walks and allowed only one unearned run when Ryan Zimmerman’s two-out chopper bounced off the heel of shortstop Addison Russell’s glove in the third inning.

“I was in the bullpen, so you never really know,” said Lester, who didn’t get the clean inning Maddon promised against the Cleveland Indians in that World Series Game 7. “Any time you have a plan, just like last year when you’re in the ‘pen, it never really goes according to plan, so you make adjustments.

“We made adjustments and ended up out there a little bit sooner than we all thought.”

Just before 5 p.m., Jason Aldean’s “Gonna Know We Were Here” started blasting on the Wrigley Field sound system, the warm-up signal for Lester’s country hardball. Now batting: Bryce Harper, who chucked his bat toward the visiting dugout after lifting a harmless flyball to shallow left field.

Lester retired the first 10 batters he faced until giving up a walk to Zimmerman in the eighth inning. Lester got so far outside of his comfort zone that he made two pickoff throws to first base, the first one getting mock cheers – a recognition of the yips – and the second one leading to a standing ovation after Anthony Rizzo dropped the tag on Zimmerman’s left foot and a Cub challenge overturned the call on the field.

Lester tipped his cap when he walked off the mound and back to the dugout, leaving a runner on for Carl Edwards Jr. with two outs in a one-run game. Things quickly got out of control, with All-Star closer Wade Davis taking over in the middle of an at-bat in a bases-loaded situation and giving up a grand slam to Michael A. Taylor.

If the Cubs find themselves in another emergency situation on Thursday night, they can’t realistically expect to use one of the best big-game pitchers of this generation.

“I have no idea, I haven’t talked to anybody,” Lester said. “I don’t know how many pitches I threw (55), but I would imagine I’m probably not involved. We’ll see tomorrow. I’ll do whatever I can to be ready and to be available. But I would imagine that’s probably an argument that I won’t win.”

This is probably the ending Cubs vs. Nationals deserves.

“Both sides – if that side’s honest over there – thought this would be a good series,” Lester said. “Nobody thought it was going to be a three-and-done-type series. It’s two heavyweights going at it. And we’re going to the last round.

“It should be exciting TV.”

Lester will be watching, just like the rest of us.

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: