With another win, Jon Lester shifts into cruise control as Cubs enter stretch run

With another win, Jon Lester shifts into cruise control as Cubs enter stretch run

Jon Lester doesn't get the same attention as teammates Jake Arrieta or MLB ERA leader Kyle Hendricks, but the veteran southpaw is staking his claim in the NL Cy Young race.

With just about a month left in the season, Lester looks worth every cent of the $155 million contract he signed prior to 2015.

Lester took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and dominated the San Francisco Giants Friday in a 2-1 Cubs victory in front of 40,818 fans at Wrigley Field.

Hunter Pence's homer with two outs in the seventh was the only blemish on Lester's line as he needed 102 pitches in a complete game effort.

"I didn't think his stuff was overpowering," catcher David Ross said. "He just really moved the ball around and executed the pitches when he had to. 

"When you got an aggressive team like that and the ball moving all over the place like it was today, good things happen."

Lester improved to 15-4 on the season, lowering his ERA to 2.61 by allowing only five baserunners (three hits, two walks) with four strikeouts.

That marks seven straight quality starts for Lester, who has surrendered just seven earned runs in that span, good for a 1.35 ERA. Only Hendricks (1.28 ERA) has a better mark since late July.

This is more like it after an inconsistent debut season in Chicago.

"Last year, his numbers were good. I don't think Jon would tell you he had a good year," said Ross, Lester's personal catcher. "But I think his numbers were really good, consistent for him.

"This is Jon Lester [now]. This is the guy I know. This is the guy I've known since I've been catching him. This is typical Jon. He's gonna go out, keep you within striking distance and he's gonna give you all he's got when he steps on the mound.

"He expects perfection out of himself and I expect that of him when I catch him. He's having a phenomenal year."

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Lester is also tied for the MLB lead with 22 quality starts and the Cubs have won 20 of his 27 starts, tops in the big leagues. 

The 32-year-old southpaw has 17 starts with one or fewer earned runs this season. 

So maybe he's the pick for Cy Young over Hendricks or Arrieta?

"It's fun to be a part of," Lester said. "At the same time, I don't really care. I'd rather have a ring. Individual stuff is obviously really cool and it's nice, but those World Series trophies look nice on your mantle, too. I'd rather have those."

Ross gave the Cubs the lead in the third with an RBI double. After Lester bunted his catcher over to third base, Dexter Fowler drove home Ross with a looping single over shortstop.

The Cubs had a prime opportunity to tack on in the bottom of the eighth, but Jason Heyward lined into a double play with the bases loaded.

The Cubs have now won five in a row and nine straight at Wrigley Field, improving to 40 games over .500 at 87-47.

"It's pretty incredible," Joe Maddon said. "I always talk about increments of five and I remember back when we were just talking about five [games above .500]. Pre-All Star Break, had that little bit of a hiccup, stubbed our toes, but rebounded pretty nicely.

"There's good energy on the field, there's a strong belief that we're going to play a pretty good game. The defense and the pitching have really set the tone for the whole thing."

Ross echoed his manager's thoughts.

"We're used to winning," the veteran catcher said. "When you get that confidence of being used to winning, it's fun. ... It's a good group, confident. A lot of winners. We expect great things out of ourselves and we expect to win every game. We really do.

"The cool thing for me is that when you got this kind of lead this late in the season and guys are still not giving away at-bats late in the game or when you're down like the other night and still finding ways to come back, that's the sign of guys that are just focused on what's going on on the field and nothing else."

Craig Kimbrel feels 'great' after first Triple-A outing, is motivated to win with Cubs in 2019 and beyond

Craig Kimbrel feels 'great' after first Triple-A outing, is motivated to win with Cubs in 2019 and beyond

Craig Kimbrel's progression towards joining the Cubs bullpen took another step in the right direction on Tuesday.

In his first outing with Triple-A Iowa on Tuesday, Kimbrel not only pitched a perfect inning of relief against the Sacramento River Cats, but he needed just eight pitches to do so. Now back in Des Moines as Iowa begins a nine-game homestand, Kimbrel told reporters that he feels great after his first pitching appearance since Oct. 27, 2018 — Game 4 of the 2018 World Series.

“[I] feel great," Kimbrel told reporters in Iowa. "Jumped on a plane yesterday morning and made our way [to Des Moines] and once we got in, [we] kind of assessed how everything felt. Everything feels good, so I’m looking forward to getting back out there Friday."

As he mentioned, Kimbrel's next outing with Iowa will be Friday, when they take on the Round Rock Express. What comes after that is entirely based on how Kimbrel feels, as the Cubs and the 31-year-old have continued to stress patience in his buildup towards big league action.

"We’re just going one appearance at a time, one step at a time," he said. "I’ll throw Friday, see how I feel and then go from there.

"We really haven’t set a time on anything. It's more about how I feel and how I’m recovering. And once I get to feeling great and recovering where I feel like I need to be, I’ll be ready to go."

"He's trending in the right direction," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday evening at Wrigley Field. "Obviously he's feeling good, but we're not gonna rush him or make judgment on any one outing. We're just gonna take this process as we planned it out and try to get him ready for the remainder of the season."

Although he's had a long layoff from MLB action, it's not like Kimbrel has been sitting around at home unprepared. During his extended free agency that leaked into June, he worked out in the gym three times a week in addition to throwing six days a week. And despite pitching deep into October with the Red Sox, Kimbrel started throwing in January in preparation for the 2019 season.

No matter how long the layoff, though, Kimbrel stressed the need to practice patience right now. He's an important piece to the Cubs' championship puzzle, one that will be a valuable weapon in the summer and in the postseason, should the Cubs get there. Right now, it's about getting his body ready, even if he's mentally ready to pitch.

“I’m ready, I’m ready to do it, but also I have to listen to myself, listen to my body," Kimbrel said. "This isn’t about the next couple games before the (All-Star) break, this is about after the break and the postseason."

As if joining a team in the midst of a pennant race wasn't enough, Kimbrel was asked if he is feeling any motivation from the way last postseason went for him individually (5.91 ERA, 10 2/3 innings) and after how long he remained a free agent.

“No, I’m motivated to win. I don’t need to try to make anyone else happy," he said. "Towards the end of last year, we still accomplished what we set to do - win the World Series. [It’s] still a success. I'm not trying to prove anybody wrong. I'm just trying to do my job."

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David Bote's neverending game of chess

David Bote's neverending game of chess

David Bote feels like he's in a neverending game of chess.

He's been so ingrained in the Cubs conversation the last two years that it's easy to forget this is his first full big-league season and he's still learning the ropes.

Bote is now nationally known thanks to the ultimate grand slam he hit last August, but he's not hanging his hat on that one accomplishment and has found a way to conjure up some staying power in the majors. He's a former 18th-round draft pick who never found his name on top prospect lists, yet signed a five-year, $15 million extension before even playing his first home game in 2019.

But Bote won't rest on his laurels with that contract extension, either. He knows he's in store for a constant battle.

"It's never ending," Bote said. "[The league] points out something that you do and you make an adjustment off it and then they make another adjustment off of you. It's just trying to stay with what you want to do and also try to stay in front of what they're trying to do at the same time."

Much like he did last year, Bote got out to a hot start this season but then eventually hit a rough pitch. 

After he had a tough series in Cincinnati in mid-May (he went 0-for-8 with 6 strikeouts), he found himself on the bench for back-to-back games while his season average dipped to .239 and OPS fell to .713.

But then he got the start at third base in Washington on May 18, hit a homer and hasn't looked back since.

From that game on, Bote has a 1.027 OPS while slashing .324/.378/.649 with 6 homers and 18 RBI in 19 starts.

The 26-year-old infielder has earned more playing time with his production, taking advantage of the respective offensive slumps from Addison Russell and Daniel Descalso. As the Cubs faced a tough righty in Lucas Giolito Wednesday night, it was Bote who found his name at second base and he responded with a homer off the American league ERA leader.

"He started out well, then he hit a little bit of a skid, which was good because he had some problems at the major-league level early in the season and he's overcome that already," Joe Maddon said earlier this month. "So you need to go through that adversity, too. My goodness, David's got a great head on his shoulders. He's a team-oriented player. 

"He's like any other young player — he's still working to really understand what's going on every day and understanding himself. But he does it in a very mature way. He's gonna keep getting better because he listens well, and I think he's getting to the point where he understands his strengths, which is really important. Just watch him — he's gonna continue to get better."

Bote doesn't feel like the neverending game of chess gets any easier, but at least now, he has a checklist he can go through to evaluate his mechanics or mental approach or whatever else may be slightly off. 

At the end of the day, it's all about confidence for Bote — as it is for every player in the big leagues.

"Whether you feel good or feel bad that day, it's trying to be as confident as you can and just letting your ability and your work before that take over," Bote said. "I'm not in the box thinking about my mechanics, but trying to trust that my BP and cage work and all that that takes over and you just go to battle.

"And if [you're still not feeling great], then you say, 'Screw it, I'll just go out there and battle today and get 'em tomorrow.' It's all fluid. It's all ever-changing."