Addison Russell in the middle of red-hot start for Cubs

Addison Russell in the middle of red-hot start for Cubs

“No,” Addison Russell said with a laugh, he didn’t see this coming when he stopped being Billy Beane’s most prized prospect. Playing for a team on pace for 120-ish wins? Partying in the Celebration Room built into a state-of-the-art clubhouse? Owning this city with the Blackhawks already eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs? “Absolutely not.”  

Two years ago, Matt Garza sent a message to Jeff Samardzija through the media: The Cubs are a team without hope. Pitch your way out of Chicago.  

Garza had heard enough trade rumors – “I’ll pitch on the freakin’ moon” – and was riding high with the Milwaukee Brewers during the first season of a four-year, $50 million contract. The Brewers improved to 17-6 after Garza beat his old team on April 25, 2014 at Miller Park and would finish that month with 20 wins and a five-and-a-half-game lead in the National League Central.

But the Brewers faded away and finished that season in third place, only two games over .500. Garza is now on the disabled list with a right lat strain. A Milwaukee franchise that once resisted the full-scale teardown and thought bigger than its small market isn’t going for it this year. The Brewers will also probably punt on the 2017 and 2018 major-league seasons and try to follow The Cubs Way. 

Hope? That’s so 2014. The Cubs are now a destination where free agents actually take less guaranteed money for the chance to play at Wrigley Field and make history. 

This is a team that goes into every game expecting to win, and Tuesday night’s 4-3 victory pivoted in the sixth inning with a big swing from Russell, who had been acquired from the Oakland A’s two years ago in the – wait for it – Samardzija Fourth of July blockbuster deal.  

Russell – who’s only 22 years old and still just scratching the surface of his offensive potential – drilled a Carlos Torres fastball into the right-center field gap and hustled for a two-out, two-run triple that broke open a tie game.  

“We’re the frontrunners right now,” Russell said. “We’re embracing it. We love it.” 

Last year’s Cubs didn’t make it to 10 games above .500 until August, when Russell bumped Starlin Castro off shortstop to stabilize the defense and Joe Maddon aggressively managed his bullpen like it was already October. 

These Cubs got to 15-5 with Russell’s clutch hit and Maddon lifting Kyle Hendricks for a pinch-hitter after five innings, getting the game-tying run and using swingman Adam Warren for two scoreless innings.  

“Last year, we were just getting a lot of young guys broken in,” Maddon said. “I thought we were good last year, but it took a while to really get it all working. ‘KB’ (Kris Bryant) had to show up. Addison eventually playing shortstop was a big play for us. Starlin going to second base was a big move for us. Dexter (Fowler) getting on fire. (Kyle) Schwarber getting here. 

“There were a lot of parts that did not arrive early enough, regardless of lack of experience or we just hadn’t played well enough to that point.” 

The Cubs still wound up winning 97 games last season and now look like a well-oiled machine. This began a stretch where the Cubs are scheduled to play 16 of 19 at Wrigley Field (weather permitting) with six straight games against the Brewers (8-12) and wait-until-next-year Atlanta Braves. Tanking or reloading or retooling or whatever you want to call it isn’t as easy as Theo Epstein’s front office made it look. 

It takes good scouting, strong player development, big-market spending power and a certain amount of luck. Between 2012 and 2014, the Cubs identified 10 major trades and gave up 13 players (average age: 31) – like Garza – and eight years of future control for 17 prospects (average age: 22.5) and 95 years of future control. That haul included future Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta.

Within that churn, the Cubs also picked up Hendricks from the Texas Rangers in the Ryan Dempster trade minutes before the July 31 deadline in 2012. Hendricks – who is as reliable and as competitive as just about any fifth starter in baseball – allowed one run across five innings to improve to 2-2 with a 3.52 ERA.   

A 101-loss season in 2012 also yielded a future Rookie of the Year in Bryant as well as another No. 2 overall pick – in the Rule 5 draft – which yielded Hector Rondon. The closer worked a scoreless ninth inning to notch his fourth save and has now struck out 11 of the 20 batters he’s faced this season.

“We love playing here, but so does everybody else,” Maddon said. “I talked about ‘Embrace the Target.’ When you’re going to play teams that possibly aren’t doing as well, they’re going to come in and there’s going to be 40,000 people. The place is electric all the time. It’s a playoff atmosphere. So you got this big old target right on your chest, and we have to respond to that. To this point, we have.

“We’re learning to play a better, complete brand of baseball.”

Cubs rallying behind Jon Lester after another tough outing

Cubs rallying behind Jon Lester after another tough outing

There are three ways to look at the Cubs' 9-3 loss Friday:

1) Jon Lester had another rough outing and the sun is starting to set on his career as a front-of-the-rotation starter.

2) Lester gave up some hard contact, but also had some tough luck and pitched better than his final line indicated.

3) Meh.

To be honest, each of the three perspectives has an element of truth to it, but the third one is probably the main way to look at it as the Cubs tasted defeat for the first time in a week.

No, the team did not play well, but it went far beyond Lester.

The Nationals didn't get into town until the wee hours of Friday morning, yet it was the Cubs who looked sluggish Friday. They managed only two baserunners - a single and a walk - until the ninth inning when they put together a too-little-too-late rally thanks to some shoddy Washington fielding.

But even if the offense did come to play, the game was out of hand by the fifth inning, when Lester and Pedro Strop combined to allow 3 runs, extending Washington's lead to 7-0.

Lester was charged with 6 runs on 9 hits and a walk over 4.1 innings, but 8 of those 9 hits were singles. The only extra-base knock off the Cubs southpaw was Adam Eaton's line drive home run in the first inning that he smacked into the 18 mph wind howling in off the lake.

Of the singles, a couple were hard ground balls knocked down by Cubs infielders and one was a perfectly executed bunt by pitcher Anibal Sanchez with two strikes that the Cubs had no choice but to hope it would roll foul. At that point in the fourth inning, the score was only 3-0, but the Cubs' misfortune seemed to open the door for the Nationals.

"I'm telling you, I don't think he was that bad today," Maddon said. "We were a little bit unlucky with him. ... Outside of that last inning when they squared him up, I thought he actually threw the ball decently.

"I think he's gonna be fine. He will find a way to get himself back into the picture in the right way. There's a lot of time left with the playoffs, etc., so I'm counting on it. I believe in Jon."

Beyond the tough luck, the Nationals hit five balls more than 100 mph off Lester, including a 108.5 mph single on the final batter (Juan Soto) he faced in the fifth inning.

After the game, Lester couldn't do much but shrug and accept responsibility for the loss.

"I feel fine," he said. "Today sucks. Tomorrow, I'll wake up and start a new day and get ready for another start. That doesn't take the sting away from today. Joe's always said, 'you win hard, you lose hard' and losing for me is even harder than that. Sucking as a pitcher is even harder than that.

"It's my job to do better and I'm not. I let a five-game winning streak basically go by the wayside because I didn't throw the ball very well. It's frustrating, but tomorrow starts a new day and move on to the next one."

Friday's game marks the fifth time this season Lester has allowed at least 6 runs in an outing. This was his 25th start of 2019, so that means 20 percent of his appearances have resulted in putting his team in a major hole.

"I think we're getting to the point where you can't isolate [the rough games]," Lester said. "They're happening a little bit too much for myself. I felt pretty good about myself after the last one, just being able to continually execute pitches. I don't feel like stuff was much different than last time, just different results and that's the shitty part about this game and my job - it's results driven and it doesn't matter how I feel or what the gameplan was going in.

"You have to execute and get people out and keep them from scoring runs and I'm just not doing that."

Lester started the five-game winning streak for the Cubs with a performance befitting true "ace" or "stopper" status. After a pair of disheartening bullpen meltdowns, he took the ball last Saturday and shut out the Pirates through 6 innings, battling despite not having his best stuff (5 walks).

But even including that start in Pittsburgh, Lester has now allowed 23 earned runs in 24.1 innings in five starts in August.

For a 35-year-old with three World Series rings and a long track record of pitching well when the lights are the brightest, he isn't where he wants to be as September approaches in a tight playoff race.

"Better than this," he said. "Usually this is the time of year where I pitch a lot better than I have been. For whatever reason, I haven't hit that stride. I usually have ups and downs to every season, but usually more ups than downs.

"Right now, it's just continuing to go down. The old saying - one step forward, two steps back - is kinda what I'm doing right now. The positive is I physically feel fine. Can't blame it on that. Just have to be better. Tomorrow's a new day, prepare for the next one."

Even with the recent struggles, Kyle Schwarber said Lester is still the guy the Cubs would want to give the ball to in Game 1 of a playoff series.

"He'll bounce back," Schwarber said. "He knows how to handle himself really well. He's a leader out there and we always have his back."

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As Cubs continue to ride the roller coaster, they won't 'play with the scoreboard'

As Cubs continue to ride the roller coaster, they won't 'play with the scoreboard'

The Cubs woke up Friday morning riding the high of their longest winning streak in nearly four months (five games) and a season-high 11 games over .500. 

That was only good enough for a half-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the division, but the Cubs will take it considering the way things were just a week ago. 

After getting swept by Bryce Harper's Phillies on the road, the Cubs went to Pittsburgh and witnessed another late bullpen meltdown last Friday. But they haven't lost since and it's gotten to the point where Joe Maddon was asked ahead of the series with the Nationals if he feels his team is clicking in all facets of the game.

Maddon didn't answer that question directly, but it's a fair assessment of this team right now. As an added boost, Ben Zobrist should be activated off the restricted list next weekend and Willson Contreras will travel with the Cubs to New York next week and could ramp up his baseball activities there as he recovers from a Grade-2 hamstring strain. 

What a difference a week makes. 

"I can't emphasize enough — it is a 24-hour cycle," Maddon said. "It's no different than a news cycle and if you have a bad day, our game is so beautiful you can have a great day the very next night. You don't have to wait a week to play again.

"I've been involved in some really tight races in September where you're going good, good, good and all the sudden, man, you get your teeth smashed in towards the end and you can't permit that to take you out of your methods. It's great that the boys feel that way. I feel that way. 

"I still believe our best baseball's ahead of us for the rest of the season. ... With the new additions and the guys coming back, we should be capable of doing that kind of stuff."

The Cubs still have 14 games left with the Cardinals and Brewers, including a series each in St. Louis (Sept. 27-29) and Milwaukee (Sept. 5-8). 

With just over five weeks left in the season, the division race could come down to that final weekend of the year in St. Louis. That is, unless one team goes on a run and pull away with things before that point.

Either way, the Cubs are just trying to stay focused on their game while blocking out all the outside noise, which is something Javy Baez felt they didn't accomplish down the stretch last season.

"I think we're in a good spot," Baez said earlier this month. "We're actually not paying attention to other teams. It looks like they're paying attention to us. We've had ups and downs and we're just trying to get that out of the way and keep going.

"Me personally, I can't play with the scoreboard. I know where the game's at, but I can't play with numbers. I put too much pressure on myself."

Given the way last year ended and the call for more urgency this season, things certainly haven't played out in a dream scenario for the 2019 Cubs. The more time that goes by, the more 2016 looks like an outlier in terms of the way that team cruised and how pretty much everything went right.

But the rest of the division — and the entire National League — has improved while the Cubs are still searching for consistency in their own game, particularly away from Wrigley Field.

Still, there are way worse positions to be in than a half-game up in the division with five-and-a-half weeks to go.

"We all know what's at stake here," Kyle Schwarber said. "We're in a good position where we're in control of our own destiny. It doesn't really matter the home/road splits — it just comes down to playing each ballgame, one game at a time. It doesn't matter if we're at home or on the road, we got X amount of ballgames left and we can control what we do."