Cubs need Jon Lester to pitch like an ace


Cubs need Jon Lester to pitch like an ace

DETROIT – Whether or not this is some grand plan, or just the random nature of opportunities in this business, the Cubs have been developing hitters and buying pitchers, using their eyes and their laptops to build a team their own way.

It’s not quite as simple as that, especially with so many financial complexities surrounding this franchise, but the $155 million ace is the bottom-line place to start after Tuesday night’s 6-0 loss to the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park.

Head down, Jon Lester walked off the mound with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth inning, the Cubs already trailing 4-0 and $52 million reliever Edwin Jackson coming out of the bullpen.

“There are a lot of things that need to be fixed – and they will,” Lester said afterward. “It sounds simple, but it’s just a matter of getting back out there and doing it again. I had a great bullpen this last time. I felt good about coming into this. And I go out there and throw that slop.”

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The Cubs have spent first-round picks on position players in each of the last five drafts, beginning with Javier Baez in the final year of the Jim Hendry administration and leading up to Ian Happ, the University of Cincinnati outfielder/second baseman Theo Epstein’s front office grabbed on Monday night with the No. 9 overall pick.

The Cubs backed themselves into this corner, understanding they would eventually have to overpay for a No. 1 starter, knowing that history shows nine-figure contracts for pitchers are usually bad investments.

After an awful April (0-2, 6.23 ERA) and an excellent May (4-1, 1.76 ERA), Lester hasn’t looked sharp in June (0-2, 10.61 ERA).

“I’ve actually felt better the last two starts than I did in May, so take that for whatever it’s worth,” said Lester, who gave up five runs on nine hits against the Tigers (31-28).

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“They both sucked. Just not good. Not good. Not getting deep into games. Regardless of runs, hits, errors, walks, strikeouts, whatever, (I) gotta do a better job pitching innings. (That’s) what it comes down to.”

The Cubs say they aren’t worried about the 31-year-old lefty, who won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox and seems almost numb to big-market overreactions after spending so much time at Fenway Park.

“I wouldn’t say he pitched well, but he had good stuff,” personal catcher David Ross said.

Manager Joe Maddon pointed to the 93 mph fastballs, the depth on Lester’s breaking ball and a lineup that revolves around Miguel Cabrera.

“They moved the ball around,” Maddon said. “It’s not like they just beat him up badly. It was well placed and he never could really seem to find a real rhythm or groove.

“It’s just one of those nights. Move it along and I’m good for his next time out there. I’m really not concerned or upset."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs couldn’t generate anything against Anibal Sanchez, who came into the game with a 3-7 record and a 5.69 ERA but walked off the mound to a standing ovation in the eighth inning, saluting the crowd of 33,301 (even with the bases loaded).

The Cubs courted Sanchez in December 2012, with Epstein and chairman Tom Ricketts meeting the pitcher, his wife and his agent at a Miami restaurant. That same day, general manager Jed Hoyer and Dale Sveum, the manager at the time, met with Jackson, his fiancé and his agent in Newport Beach, California.

The Cubs got used for leverage in the Sanchez negotiations, the Tigers ultimately stepping up with five years and $80 million guaranteed. The Cubs maxed out at five years and $77.5 million and moved on to Plan B: Jackson (who gave the bullpen a break by finishing this game).

This isn’t how you envision the big-ticket signings at that first press conference. But even without Lester hitting his stride, the Cubs are still 30-26 and in wild-card position. Everyone knows what it would mean if their No. 1 guy starts living up to his own expectations.

“If we’re worried about the wild card right now, we’re worried about the wrong things,” Lester said. “We got to play a good baseball team tomorrow. That’s No. 1. But if you want to talk about the future, yeah, obviously, that would mean a lot to this team, this organization, this city.

“We’ve been playing good baseball. I feel like at times we’ve been playing better baseball than what the results have been. But this team does a good job of grinding. It seemed like we grinded a lot on Anibal. He just seemed to be one step ahead of us, and that happens sometimes. I didn’t do my part tonight.”

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.