Cubs

Cubs confident in Jon Lester with World Series on the line in Game 5

Cubs confident in Jon Lester with World Series on the line in Game 5

Jon Lester started a World Series clincher for the Boston Red Sox back in 2007, though his team ended that game celebrating a championship over the Colorado Rockies. This is a different scenario: After Saturday’s 7-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians, Lester will be pitching Sunday to keep his teams’ championship hopes alive. 

The Cubs sold Lester on leading a starting rotation to the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908, and his big-game experience and loads of playoff innings were a major reason why they shelled out $155 million to sign him in December 2014. Sunday will mark Lester’s 21st playoff appearance and 19th start, and he has a 2.60 ERA over his 124 2/3 postseason innings. 

With that experience comes a clear-headed mindset about how he’ll approach a critical start in Game 5. 

“It's hard enough to pitch this time of year or play this time of year and be successful,” Lester said. “I think if you're down 3-1 and you're going in there saying you have to do this, you have to do that to try to stay alive, I think you've kind of already been beaten, you know? You're not worried about the right thing.”

Lester slogged through a rough first inning in Game 1, issuing two walks and hitting Brandon Guyer with a pitch with the bases loaded. He settled down and only allowed a solo home run to catcher Roberto Perez and finished his night having allowed three runs on six hits with three walks and seven strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings, his shortest playoff outing since 2013 (a span of eight starts). 

“There are a few guys over there that I haven't faced a lot, if at all,” Lester said. “So you'll be able to draw from that information, make the adjustments that you need to make from the previous start and just kind of go from there.

“You still have to execute pitches no matter what the game plan is against guys. And the guys you've had success against, you just try to continue to have success against, and the guys you didn't, you try to make the adjustments off of that.”

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The Cubs believe Lester can return to form Sunday night in a pitching matchup that would seem to favor them, with Cleveland rolling with right-hander Trevor Bauer (3.2 IP, 6 H, 2 ER in Game 2) on three days’ rest. That belief, though, needs to become reality for the Cubs to at least send the series back to Cleveland. 

“Always, always confident, especially with Jonny going,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s going to sound cliche, obviously, but we feel good — we’re down 3-1 in the World Series, but we feel good about who we have on the mound tomorrow.”

Cubs know it's time to flip the script regarding road woes

Cubs know it's time to flip the script regarding road woes

As the Cubs got set to kick off the Crosstown series with the White Sox on the afternoon of June 18, GM Jed Hoyer emerged outside the third-base dugout and talked about a variety of topics regarding his team.

One such topic was the Cubs' ugly home-road splits and at the time, Hoyer said this about his team coming off a 2-5 road trip:

"It's been a source of frustration. I think we've had three subpar road trips. There's no other way to say it. It's not something I read too much into. This is a group that's had a lot of success on the road. They've won in hostile environments in the playoffs before, so it's not like they're intimidated by crowds or intimidated by travel. 

"But it's an issue with this particular group in 2019. we've played great here [at Wrigley Field]. We've played poorly on the road. If we want to reach our goals, then we're gonna have to play better on the road. All that said, we've had some really tough road series — starting out like that on the road was difficult. At Houston and at St. Louis was difficult and at Colorado and at LA — those were series that you're happy when that part of the schedule is done. 

"But there's no excuses — we have to play better on the road. I don't have any answers for it. I'd be lying to say that I really do, but I think it will change."

The issue is, it hasn't changed yet for the Cubs. 

That day was the start of a long homestand for the Cubs and the ensuing road trip — three games in Cincinnati, four in Pittsburgh and two on Chicago's South Side — didn't yield any better results for the team. They went 3-6 total, dropping their overall road record to 18-27 this season.

By comparison, the Cubs are a whopping 36-18 at "The Friendly Confines," including 7-2 over the past week-a-half.

They've enjoyed the benefit of home cooking for the last couple weeks, between the All-Star Break and a nine-game homestand to open the second half. But now they head back out on the road, with maybe their toughest task yet. 

The Cubs begin a three-game series in San Francisco Monday night against a Giants team that has been among the hottest in baseball over the last few weeks. Then there are stops in Milwaukee and St. Louis, against the two teams immediately behind the Cubs in the NL Central standings.

This will be a huge test for a Cubs team that hasn't won a series on the road since May 17-19 in Washington D.C.

"I don't feel anything different from the group," manager Joe Maddon said Sunday morning before his team's final home game of the month. "We've been through it before — it's not like it's an intimidation factor or an uncomfortable moment. I'm not getting that. We're just not playing as well. 

"I don't even know how much it's that the other teams have gotten better. I don't even know where this all comes together. But we're playing decently now. ...I want to believe that just playing better here coming out of the break that we have a better chance of starting out better on the road. We need to. To get where we want to be, we have to do that. On this coming trip, three really good foes and we gotta be on our best behavior."

Like Maddon said, they've done it before, including winning three of the four road games in the 2016 World Series, a wild Game 5 in D.C. in the 2017 NLDS and the list goes on and on.

During the previous four years under Maddon, the Cubs have posted a winning record on the road in each campaign:

2018 - 44-37
2017 - 44-37
2016 - 46-34
2015 - 48-33

In order to keep that streak going, the Cubs would have to go 23-13 on the road the rest of the way.

That's a tall order when there are still two trips each to St. Louis and Milwaukee on the schedule plus stops in Philadelphia, San Diego and a couple dates with the always-pesky Pirates in Pittsburgh.

"Obviously at home, we've won. We gotta start playing that same game on the road. It's as simple as that," Maddon said. "To get where we want to go, we have to become that road team that we've been in the past and there's no reason that we can't."

So what's been the biggest difference between the road Cubs and the home Cubs?

That would be the pitching.

On the road, the Cubs have a 4.97 ERA and allowing opponents to hit .267 with a .798 OPS. At home, those numbers drop significantly to a 3.36 ERA and .233 average and .684 OPS against.

Meanwhile, offensively, the Cubs are actually slightly more prolific on the road than they are at home.

Away from Wrigley, this lineup is scoring 5.27 runs per game while posting a .257 batting average and .798 OPS. At home, they're scoring 4.91 runs per game with a .254 batting average and .785 OPS.

In search of the culprit of the road pitching woes, the blame lies with some of the Cubs' top arms.

Kyle Hendricks has a 1.89 ERA at home and 5.44 mark on the road. Jon Lester sits at 2.95 at Wrigley and 5.09 outside of Chicago. Brandon Kintzler carries an 0.75 ERA at home, but that number jumps to 4.32 on the road. 

Only a few guys — Yu Darvish, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop — have better marks away from Wrigley than they do at home.

As the Cubs look to flip the script on the road, they'll send Alec Mills, Darvish and Lester to the mound in San Francisco against a Giants offense that ranks sixth in baseball in OPS (.833) in July.

"We came out of the break, we got a good rest and we're playing really good baseball right now on this homestand," Kyle Hendricks said. "So we're just trying to keep that momentum going on the road. Just not think about where we are and embrace it, keep playing the same baseball. It starts with us on the mound, making good pitches. Set the tone on the road, be aggressive the same way we've been doing here and hopefully turn that around."

Up until recently, Maddon didn't even realize his team had so many run prevention issues on the road.

"That's really strange for me," Maddon said. "I would not have guessed that. So apparently we need to be just a little tighter with the pitching side of things and keep what we're doing offensively. I didn't realize there was that much of disparity involved. I didn't break it down any deeper than that.

"...I know San Francisco has been on a nice run, but sounds like we need to pitch better on the road. That's what I got out of it."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Lee Smith Hall of Fame edition

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MLB NETWORK

Cubs Talk Podcast: Lee Smith Hall of Fame edition

Listen to Lee Smith's entire Hall of Fame induction speech in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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