Cubs

After all the hype, Jon Lester ready to roll with Cubs

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After all the hype, Jon Lester ready to roll with Cubs

ANAHEIM, Calif. – The way Jon Lester understood The Plan, the Cubs would go full throttle trying to win the World Series in 2016.

How the Cubs got to this point is a completely different story, without the kind of incremental improvement that would gradually raise expectations and create a cautious sense of optimism around the team.    

For two nights in Orange County, the Cubs absolutely lived up to the hype, blitzing the Los Angeles Angels and following the offseason playbook with dominant starting pitching, a relentless lineup and across-the-board contributions. 

“It always eases the overall tension of the clubhouse when you come out and you start playing well,” Lester said after Tuesday night’s 6-1 win. “Nobody wants to get out to a bad start. Especially now with the two wild cards, it could come down to one game whether you’re in or out at the end of the season.”

[BOX SCORE: Cubs 6, Angels 1]

The Cubs looked more like the American League team, outscoring the Angels 15-1 during this two-game sweep. That’s another reason why Lester can exhale and not be defined by dollar signs in the second season of the six-year, $155 million megadeal that signaled the Cubs were finally ready to compete. 

Lester followed up Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta by cruising through seven innings, allowing one run on four hits with four strikeouts against zero walks. The lefty didn’t have to compensate for the “dead arm” that slowed him down in spring training last year – or prove something to new teammates and a new city.      

“Obviously, I’m in a better place than I was last season,” Lester said. “Last year was just so different. There was a lot of hype involved – just around myself – and a lot of expectations.

“You try to go out there the first start and live up to those expectations all at once, as opposed to just letting the season play out and go through your 32, 33 starts and see where we’re at in the end.

“Physically, mentally, I’m light years ahead of where I was last year at this point.”   

To be clear, Lester didn’t have a bad season (11-12, 3.34 ERA, 207 strikeouts in 205 innings) and the Cubs would do this deal all over again. But manager Joe Maddon has already noticed the differences in a player known for being a creature of habit after spending 13 years in the Boston Red Sox organization.   

“I don’t think there was a moment last year that I thought his delivery was as smooth as I saw it (in spring training),” Maddon said. “The cutter from early on in camp was probably as good as it was at any time last season. 

“I also believe that one year removed from last year, he’s more comfortable not having the weight of the world on his shoulders.

“He’s got other guys to deflect from right now, which I think is going to make him even better.”

[MORE: Cubs will face some interesting decisions with Jorge Soler]

That includes everyone from MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo (two-run homer) to leadoff guy Dexter Fowler (two-run homer) to Matt Szczur (homer), the 25th man on the roster who got the start in left field the day after his Villanova Wildcats won the NCAA tournament and now leads the team with four RBI.

“This is what we can do,” Rizzo said. “Now, it’s just about doing it every day. We took care of business.” 

The Cubs are now 2-0 for the first time since 1995 – or the year after shortstop Addison Russell was born – and should get a tougher test from another team that dominated the offseason headlines. 

The Cubs head back to the desert for a four-game series against Zack Greinke, Shelby Miller and the Arizona Diamondbacks that begins Thursday night at Chase Field. 

“So far, so good,” Lester said.

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa's 18th homer of June and 31st of the season came off the Tigers in the Cubs' brief 2-game Interleague series in Detroit. 

Sosa connected in the first inning off Tigers starter Seth Greisinger, going back-to-back with Mickey Morandini. 

The Cubs wound up getting out to a 5-0 start in the game but still lost 7-6 on a Gabe Alvarez single in the bottom of the 11th.

The aforementioned Morandini homer was only the 3rd of the season for the Cubs second baseman. He finished with 8 homers on the year and 224 total bases on 172 hits in what was a very good offensive season. Yet it paled in comparison to Sosa, who had nearly 200 more total bases (416) and a slugging percentage nearly 200 points above Morandini's (.647 to .471), a testament to how truly incredible Sosa's season was.

Fun fact: Tony Clark was the Tigers' cleanup hitter that day. Clark is now the head of the MLB Players Union.

Fun fact No. 2: Paul Bako was the Detroit catcher in the game. He later became the Cubs backup catcher in 2003 and 2004, when he posted a .611 OPS in 119 games over the two years.

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

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USA TODAY

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

The Cubs continued their recent struggles, suffering their third straight loss to the Cincinnati Reds. 

But the game was not without its fair share of drama. The matchup was a back-and-forth affair, up until the Reds blew the game wide-open in the bottom of the third inning. This included a grand slam by Reds pitcher Anthony DeSclafani, the first home run of his career.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon turned to the bullpen following Cincinnati's third inning explosion, and things did not get much better from there.

With the Cubs down six runs in the bottom of the eight inning, Maddon brought in catcher Chris Gimenez to pitch. 

This was not new territory for Gimenez, who despite being a catcher, now has 10 MLB pitching appearances to his name. 

Down six runs, Gimenez didn't have a lot to lose. But Reds first basemen Joey Votto hammered a fastball in the zone for his eighth homer of the year.

Gimenez had a career ERA of 8.00 before Saturday's appearance, and he certainly didn't do much to help lower that figure.

According to ESPN's Jesse Rogers: "Including one today, Cubs relievers have allowed 41.1 percent of inherited runners to score in June, sixth most in the NL." 

A tired bullpen is certainly cause for concern for the Cubs, who are locked into a battle in the NL Central with the Brewers and Cardinals. Maddon was surely hoping to keep his bullpen arms fresh with the move, seeing as the game was already out of reach. 

So yes, the game did end in a 11-2 win for the Reds. But with a grand-slam by a pitcher—on his first career HR no less—and four-seam fastballs from a catcher, Cubs baseball always keep things interesting.