Cubs

After feeling weight of contract, Jon Lester settling in with Cubs

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After feeling weight of contract, Jon Lester settling in with Cubs

PHOENIX – It would only be natural if Jon Lester felt the pressure after signing that $155 million megadeal. As much as the Cubs eyeball the Boston Red Sox and try to turn Wrigley Field into their version of Fenway Park, this team is a different animal. 

And it is another thing to go from the homegrown, All-Star lefty who helped Boston win two World Series titles to franchise savior on the North Side.

This 5-4 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks took 13 innings and wouldn’t be decided until long after Lester’s work shift ended on Friday night at Chase Field.

But one takeaway is Lester looks like a No. 1 starter again, someone who could help lift the Cubs from five games to 10 games to 15 games over .500, the way manager Joe Maddon talks about piling up wins.

[MORE: Cubs expect Miguel Montero to step forward]

That begins with starting pitching, assuming the Cubs (23-18) can stabilize the bullpen, tighten up the defense and hit with runners in scoring position (the 0-for-31 streak that lasted a week is over). But Lester’s underwhelming April (6.23 ERA) is clearly in the rearview mirror now.

“I don’t know if ‘pressing’ is the right word,” Lester said after limiting Arizona to two runs in seven innings. “But obviously you come to a new team, new guys, new city, new everything, you want to get off on the right foot. You want to do well.

“Everybody knows (about) the contract stuff. You definitely don’t want to be one of those guys that at the end of it you look at it as a bust.

“You obviously want everything to go right. You want everything to just fall into place. But sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes you have take a few beatings to get back to doing the things that you’re used to.

“It took me a little bit of time, but I’m starting to feel more comfortable. I think the results have been better. We’ll just keep trying to figure things out as we go.”

[MORE: Cubs: Joe Maddon doesn’t see Neil Ramirez return on the horizon]

Lester has gradually gotten back to full strength, accounting for at least six innings in each of his last six starts, with the Cubs winning five of those games while he’s lowered his ERA to 3.56.

“I think maybe it weighed on him a lot more early on than it does now,” said David Ross, Lester’s personal catcher. “He’s just going out and pitching now and trying to do the best he can. Because as much as the contract stuff (is out there) and people put expectations on him – honestly – he’s always been the way he is.

“He’s going to put as much pressure on himself as anybody, because he wants to do well for the team. That’s his day. And when he walks in here that day, he’s got his game face on.”

Then again, maybe there’s no need for psychoanalysis considering Lester dealt with a “dead arm” and didn’t see enough action in the Cactus League to truly be ready for Opening Night. 

“I’ll still defend the fact that his spring training was short,” Maddon said. “I think that had as much to do with the difficult start as anything. Had he had the benefit of a full, normal spring training – and then (started slow) – that might have been more of an explanation.

“(But) he was behind when he came out at the beginning of the season. Combine that with the fact that he had a little bit more heaped on his plate than normal, you probably saw less than Jon Lester.”

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It’s not like Lester isn’t used to playing under a microscope.

“He’s a perfectionist,” said Ross, who earned a World Series ring with Lester as a piece to the 2013 Red Sox. “He always feels like he can get better, and that’s why he is who he is.

“When you’re in a big market and you have high expectations, there’s always critiquing an aspect of your game, what you’re doing good and what you’re doing bad. He sees all angles of his outing and tries to get better at every aspect of his game.”

The Cubs never seemed worried about the transition for Lester, who’s now 0-for-62 at the plate (including the postseason) after spending almost his entire career in the American League.

“The biggest thing we’re waiting on is the first hit right now,” Maddon said. “That will truly get the monkey off his back.”

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

With the Milwaukee Brewers about to kick off the NLCS, many Cubs fans and pundits have taken to comparing them to the 2015 Cubs.

At first glance, it's easy to see why — they're in the playoffs for the first time as something of an underdog and "surprise" team — but that's not the recent Cubs squad we should be comparing the 2018 Brewers to.

This Milwaukee team is a lot more like the 2016 Cubs.

Here's why:

1. They're not a surprise.

Nobody expected the 2015 Cubs to win 97 games and wind up in the NLCS. They were expected to compete very soon, but everything went right in a red-hot August, they rode Jake Arrieta's right arm to the NLDS and then toppled the Cardinals to get to the LCS, where they ran into the brick wall that was Matt Harvey and and the Mets pitching staff.

The 2018 Brewers are not — and should not be — a surprise. Anybody who was caught off guard by this team being so good hasn't been paying much attention. The Brewers were leading the NL Central in 2017 for much of the year before a late-season fade that coincided with the Cubs' late-season surge.

This Milwaukee squad was always supposed to be one of the top teams in the NL in 2018 and they really hit their groove in September to chase down the Cubs. Still, it took a Game 163 to force a changing of the guard atop the division.

2. They greatly improved expectations with a big free-agent OF signing over the winter.

The Cubs had Jason Heyward in between 2015 and '16. The Brewers had Lorenzo Cain.

Cain has provided quite a bit more offense in the first season of his 5-year, $80 million contract but both Cain and Heyward provided leadership in the clubhouse and elite defense in the outfield in the first years with their new teams.

3. The Brewers have the NL MVP.

This one's an easy comparison to make, though Cubs fans will hate it.

Christian Yelich is this season's NL MVP. Sorry, Javy Baez fans. "El Mago" had a great season, but it's impossible to give the award to anybody but Yelich.

Yelich winning the league's most coveted accolade would be another perfect tie-in to the 2016 Cubs, who had Kris Bryant take home NL MVP.

4. They have a dominant LHP out of the bullpen.

Josh Hader has been doing his best Aroldis Chapman impression in 2018 as an absolutely dominant southpaw out of the bullpen. Unlike Chapman, Hader's spent all season with the Brewers, but like Chapman in '16, Hader will be leaned on heavily for multiple innings throughout the rest of the playoffs.

5. They picked up some valuable in-season assets.

The 2016 Cubs dealt for Chapman, but they also traded for reliever Joe Smith and called up Willson Contreras in the middle of the year, who provided a spark for the offense.

The 2018 Brewers have acquired plenty of valuable assets along the way this season from Mike Moustakas to Jonathan Schoop to Erik Kratz (more on him later) to Gio Gonzalez. But one of their most important additions (especially in October) was the promotion of top prospect Corbin Burnes, a flame-throwing right-hander who posted a 2.61 ERA in 30 regular-season games and allowed only 1 hit in 4 shutout innings in the DS.

6. They're on a mission with a chip on their shoulder.

The 2015 Cubs had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder as they attempted to take down the divisional powerhouse that was the St. Louis Cardinals. But again, they were a surprise contender - even within that clubhouse (especially early in 2015). But after falling short in the NLCS, the Cubs retooled over the winter and came back with one goal in mind - to win the World Series.

It was a goal they accomplished. We'll see if the Brewers will be able to do the same, but they certainly came to play in 2018 with a chip on their shoulder and the ultimate goal of winning the final MLB game of the year.

The Brewers didn't lead the division from Day 1 and weren't able to coast into October, but they still wound up with homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

7. They have journeyman catcher who is winning over fans' hearts.

This is a fun one.

The 2016 Cubs had David "Grandpa" Rossy who still elicts deafening cheers whenever he's shown on the giant video board at Wrigley Field. The 2018 Brewers have Kratz, who has become a fan favorite recently and was mic'd up for the final out of the NLDS.

Ross was 39 when he helped lead the Cubs to the 2016 World Series and Chicago was his eighth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey. Kratz is 38 and on his ninth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey.

In fact, Ross and Kratz are so intertwined, they've already been compared to each other by MLB.com.

But the major difference is Kratz has zero postseason playing experience until a week ago. Will he be able to ride off into the sunset with a championship ring on his finger the way Ross did?

We'll have an answer to that over the next few weeks in the final chapter of the Brewers' 2018 season, though Cubs fans surely wouldn't be too happy to see their division rivals celebrating with a World Series parade just 90 minutes north of Wrigley Field.

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

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USA TODAY

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

The Cubs just lost one coach with hitting coach Chili Davis getting fired. Another opening on Joe Maddon's coaching staff could also open up.

According to report from MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan, bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed with the Rangers on Thursday.

Rangers farm director Jayce Tingler was the first candidate the club interviewed, but Hyde and Astros bench coach Joe Espada were also interviewed.

The 45-year-old Hyde has been with the Cubs since 2014. He was a bench coach in 2014 under Rick Renteria before moving to first base coach from 2015-17. This past season he moved back to his original role as bench coach.

He played four seasons in the minors for the White Sox.

The Rangers job opened up when Jeff Banister was fired on Sept. 21. Banister won AL Manager of the Year in 2015 and guided the Rangers to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016, but couldn't get out of the ALDS either year. A 78-84 season in 2017 was followed by an even worse 2018, which led to his firing late this season.