Cubs need Jon Lester, the perfectionist, operating at full strength


Cubs need Jon Lester, the perfectionist, operating at full strength

Jon Lester laughed postgame when asked where he is now relative to his own expectations.

“I stink,” Lester said late Monday night inside Wrigley Field’s interview room/dungeon.

This obviously couldn’t top Carlos Zambrano’s “we stinks” indictment of the 2011 Cubs. The alarm bells rang when manager Joe Maddon sat in the same chair after that 4-3 victory over the New York Mets and answered a similar question about Lester.

“He was injured in spring training,” Maddon said.

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Wait, what? The Cubs had described Lester’s timeout in spring training as a “dead arm.” Maddon clarified that throwaway line on Tuesday: “By injured, I meant his spring training was interrupted by stiffness, soreness, dead arm, whatever you want to call it.”

Both Maddon and Lester confirmed the $155 million lefty didn’t need to get any precautionary tests in Arizona. But any ache or pain will be magnified for someone in the first season of what’s supposed to be a franchise-changing six-year megadeal.

“I don’t get sore,” Lester explained. “It’s just like you throw a ball and there’s just nothing there. You feel almost weak, like you have no leverage, nothing behind it.”

Lester is meticulous about his routine, and that interruption helps explain why he endured such a disappointing April (0-2, 6.23 ERA). He’s getting into a groove now in May (3-0, 1.80 ERA), and that should take pressure off a young lineup and give a battered bullpen a much-needed break.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs vs. Mets: Big bats, power pitchers and how to build a contender]

“My expectations are more than anybody could put on me,” Lester said. “The biggest thing is: We won. So you look at that, everything’s fine. We obviously didn’t play very well on this road trip, and coming home, the bleachers open for the first time, and everybody’s excited, and you want to get off on the right foot.

“But as far as expectations, that’s a whole ‘nother day with a whole ‘nother sit-down and a whole ‘nother hour of time that not a lot of us have.

“I’m a perfectionist. I want to be perfect all the time. And obviously that’s not going to happen.”

Forget perfection. The Cubs will settle for the Lester who’s made 30-plus starts for seven consecutive years, putting up at least 200 innings in six of those seven seasons.

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

“I felt fine after the break (in spring training),” Lester said. “Looking back on it now — to where I’m at now — it kind of puts you behind the eight ball, especially when you miss a start that late in spring.

“Now, I’m back to how I feel (normally). I feel strong. I feel like I’m caught up on everything.”

Lester — a big-game pitcher who helped the Boston Red Sox win two World Series titles — will ultimately be judged when/if the Cubs get deep into October. If this is going to be anything more than a .500 team, the sense of momentum will begin with the No. 1 starter.

“Jon’s just fine,” Maddon said. “You always like to have people peak at the appropriate moment. So every time out, I’ve seen him a little bit better. Just give him a little bit more time as he builds into this thing. I like what I’m seeing.”

Cubs' Twitter trolls Brewers, Christian Yelich after Yu Darvish's stellar start

Cubs' Twitter trolls Brewers, Christian Yelich after Yu Darvish's stellar start

The Cubs' Twitter account has been saving this one for nine months.

First, let us present you with this doozy of a tweet from the Cubs after Thursday's 4-2 win over Milwaukee.

If you recall, Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich went at Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish on Twitter last November. A since-deleted tweet from Yelich's account to Darvish read "nobody needs help facing you."

A video circulated in November that showed Darvish step off the rubber while Yelich was in the batter's box during a 2019 Cubs-Brewers game. Some suggested Darvish stepped off because Yelich's eyes moved, also suggesting Yelich was looking for signs stolen via technology.

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In response to the video, Darvish explained his actions from that game, clarifying he wasn't accusing Milwaukee of stealing signs.

Here we are nearly a year later, the Cubs' Twitter playing off Yelich's tweet after Darvish dominated Milwaukee. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning, allowing a hit (a solo homer) and two walks while striking out 11.

If you're wondering, Yelich went 0-for-2 with a hit by pitch against Darvish on Thursday.


Cubs rotation weathers surprise break, shakeup to be as dominant as ever

Cubs rotation weathers surprise break, shakeup to be as dominant as ever

Hair flowing out from under his cap, Yu Darvish held his right leg up at a right angle and watched Brewers’ Omar Narvaez swing late on a high fastball.

If Darvish stuck an arm out, his body would be in the shape of a K, fitting for yet another strike out.

In the Cubs’ 4-2 win against the Brewers on Thursday, Darvish allowed just one hit and one run in seven innings. In fact, in the Cubs’ past three games no starter has given up more than a run, and all pitched at least six innings.

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“It makes my job really easy,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “It’s fun to sit back and not have to worry about too much until the sixth or seventh inning.

The Cubs rotation has been a strength all season. Entering play Thursday, the Cubs starters had the third-best ERA in Major League Baseball (2.65). But this recent string of especially dominant performances came under unusual circumstances: right after a surprise four-day break.

Starting pitchers enjoy a consistent schedule through most of the season. They generally pitch every fifth or sixth day, with a bullpen in between starts.

But the postponement of the St. Louis series, due to more positive tests in the Cardinals organization, threw off that routine for the Cubs starters. The Cubs left St. Louis last Friday without having played a game.

The Cubs coaching staff had a decision to make: skip the pitchers scheduled to start in those un-played games, or shuffle the rotation? They did a little bit of both.

Jon Lester, who was originally scheduled to start last Friday, threw his regular in-between-starts bullpen on Saturday and drew the first start of the Cleveland series.

Then, the rotation picked up at the beginning. The Cubs’ first three games back had Lester, Kyle Hendricks and then Darvish taking the mound. All had dominant outings, despite the extra days rest.

"There have been so many things going on this whole year,” Hendricks said, “I think that nothing's going to faze us now.”

Having Mills and Lester swap places also split up the two most similar pitchers in the Cubs rotation. Hendricks and Mills are both soft-throwing, crafty right-handers. With Mills pitching fifth and Hendricks first, they threw on consecutive days as the rotation turned over.

Now, left-handed Lester will pitch in between the two, giving hitters a different look.

“We talked about it a little bit,” Hendricks said after his start Wednesday. “I think it's a little overblown, the effect of it. I think the last two games that I've pitched behind (Mills) I just haven't made a lot of good pitches, I was kind of off a little bit. Today I just made better pitches. ... And honestly, seeing how he attacks guys helps.”

Even so, Lester set the bar high out of the break and then Hendricks matched his one-run six innings.

“We’re not talking about it, but we’re putting pressure on each other,” Darvish said. “That’s a good pressure for us.”

On Thursday, Darvish said he stuck to mixing in his knuckle curve ball early in counts, as he’d begun to do against Pittsburgh two weeks before. He had a no-hitter going into the seventh inning Thursday but gave up a solo home run to Justin Smoak. Darvish recorded a season-high 11 strikeouts.

“I thought he had really good command of his off-speed stuff tonight,” Ross said after the game. “… Really kept them off balance. You really didn’t see a whole lot of good swings until that homer form Smoak.”

Next, the streak will be in the hands of Tyler Chatwood and Mills. Chatwood had a dud of an outing the last time he pitched, allowing eight runs on 11 hits at Kansas City. But he averaged over nine strikeouts in each of his first two outings.  And Alec Mills has a 1.38 ERA, the second best on the team, behind Lester (1.06).

Both have been integral parts of the rotation overperforming, after the Cubs front office was up front about its starting-pitching depth concerns ahead of the season.

After Thursday’s game, the Cubs rotation has improved to a 2.55 ERA, with a 12-3 record.