Cubs

Cubs: Jon Lester doesn’t have any answers for Tigers

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Cubs: Jon Lester doesn’t have any answers for Tigers

Surrounded by reporters, Jon Lester leaned against the chair in front of his locker and kept shrugging his shoulders.

The Cubs seemed a little dazed and confused after getting knocked around by the Detroit Tigers during this two-game interleague series at Wrigley Field. The Tigers put 25 runs on the board and finished with eight homers and 40 hits against a Cubs staff that’s supposed to be pitching deep into October.

Lester’s even-keel off-the-field personality wouldn’t allow him to hit the panic button after Wednesday night’s 15-8 loss. But the Cubs have real questions about the state of their rotation.

“I’ve been down this road a time or two,” Lester said. “We’re all human. But one thing I’ve always tried to do is when this one’s over, it’s over. I’m back tomorrow and I’ll watch the game again (with) a clear head and see where everything was (and) move on.

“This season’s too long. It’s too much of an up-and-down (ride) to allow one of those abomination starts that stick out to effect your season. Obviously, this is a bad time of the year to have one.

“Tomorrow, we’ll come back and look at it and evaluate it. And make sure that I’m not going crazy (and) flush it down the drain.”

[MORE CUBS: Do Cubs have enough pitching to finish the pennant race?]

The Cubs are 67-51 and three games in front of the San Francisco Giants for the second wild-card spot, trailing the Pittsburgh Pirates by four games for home-field advantage in a one-game playoff.

The Tigers are underachieving this year at 58-61, but they still have high-end talent with Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez anchoring the middle of their lineup.

Lester came into the game with a 5.25 ERA in 10 career starts against Detroit. This time, he couldn’t finish the third inning, walking off the mound with his team down 7-0.

“They’ve obviously been a thorn in my side for a long time,” Lester said. “That’s easy to see and something that stands out. But with that being said, I still got to figure out a way to get deeper in that game.

“Like I’ve said from Day 1, I’ll be honest with you guys as best I can. I’m being honest with you right now. I’m scratching my head.

“I feel like within that game, there were pitches that were made that deserved better results.”

[MORE CUBS: No Chase Utley, but Cubs hope Chris Coghlan could become their Ben Zobrist]

This has been a strong overall season for Lester (8-9, 3.58 ERA) in the first year of that $155 million megadeal. But he couldn’t believe the ball Nick Castellanos hammered into the left-center field bleachers for a grand slam in the third inning.

“I think I can go back two years and that’s the first first-pitch curveball hit (against me) — let alone homer,” Lester said.

There was also the 94-mph fastball in the second inning that Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris blasted out to center field for a two-run homer in his first big-league at-bat.

Norris was a key piece in the David Price blockbuster with the Toronto Blue Jays and had been a pitcher the Cubs liked when they shopped Jeff Samardzija last year. Norris had knocked out a video-board panel the day before during batting practice, but he left this game in the fifth inning with a strained oblique muscle.

Don’t look at Lester for any easy explanations with the Cubs now trying to stop a three-game losing streak.

“I don’t know,” Lester said more than once. “No matter what I say tonight, it really doesn’t justify or sum up anything that happened tonight. You try to step back and come up with answers (and) reasons. I want to say I threw the ball down the middle. But there were some good pitches that were made tonight that got hit.”

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

Smiling came easy for Anthony Rizzo as stood at his locker and fielded questions in a robin-egg blue T-shirt that read: "positive vibes."

This was roughly a half-hour after he went through the high-five line telling all his teammates the 12-11 victory was a "season-defining win" for the Cubs.

Who knows if it will really be that big of a "W" for this ballclub in the midst of what has been an up-and-down season to this point, but there has certainly been no shortage of positive vibes around the clubhouse lately.

One thing's for certain: The Cubs will wake up Thursday morning in sole possession of first place again as the Cardinals lost to the Brewers in a rain-shortened game in St. Louis.

Yu Darvish and the Cubs bullpen squandered a 6-2 lead and then a 10-9 lead. Yet the offense picked up the slack, smacking 14 hits, including Kris Bryant's game-winning two-run blast in the bottom of the eighth inning.

"We haven't won a game like that really all year, I don't think," Rizzo said. "They scored 9 runs in the fifth to seventh innings. Teams don't really win when that happens. Just a good, hard-fought, never-quit win."

Rizzo is right: The Cubs haven't won a game in which they allowed at least 11 runs since Sept. 2, 2017 when they beat the Braves 14-12.

The Cubs have claimed 14 of 17 games at home since the All-Star Break and are now 43-19 at Wrigley Field this season - a winning percentage approaching .700 to combat the .390 winning percentage on the road.

So is it a season-defining victory?

"That's what Rizz told me," Bryant said. "We were high-fiving there and Rizz told me this is a season-defining win. I mean, I can't disagree with him. It's one of those games where you don't feel like you're gonna win just because you take a lead and then you're giving it back, but we came out on top. 

"Definitely some good momentum. We're playing good at home here, obviously and just gotta roll with the records at home and on the road."

Early on, it looked to be a night where the Cubs would cruise to victory behind Darvish, who came into the game red-hot and had settled into a rhythm after serving up a two-run shot to the third hitter of the game.

But that wasn't the case, as Darvish served up four homers overall and Derek Holland and Tyler Chatwood combined to allow 4 runs while notching just two outs as the first arms out of the bullpen.

Before the game, Joe Maddon talked again about how he felt like the only way the Cubs would be able to pull away in a tight NL Central race would be if the offense got into a groove and for one day at least, they were certainly firing on all cylinders.

The only starter who didn't reach base safely at least twice was Kyle Schwarber, and he drove in 3 runs on a homer and a groundout in which he hustled down the line to avoid a double play. Darvish even chipped in with an RBI single in the second inning.

Yes, it was a good win. Yes, the Cubs can go to sleep feeling content and wake up feeling hopeful.

But the only way this becomes a "season-defining win" is if the next five weeks play out like they hope. There have been several wins before Wednesday that seemed like they could propel the Cubs - including the finale in Cincinnati on the last road trip where Bryant once again came through with a clutch late homer. And every time, the team failed to keep the good times rolling for an extended period.

This is all a moot point if the Cubs come out and look flat this weekend or fail to carry any momentum onto the road.

"We'll find out," said Maddon, who has been in this game for nearly four decades. "I mean, I've been involved in those seminal moments and all of a sudden, things switch. 

"I'll tell you one thing though - I liked the method at the plate. Nobody was grinding sawdust; everybody was up there nice and chill and were getting good hacks on good pitches. ... I liked that. That's what we need to get to that point."

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Before the Cubs hosted the San Francisco Giants on Day 2 of American Legion Week, Willson Contreras was out in left field running and working out his injured right hamstring.

The All-Star catcher hit the injured list earlier this month after hitting a line drive to the gap against the Milwaukee Brewers. 

That was two-and-a-half weeks ago and the Cubs initially tabbed the Grade-2 hamstring strain as a roughly four-week timeline. But team president Theo Epstein said Wednesday Contreras is not nearing a rehab stint.

"He's in what our trainers are calling the aggressive strengthening phase of his rehab, which is building up the hamstring strength now that he's gotten through the initial injury," Epstein said. "Always what comes with that is the strength deficit that you have to really be mindful of building back up so that you don't risk reinjuring it when you get back to full baseball activities. 

"You're gonna see him on the field a lot more over the next few days and hopefully soon he'll be progressing to baseball activities. He's not on the cusp of starting a rehab assignment or anything like that. He hasn't really progressed to baseball activities yet, so that will be the next step."

The minor-league season wraps up in the first couple days of September, so Contreras won't have much of an opportunity to get game at-bats and innings at catcher if he isn't able to head on a rehab stint soon.

But the Cubs won't rush it with one of their most important players. Contreras was hitting .275 with 19 homers, 57 RBI and an .890 OPS in 87 games before the injury.

In his absence, the Cubs have been pretty well covered with Victor Caratini and Jonathan Lucroy splitting duties behind the dish.

Lucroy - acquired Aug. 8 after being released by the Los Angeles Angels - is hitting .333 with a .798 OPS in 7 games and has impressed with his work as a game-caller and veteran presence. Caratini continues to put up quality at-bats while building on his breakout campaign.