Cubs

Cards make it another frustrating night for Cubs, Jon Lester

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Cards make it another frustrating night for Cubs, Jon Lester

Jon Lester broke an 0-for-66 streak for his first big-league hit — and took a no-hitter into the seventh inning — and still wound up screaming and cursing at himself while walking off the mound.   

The St. Louis Cardinals will do that to you.

The Lester signing is supposed to help change the culture around the Cubs — and eventually reset this lopsided rivalry with the Cardinals — because the big-game lefty beat St. Louis twice in the 2013 World Series and won two championship rings with the Boston Red Sox.    

But Monday night’s 6-0 loss at Wrigley Field had a familiar feeling and a seen-that-before ending. The Cubs have now won only two of their 10 games against the Cardinals this season, falling to 9.5 games back in the National League Central.

“Worthless” is how Lester described that infield single off John Lackey when a reporter tried to toss him a softball to begin his postgame news conference. 

Lester threw a no-hitter with the Red Sox in 2008, but this chance to make history vanished with one out in the seventh inning. Jhonny Peralta smashed a ball that bounced off Kris Bryant’s left arm as the third baseman tried to make a backhanded play. It rolled away for an infield single.

Two pitches later, Bryant — who found out that he made the National League All-Star team a little more than an hour before the game — made a wild throw to second base on a potential double play.

[MORE: Cubs: All-Star future is now for Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant]       

The Cardinals (54-28) are the best team in baseball because they capitalize on mistakes like that. Yadier Molina’s sacrifice fly and Kolten Wong’s RBI single quickly made it 2-0.

“They’re a veteran team,” Lester said. “They do everything right. They make the plays when they’re in front of them. They have timely hitting. They understand it takes nine innings to win a baseball game.

“We’re close. We got a bunch of young guys that are just trying to — I don’t want to say survive — because they’re beyond that point. They’re too good to survive. They’re here for a long time.

“But when you’re used to winning, you understand how to win. And that will take some time here.”

It got ugly after a rain delay that lasted one hour and 16 minutes in the middle of the eighth inning — and Edwin Jackson’s four-run ninth. But Lester left a 2-0 game after only giving up those two hits while throwing to Miguel Montero with personal catcher David Ross (concussion) on the disabled list.

After 81 games, the Cubs are 44-37 and in a wild-card position, even without Lester coming close to adding a fourth All-Star selection to his resume.  

Halfway through the first season of a six-year, $155 megadeal, Lester just about delivered what the Cubs should have reasonably expected: 3.48 ERA, 101 strikeouts through 103.1 innings and a no-nonsense attitude in the clubhouse.

But Lester also has a losing record (4-7) and dramatically different month-to-month splits: bad April (6.23 ERA); good May (1.76 ERA); bad June (5.74 ERA); and what the Cubs hope will be a lights-out second half (zero earned runs in two July starts).

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“You judge a starting pitcher on wins and losses,” Lester said, “and I’m not doing my job right now. Hopefully, that evens out at the end of the year.”

When the Cubs made their face-to-face recruiting pitch to Lester last November, they showed what his .000 average would look like on the video board at a renovated Wrigley Field.

Lester finally notched his first hit in the majors with a line drive that ricocheted off Lackey’s leg for an infield single in the second inning. Lester and Lackey are good friends from their time together in Boston.

The crowd of 37,609 loudly cheered Lester, who stood at first base and showed his sense of humor by pointing to the sky with both index fingers.

“Just kind of making light of it,” Lester said. “I know ‘Lack.’ I’ve played a long time with him. We had some bets going into the game and all that — a little trash talking involved. It’s been a long time coming. It’s nice, but at the same time, it’s something that you can’t really enjoy right now.

“You lose the game, it really doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, we lost the game, so that’s the storyline.”   

 

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

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USA TODAY

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.