Cubs-Nationals: Bryce Harper takes aim at Wrigley Field


Cubs-Nationals: Bryce Harper takes aim at Wrigley Field

You would love Bryce Harper if he played for your team.

The face of the Washington Nationals franchise has been covered in so much eye black that he’s looked like a professional wrestler. He went viral when he dropped “That’s a clown question, bro” on a reporter. He responded to getting thrown out of last week’s marquee game against the New York Yankees by firing back at umpire Marvin Hudson through the media: “I don’t think 40,000 people came to watch him ump tonight.”

“I don’t know what everybody else doesn’t like,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I like players that play hard and care and obviously he’s pretty good. So I probably would like him.”

Maddon laughed at that line, knowing Harper is the rare superstar who combines off-the-charts talent with maximum effort. At the age of 22, Harper led the majors in RBI (41), runs scored (39), walks (39), on-base percentage (.471) and slugging percentage (.728) on Memorial Day. His 16 homers led the National League.

[MORE: Like Cubs, Bryce Harper would've stuck Kris Bryant in minors]

Harper didn’t beat the Cubs on Monday afternoon, but the Nationals still managed to piece together a 2-1 victory, getting by with home runs from Denard Span and Wilson Ramos and a shutdown performance from their deep pitching staff.

The Cubs (24-20) got a good crowd (38,463) for a holiday and the first-place Nationals. Harper definitely appreciates the game’s history and wants to perform on the biggest stages. Just look at those four homers in 40 postseason at-bats already.   

“I love Wrigley,” Harper said. “You go out there to see the ivy, see the fans. I’m kind of sad there’s not going to be anybody in right field for me. But it’s a lot of fun playing here.

“I enjoy playing here and San Fran and Boston. Those are the three. It just feels like you’re in a ballpark in your backyard playing the game.”

In what appeared to be a mismatch, lefty Tsuyoshi Wada struck out Harper looking in the first inning. Harper sprinted for a double in the fourth inning after smacking a ball into right field, alertly tagging up when first baseman Anthony Rizzo caught up pop-up in foul territory, near the visiting bullpen.   

It looked like Harper wanted to break his bat after popping out against Wada in the sixth inning. Harper worked a six-pitch walk against lefty reliever Zac Rosscup in the eighth inning. 

Harper didn’t put on a show this time, but he will have two more chances this week at Clark and Addison.  

“I don’t think anybody’s going to be here Wednesday night, because they’re all going to be at the Hawks game,” Harper said. “I think everybody’s excited about that, too.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Before the game, Harper stood at his locker inside the cramped visiting clubhouse and patiently answered questions from the Chicago media for six-plus minutes, understanding his responsibility as an ambassador for the game.

Harper tried to deflect attention away from himself, crediting his teammates and manager Matt Williams for his hot start. He also lavishly praised Kris Bryant, his old teammate/rival from Las Vegas, and how the Cubs have reshaped their organization.   

“It’s just good for baseball to have two young guys on the same field,” Bryant said. “He’s doing his thing. I’m doing my thing. We’re just trying to help the team win. But, yeah, it was pretty cool seeing him out there today.”

Near the end of Harper’s media session, a reporter asked if he had checked the flags whipping around the stadium.

“No, I haven’t,” Harper said and smiled. “I don’t need wind. I’m good.”

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Cole Hamels' dominant start to his Cubs career continued on Friday in stellar fashion, and with some considerable help from his infield.

The 34-year-old veteran not only pitched seven innings of five-hit ball without allowing a run, but induced five ground ball double plays. The Cubs finished with a staggering seven double plays in a 1-0 win at the Pirates on Friday.

The last time the Cubs turned five double plays was in 1985. 

All five hits Hamels gave up were groundball singles. The 16 groundballs induced is the most for a Cubs pitcher this year.

After Hamels exited after seven innings, the Cubs got double plays in the eighth, on a line drive double play with Jorge De La Rosa on the mound, and ninth, on a groundball induced by Jesse Chavez to end the game.

Hamels was initially brought in to provide depth to a struggling rotation and ease the pain of Yu Darvish being unavailable. But Hamels has now started an honest debate over who should be the Cubs' starter in Game 1 of the postseason. He has been otherworldly since joining the Cubs, with an 0.72 ERA, three wins and one no-decision (the Cubs won and he had nine strikeouts). 

The 1-0 win over the Pirates gives the Cubs more breathing room in the NL Central. The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday, pushing the Cubs lead to 4.5 games in the division.

And the Hamels hot-streak comes at an excellent time for the North Siders, who took in Jon Lester's gem of an outing on Thursday, where he went six innings with no earned runs and eight strikeouts in a win against the Pirates. The Cubs starting pitching seems to be turning the corner, and with three straight series against sub-.500 teams following their series in Pittsburgh, this could be the beginning of a great run of outings that carries the Cubs confidently into the postseason.

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season.