Cubs

Cubs' Jon Lester back on track: 'Tonight was back to being me'

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Cubs' Jon Lester back on track: 'Tonight was back to being me'

Jon Lester hadn't been Jon Lester for a while.

The last time the high-priced free-agent left-hander won a game was May 16. He had an 0-3 record, his team had an 0-4 record in the previous four games he pitched. In his previous two starts, Lester had given up 11 runs in 9 1/3 innings.

That's why in Sunday's 2-1 extra-inning win over the Reds, it was refreshing to see the Cubs' big-money ace be himself again.

“The results were there," Lester said after the game. "We can all sit up here and say, hitters, ‘Swinging the bat well, just hitting the ball right at people.’ Pitchers, same thing. You feel like you make good pitches, but they find holes. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you don’t get outs.

"Tonight was better. Tonight was back to being me."

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Sunday, Lester was the guy the Cubs thought he was going to be when they gave him that monstrous contract this offseason. He pretty much silenced the Reds over his seven innings of work, allowing just one run on five hits. He retired 20 of the 25 hitters he faced and squashed the limited uprisings.

Lester allowed just two base runners through the first five innings. The only real thorn in his side was Reds speedster Billy Hamilton. Hamilton reached on a single in the top of the third and stole his way to third base with two outs. For Lester, who's had well-documented struggles with keeping base runners at bay, Hamilton was untouchable on the basepaths. But the pitcher coaxed a groundout to end the threat and leave Hamilton at third base.

In the sixth, Hamilton led off with a double, and after another steal of third, he scored this time when Brandon Phillips singled him in. With a big inning looming, Lester's defense bailed him out. A Joey Votto double followed the Phillips hit, and Phillips attempted to score from first. But Chris Coghlan threw the ball in for Starlin Castro, who relayed on to David Ross, with the catcher applying a sensational tag on Phillips for the out at home. From there, Lester refocused and got a pair of flyouts to end another Reds threat.

It was a solid redemption after a pair of very un-Lester starts, losses to the Marlins and Tigers in which he was knocked around the yard.

“I think any time you have two starts like I did, you’re going to have some mental questions, you’re going to have some doubts," Lester said Sunday. "You’re going to have one of those, sitting there going, ‘OK, what am I doing wrong?’ You just have to kind of believe in what you’ve done, or what I’ve done, in the past and what’s kind of gotten me here. There’s a few mechanical things that we’ve been working on, just trying to have better direction, better line. I’m getting the ball to the side of the plate that I want to get it to. … Any time you have a couple bad ones, you always kind of sit back and go, ‘OK, what’s going on? What am I doing?’ … But as you get closer to your start, you kind of forget those things and worry about executing after that.”

[MORE CUBS: Don't look at it! Offense hardly the focus as Cubs do it all in win]

Hamilton proved to be the only real problem for Lester on Sunday. The Cincinnati speedster swiped a career-high five bases, tying a Reds record. He stole third base three times.

Lester might not have been able to slow down Hamilton, but the pitcher admitted that that's a pretty impossible task.

“You don’t," Lester responded when asked how one contains Hamilton. "You worry about the hitter, plain and simple. How many times did (Edwin Jackson) pick over there? Two, three times, and he still stole second, stole third. A guy like that, the biggest thing is you try to keep the guys that are at the plate from driving him in. That’s what it comes down to. The guy’s speed — he outruns the baseball. I haven’t seen many guys do that.

"It doesn’t matter how quick you are to home plate, it doesn’t matter how many times you pick over to first, he flat-out outruns the baseball. Nothing you can do with that. You can’t defend it. You just hope he doesn’t get a great jump or slips or something and the catcher throws the ball right on the bag and he just happens to slide into the glove. A guy like that, you’ve got to worry about the hitter, you’ve got to worry about not giving up the basehit to those guys. He’s going to run around the bases. It is what it is.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get a Jon Lester jersey right here]

But even with Hamilton creating havoc for Lester and the Cubs, the left-hander still managed to turn in a pretty sparkling outing. After a terrific May in which Lester posted a dazzling 1.76 ERA, June got off to a rocky start. But perhaps Sunday's performance was the one to get things back on track.

It was certainly a good game for the Cubs as a whole, getting their second walk-off win in as many days.

Lester's happy to be a part of this team, and if his goal is to lead the pitching rotation into October, outings like Sunday's will help make that a reality.

“Mentally focused. We had the two-and-a-half-hour rain delay last night. Guys came in and kept battling. We could’ve easily — especially with a young team not used to that stuff — could have cashed it in and shown up when the game started and got our butts kicked. But we kept battling," Lester said. "I keep saying it over and over, just to see these guys night in and night out battle. We have good, quality ABs. It seems like every night we keep our team in the ballgame as far as pitching. And our defense has gotten a lot better as the year’s gone on. Guys I think are just feeling more comfortable with where they’re at. But these guys have done a great job from top to bottom.”

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.