Cubs need Jon Lester to really get rolling


Cubs need Jon Lester to really get rolling

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs are getting by without their $155 million ace, but they will need the real Jon Lester to seriously start rolling.

The Cubs see an opening in the National League Central, where the Milwaukee Brewers are in free fall and the Cincinnati Reds are doing damage control, knowing their windows could soon be slamming shut.

The Cubs packed their bags for Cincinnati after Thursday’s 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, leaving PNC Park with the feeling they should have won this series instead of settling for a split.

Lester (0-2, 6.89 ERA) takes the ball on Friday night at Great American Ball Park. The Cubs are still waiting to see what made the lefty a two-time World Series champion with the Boston Red Sox and one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation.

That guy would help solve a bullpen equation that’s getting more difficult by the day, and take some of the pressure off a young lineup that’s not going to hit every night.

Still, this team is 8-7 and not buried in April and already talking about who’s going to get traded to a contender this summer. That’s a big improvement from the lost seasons Cubs fans have endured while waiting for The Plan to come together. 

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“I like the way it looks,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I like the way it looks a lot. Again, that’s because of the whole thing, the entire group. It’s not just one particular item that I like. 

“Everybody’s talking about the young guys. We’ve hit the ball pretty well. But how about the defense and the baserunning? I’ll say it a zillion times, because that has been really impressive (and) a big part of our victories. For the most part, the starting pitching has been really good. And Jon’s going to keep getting better. 

“Believe me, I’ve thought about that. So what’s it going to look like? I just think we can continue to anticipate better.”

The Cubs have only six quality starts through 15 games and it’s starting to catch up to a bullpen missing right-handers Justin Grimm (forearm) and Neil Ramirez (shoulder), two key pieces now on the disabled list.

Lester is over the “dead arm” that prevented him from having a full spring training, saying it usually takes him until the middle of May or early June before he really gets into a rhythm and consistently finds his velocity. 

“Obviously, everybody wants to get off to a good start,” Lester said. “I’ve just always been kind of a slow starter for whatever reason. Obviously, I would have liked these three different starts to go a little bit different than what they have. But you can’t go back. 

“I got to just keep looking forward to the next one and continue to build. That’s all you can really do.”

[SHOP: Get a Jon Lester jersey here]

The bullpen got exposed again on Thursday afternoon when Kyle Hendricks couldn’t finish the sixth inning. Edwin Jackson — the default reliever with a $52 million contract — earned a bigger moment but couldn’t protect a two-run lead. Phil Coke inherited a runner from Brian Schlitter in the seventh inning and allowed the go-ahead run to score.

“We’re trying to define it right now,” Maddon said. “It really comes down to a pitch now and then. We’re just not making the pitch when we have to right now, but we will. With the different people not being available, it makes it difficult.” 

The Cubs have been pretty good at improvising, dropping Kris Bryant into the cleanup spot and having him play center field while Dexter Fowler deals with a groin injury. 

Addison Russell — the youngest player in the National League at 21 years and 90 days — chipped in with an RBI double for what’s supposed to become an American League-style lineup. 

But the starting pitching that had been so reliable during the Sign-and-Flip Era hasn’t been as good as advertised yet. 

“We’re obviously not performing as we should,” said Hendricks, who has a 5.74 ERA through three starts. “Getting deeper into games as a staff — and me in particular — (is key). We’re keeping the team in the game, but we got to start putting up some (better) numbers overall. 

“We’re still getting that feel. I know it’s coming around.”

Lester is the horse, the bulldog, or whatever animal metaphor you want to use, expected to carry this team into October. 

“He’s the guy,” Hendricks said. “He’s the ace. We lost two in a row now, so he’s the stopper. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Tyler Chatwood looked to be turning the corner with his control issues, but alas, he and the Cubs aren't so lucky.

After walking only two batters in a solid start in Atlanta last week, Chatwood had taken a big step in the right direction. It was, after all, only the third time he'd walked fewer than 5 batters in an outing this season.

Those control woes reared their ugly heads once again Tuesday night at Wrigley Field in a 10-1 loss to the Indians. Chatwood walked 6 batters and managed to net only 8 outs, getting hammered for 4 runs in the third inning.

"Ugh, it was tough," Maddon said. "The stuff was so good, we just couldn't get a strike."

"It's definitely frustrating," Chatwood said, "because one at-bat, I'll feel really good and the next one, I feel like I'm fighting myself.

"Last time [out], I was able to stay in the rhythm. Tonight, I was kinda battling, rushing rather than staying back, so it's just keeping that feeling and maintaining that."

His season ERA is only 3.74, which looks good until you consider his WHIP is 1.62 and he's walked 40 batters in 45.2 innings with only 41 strikeouts in the process. He now leads baseball in walks per 9 innings.

Chatwood said earlier this month in St. Louis that he's figured out what has led to the startling lack of control and while he didn't elaborate on the mechanical issue, he was working hard at correcting the problem in bullpens.

He's also used the term "fighting myself" at least a dozen times this month alone and it's become a common refrain for his explanation of what's going on. 

"He's got a busy delivery when he throws the baseball," Maddon said. "He's kinda busy what he does with his hands. It's not like he can just change it easily because that's how his arm works, how his body works.

"Sometimes, like you see him the other day, everything's on time and how good it can be and when it's out of sorts a bit, then all of the sudden it becomes shotgun. Ah man, you can see the movement [on his pitches] from the side, how good it is. 

"We gotta harness it somehow. I spoke to him briefly on the bench; I reassured him it's gonna be fine, it's gonna be really good by the end of the year. We gotta figure it out and he knows that. But man, that's good stuff. We just gotta get it in the zone."

Chatwood also admitted part of the problem is mental in that he's trying to force pitches rather than trusting his stuff. He's also gotten into the bad habit of drifting down the mound, though he's not sure when or where he picked up that hitch in his delivery.

Chatwood and Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey are working on slowing his delivery down to get his arm in the same spot on a more consistent basis.

When the Cubs signed Chatwood over the winter, it was easy to see why.

He just turned 28 in December, his peripherals and a move from hitter-friendly Coors Field foretold a potential leap in performance and his stuff is nasty. Plus, he signed a three-year deal at a relative bargain of $38 million.

Once the Cubs signed Yu Darvish in spring training, you could make the case that Chatwood could be among the best No. 5 starters in baseball.

Nine starts later, the honeymoon period is well over with Chatwood, as he threw only 30 of his 74 pitches for strikes Tuesday night and sent catcher Willson Contreras sailing all around home plate for pitches way out of the zone.

Still, it's clear to see there is some intriguing talent there and the season there is roughly 70 percent of the season remaining before the Cubs make what they hope is another run at the World Series.

"I have a lot of faith," Maddon said. "I know we're gonna reap the rewards, the benefits as he figures this thing out."

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Marlon Byrd discusses his suspensions for PED use and Ozzie Guillen offers a solution to the PED problem

NBC Sports Chicago

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Marlon Byrd discusses his suspensions for PED use and Ozzie Guillen offers a solution to the PED problem

Ozzie Guillen explains why he thinks Manny Machado is a better fit for the Cubs than the White Sox. Plus, Guillen and Marlon Byrd react to 19-year-old Juan Soto hitting a homer in his first at-bat with the Nationals.

Later in the show the guys debate who had the better rants in front of the media: Guillen or Byrd?

Finally, Byrd opens up about his PED suspensions, relates to the guys caught using PEDs now and Guillen offers up a solution to rid baseball of PEDs entirely.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: