Chicago Cubs

With Cubs reeling, Jon Lester comes up big and plays stopper

lester_stopper.jpg
USA TODAY

With Cubs reeling, Jon Lester comes up big and plays stopper

The last three games have been more than forgettable for the Cubs.

From Wednesday’s 11-1 drubbing at the hands of the Phillies to back-to-back walk-off losses on Thursday and Friday, the Cubs’ current road trip has looked much like those that preceded it. At various times, the offense has scuffled, the rotation has pitched a clunker and the bullpen has cracked.

The solution to the latest road trip woes? Give the ball to Jon Lester and get the hell out of the way.

Lester —  who pitched a clunker himself Aug. 6 against the A’s — did what the Cubs have become so accustomed to see him do over the past four seasons. The 35-year-old tossed 6+ shutout innings, allowing just four hits, leading the Cubs to a 2-0 win.

Lester had no room for error on Saturday, as the Cubs offense went hitless for the first 4 1/3 innings. While the Cubs bats were asleep, the Pirates threatened to break the game on open multiple times, loading the bases with one out (first inning), no outs (fifth) and getting runners on first and second with no outs in the sixth.

The latter two of those instances were assisted by errors by third baseman Kris Bryant, but that’s neither here nor there. Point being, with how the Cubs looked offensively, any Pirates runs could have proved critical on Saturday. Instead, Lester worked out of every jam, stymying the Pirates bats to an 0-for-12 line with RISP.

Winning Saturday’s game was obviously important for the Cubs, as it puts them a game ahead of the Cardinals in the win column (pending the outcome of St. Louis's game against the Reds later Saturday). But it was equally important for Lester, who called himself the “weakest link” in the Cubs starting rotation after that tough outing against the A’s.

The beautiful thing about baseball is that the regular season is 162 games long. Each day presents teams with a new slate, a chance to forget about what happened in the previous game and move forward.  If Saturday’s start shows anything, it’s that Lester and the Cubs are more than capable of putting a tough game in the rearview mirror and keep moving forward.

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Cubs starting pitching great again, but road woes continue

Cubs starting pitching great again, but road woes continue

Kyle Hendricks’ last start on August 10 start against the Cincinnati Reds was his worst start of the season. He gave up 12 hits and 7 ER in 2.2 innings pitched amid a dreadful 10-1 loss, so Friday’s game against the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates was exactly what ‘The Professor’ needed to get back to his usual excellence. Unfortunately, it couldn’t help the right ship when it comes to the Cubs’ woeful road record.

This season Hendricks has fallen in line with the Cubs overall struggles on the road, as he is 4-7 with a 5.16 ERA away from Wrigley Field but PNC Park was quite kind to Hendricks on Friday night. He was extremely efficient on the night, tossing seven innings of three-hit ball, giving up one walk and one earned run.

Hendricks’ seven-innings pitched on Friday makes it back-to-back quality starts of the Cubs starters, following Yu Darvish’s squandered 10-strikeout outing on Thursday. Friday’s game also extends Hendricks run of dominance against the Pirates. 

But the road woes won out as the Cubs bullpen--which was without several of their best relief arms on Thursday--was terrible again, giving up six earned runs for the second night in a row. 

The bullpen did get some good news on Friday night, which was the return of relief pitcher Brandon Kintzler, who had not pitched since August 5. But--and almost no good Cubs news is without a but these days--Kintzler was called up in the ninth inning with one out to nail down the save and things went poorly, fast. 

Three-straight walks and a Kevin Newman single later, and the Cubs had suffered their second-straight walk-off loss.

Hopefully, the Cubs have a short memory as they will get a chance to avenge Friday’s loss on  Saturday afternoon at PNC Park. The North Siders are in the midst of a four-game losing streak and will have Jon Lester on the mound on Saturday. Lester has given up a combined 17 earned runs over his last three starts but had a quality start in his last outing against the Pirates, so as Kris Bryant stated, the Cubs have to “keep going”.

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Cubs shake up roster, send Albert Almora Jr. to Triple-A and recall Addison Russell

Cubs shake up roster, send Albert Almora Jr. to Triple-A and recall Addison Russell

After the 2018 season ended in disappointing fashion — with the offense scuffling post-All-Star break — Cubs president Theo Epstein foreshadowed what could be in store for the team in 2019.

“We have to be an offensive force,” Epstein said. “We should be with the talent on our roster, but it's probably time to stop evaluating this in terms of talent and start evaluating in terms of production. We need to do everything we can to produce offensively."

Friday, the Cubs made a move in the name of production: center fielder Albert Almora Jr. has been demoted to Triple-A, with Addison Russell recalled in his place.

Almora has provided stellar defense this season, but he’s largely struggled at the plate. In 321 at-bats this season, he’s hitting .243/.275/.396, though he does have a career-high 12 home runs. Granted, that career-high comes in a season where the baseball is flying out of the ballpark more than ever.

While one can say that Almora’s struggles this season don’t represent a large sample size, they actually date back to last season. Over his last 162 games, he’s hitting .243/.278/.368, walking just 20 times in 473 plate appearances.

The Cubs demoted Russell to Triple-A following a series of mental lapses on the field. In a game against the Padres on July 20, Russell got thrown out on the basepaths twice, lost a popup in the sun and let another one drop due to miscommunication with Almora. Cubs manager Joe Maddon was blunt in his assessment of Russell after that game.

"He’s gotta straighten some things out," Maddon said on July 20. "He has to. There’s no question. I’m not going to stand here — he’s got to, we’ve talked about his baserunning in the past. 

"… The baserunning, there’s some things there — we’re making too many outs on the bases and we’re missing things on the bases that we can’t to be an elite team."

Following Russell's demotion on July 24, Epstein admitted that the Cubs needed more out of the infielder, specifically in terms of his focus.

"Yeah, I think we had hoped that Addison would've put things together by now and be playing at a higher level, at his accustomed level," Epstein said. "He just went through a stretch where we needed a little bit more out of him in terms of his focus and his attention to detail and to get locked in.

"I think that can still happen, but we all felt it was the appropriate move to let him do that in Iowa and see if that part of his game can get a little bit better."

Russell certainly locked in with Iowa; in 15 games following his demotion, he hit .333/.413/.647 to go along with four home runs and 13 RBIs. So, the Cubs not only are getting a player who's focused and producing as of late, but also one who seems to have a fresh sense of confidence.

Demoting Almora has several ripple effects on the Cubs position player group. Since the Cubs acquired Nick Castellanos, Jason Heyward has been manning center field on a frequent basis. Almora’s demotion means that Heyward will see more time in center.

Ian Happ, whom the Cubs also demoted to the minor leagues this season, will also see time in center field with Almora in Iowa. Having Happ play center will allow Heyward to play his natural position in right field from time-to-time, with Castellanos playing left field.

With how Russell has been hitting, he should be the No. 1 everyday second base option. The position has been a revolving door for the Cubs this season, with Ben Zobrist, David Bote, Tony Kemp, Daniel Descalso, Robel Garcia, Happ and Russell each seeing time there. Of course, Russell has to produce at the big league level for this to become reality. 

At the very least, though, he gives the Cubs a legitimate backup shortstop behind Javier Báez. With Russell in Iowa, the Cubs were forced to use Bote as Báez’s backup. With all due respect to Bote – who is a solid defender at second and third base – he’s not a regular shortstop, which came up big in Thursday's loss to the Phillies. 

Having Russell back gives the Cubs two true shortstops, and they could choose to start him there on occasion to get Báez rest.

Cubs bullpen inches closer to full strength

After Thursday’s disastrous ending, the Cubs bullpen took a major step towards getting back to full strength on Friday. The team activated Brandon Kintzler (right pec inflammation) from the injured list, sending James Norwood to Triple-A in a corresponding move.

Kintzler has emerged as the Cubs’ most reliable reliever and key late-inning arm this season. The 35-year-old holds a stellar 2.33 ERA in 49 games (46 1/3 innings), striking out 40 batters compared to just 10 walks. His stint on the injured-list corresponded with closer Craig Kimbrel (knee) and Steve Cishek (hip) also hitting the shelf, leaving the Cubs thin on late-game relievers.

Kimbrel and Cishek aren’t expected to be out much longer, and it’s plausible that the two could be activated in the next couple of days.

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