Cubs

Cubs: Jon Lester endorses Jake Arrieta for wild-card game

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Cubs: Jon Lester endorses Jake Arrieta for wild-card game

ST. LOUIS – At this point, Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester sounds more like a conversation starter for newspapers, talk shows and Twitter than a real debate inside the Cubs organization.

All signs are pointing toward the Cubs starting Jake Arrieta in the National League’s wild-card game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have already adjusted their rotation with stud right-hander Gerrit Cole (16-8, 2.54 ERA) and the playoffs in mind.

“I don’t really care,” Lester said after Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. “He’s the best pitcher on this team right now. He’s probably the best pitcher in the league right now.

“Listen, everybody has an ego and everybody wants to be that guy. But when it comes down to it, if he gives us the best chance to win that one-game playoff, I’ll be on the top step cheering my butt off for him to do well.

“There’s no competition in here. The competition is on the field. We’re trying to win a World Series, ultimately.

“I don’t make those decisions. You come tell me when you’re going to give me the ball and I’ll run out there and try my damnedest to give you the best start I can.

“I could give two flying you-know-whats (about) who gets picked.”

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Unless the Cardinals completely collapse, it looks like two Central teams with 90-plus wins will have a six-month season come down to a one-game playoff on Oct. 7.

That no-hitter at Dodger Stadium on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” enhanced his reputation nationally and reinforced what the Cubs already understood: Arrieta (18-6, 2.03 ERA) is an intimidating presence, a student of the game, a physical specimen and one of the most dominating pitchers in the majors. Period.

“Yes, he would be able to pitch in the wild card,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But, again, our goal is not just to play in the wild-card game.”

Arrieta will face the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday night at Citizens Bank Park before getting into playoff mode. The Cubs have positioned Arrieta for the Pirates (Sept. 15 doubleheader at PNC Park), Cardinals (Sept. 20 at Wrigley Field) and Pirates again (Sept. 25-27 home weekend). 

The Cubs woke up on Wednesday morning with a nine-game lead over the San Francisco Giants for the second wild card. The Washington Nationals had fallen to 9.5 games back. The playoff odds are overwhelming.

The Cubs shouldn’t be in the position where they would have to push Arrieta and Lester hard in late September or early October just to get into the tournament.

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“We’re very much aware of that, but the goal is still to catch the Cardinals,” Maddon said. “I just don’t want our guys to lose track or thoughts of trying to catch the Cardinals. That’s our best way to play outstanding baseball for the rest of the month leading into the playoffs.

“Try to catch the Pirates. Catch them and then you try to catch the next group. I still want us to approach every day that way.”

Lester has pretty much been what the Cubs expected when they signed him to a six-year, $155 million megadeal: A very good pitcher (9-10, 3.50 ERA) with a professional attitude and the instant credibility that comes from winning two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox.

Lester has a 2.57 ERA in 84 career postseason innings. But in a win-or-else situation, that playoff experience is somewhat diminished by Lester’s issues with throwing over to first base and controlling the running game.

The Kansas City Royals exposed that during last year’s American League wild-card game, when Lester worked as a hired gun for the Oakland A’s. The Royals ran all the way to Game 7 of the World Series before losing to the Giants.

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“That would have to be a consideration under those circumstances,” Maddon said. “Some of that could depend on who you may play and the kind of game they could bring to you.

“Just being honest, I think that would be the primary thing to look at: Who is that team and what kind of game are they capable of playing? (The Pirates) can run a little bit.”

This is a first-world problem for a franchise that has finished in fifth place for five years in a row, a time when 40 percent of the rotation usually signaled a fire sale at the trade deadline.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the stretch run, Cubs fans!

“We have a lot of confidence in all our guys,” said David Ross, who caught Lester when the Red Sox surged toward a World Series title in 2013.

“You can’t deny what Jake Arrieta’s been doing this year. He should be in the Cy Young race with some of those guys out in L.A. (Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw). He’s even an MVP candidate for our team.

“Either way, no matter who pitches that game, I think we got a really good chance. We believe in ourselves.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa's 18th homer of June and 31st of the season came off the Tigers in the Cubs' brief 2-game Interleague series in Detroit. 

Sosa connected in the first inning off Tigers starter Seth Greisinger, going back-to-back with Mickey Morandini. 

The Cubs wound up getting out to a 5-0 start in the game but still lost 7-6 on a Gabe Alvarez single in the bottom of the 11th.

The aforementioned Morandini homer was only the 3rd of the season for the Cubs second baseman. He finished with 8 homers on the year and 224 total bases on 172 hits in what was a very good offensive season. Yet it paled in comparison to Sosa, who had nearly 200 more total bases (416) and a slugging percentage nearly 200 points above Morandini's (.647 to .471), a testament to how truly incredible Sosa's season was.

Fun fact: Tony Clark was the Tigers' cleanup hitter that day. Clark is now the head of the MLB Players Union.

Fun fact No. 2: Paul Bako was the Detroit catcher in the game. He later became the Cubs backup catcher in 2003 and 2004, when he posted a .611 OPS in 119 games over the two years.

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

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USA TODAY

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

The Cubs continued their recent struggles, suffering their third straight loss to the Cincinnati Reds. 

But the game was not without its fair share of drama. The matchup was a back-and-forth affair, up until the Reds blew the game wide-open in the bottom of the third inning. This included a grand slam by Reds pitcher Anthony DeSclafani, the first home run of his career.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon turned to the bullpen following Cincinnati's third inning explosion, and things did not get much better from there.

With the Cubs down six runs in the bottom of the eight inning, Maddon brought in catcher Chris Gimenez to pitch. 

This was not new territory for Gimenez, who despite being a catcher, now has 10 MLB pitching appearances to his name. 

Down six runs, Gimenez didn't have a lot to lose. But Reds first basemen Joey Votto hammered a fastball in the zone for his eighth homer of the year.

Gimenez had a career ERA of 8.00 before Saturday's appearance, and he certainly didn't do much to help lower that figure.

According to ESPN's Jesse Rogers: "Including one today, Cubs relievers have allowed 41.1 percent of inherited runners to score in June, sixth most in the NL." 

A tired bullpen is certainly cause for concern for the Cubs, who are locked into a battle in the NL Central with the Brewers and Cardinals. Maddon was surely hoping to keep his bullpen arms fresh with the move, seeing as the game was already out of reach. 

So yes, the game did end in a 11-2 win for the Reds. But with a grand-slam by a pitcher—on his first career HR no less—and four-seam fastballs from a catcher, Cubs baseball always keep things interesting.