Cubs proving they have the right kind of fight


Cubs proving they have the right kind of fight

The Cubs may not have proved themselves to be playoff contenders yet, not with a team four games over .500 that’s still prone to mistakes.

But in playing close games against established contenders in Washington and Kansas City over the last week at Wrigley Field, they’ve proved something else — at least to themselves.

“Listen man, you have to love the fight,” manager Joe Maddon said after David Ross’ 11th inning walk-off bloop single earned the Cubs a 2-1 win over Kansas City Sunday. “If you’re standing or sitting in the captain’s chair and you have a bunch of guys who can fight like that, what else could you possibly want? We’re not going to be perfect every night, we’re going to mistakes, of course we are. But if you have that kind of fight, I’ll take it.”

[MORE: Cubs: Joe Maddon embraces loss of September off day]

The Cubs won two of those five games against the Nationals and Royals, but weren’t blown out in any of them. A 3-0 loss on May 27 to Washington was largely the doing of Max Scherzer’s mastery, while a four-run loss to Kansas City on Friday was close until Dexter Fowler misjudged a soft line drive in the eighth. And even in that loss Friday, the Cubs battled back from an early deficit and tied things up when Addison Russell homered off lights-out Royals righty Kelvin Herrera.

Maddon characterized the homestead as “not bad,” and it’s worth repeating the Cubs still lost more games than they won on it. But through two months, the Cubs have already played in 24 one-run games, more than any team in baseball.

And in those games, despite an often-suspect defense and inconsistent bullpen, the Cubs are 14-10. That’s helped grow the kind of mentality that the club hopes pays off as the pressure builds over the summer.

“Everyone’s believing more,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s nice. We stayed afloat through April and May, and now we can really take off and that’s what we want to do.”

[RELATED: Blackhawks or Lightning? Joe Maddon conflicted for Stanley Cup Final]

On Sunday, the Cubs fell behind 1-0 and had to find a way to scratch across a run as Yordano Ventura’s 100 mile per hour fastball and electric arsenal of offspeed pitches cleaved through the batting order. But after a seemingly-innocuous one-out walk and a wild pitch in the seventh, Chris Coghlan — who had three of the Cubs’ four hits off Ventura — laced a game-tying single to left.

The Cubs were poised to break through in the ninth inning off Royals reliever Wade Davis, who hadn’t allowed a run all season. But with runners on the corners and one out, David Ross was unable to successfully lay down a safety squeeze, instead bunting into an out at first and ultimately stranding Rizzo at third as the game careened into extra innings.

But Ross came back in the 11th and blooped a Jason Frasor changeup between left fielder Alex Gordon and shortstop Alcides Escobar in left for a walk-off single.

“Luckily I drove that ball in the gap right there at the end,” Ross smiled.

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“… This was a tough homestand as far as playing really good competition and I thought we were in every game,” he said. “We believe we have a good team here, guys have a lot of confidence and they don’t give up. That’s the one thing about this team that has been really great to see these guys compete night in and night out.”

While Maddon said after the Cubs’ loss Friday his team wasn’t ready to compete for a World Series — as the Royals did in 2014 — he has seen the kind of signs from his players that make him believe they could get to that point this season. The Cubs aren’t where they need to be in terms of the concepts Maddon wants them to have nailed down, but what he sees his team have team has is that nebulous fighting spirit that any playoff contender ultimately needs.

“Once you get that engrained in the fabric of your culture, all of a sudden it can become the fabric of the day,” Maddon said. “Obviously Kansas City has that, Tampa Bay had it, I believe we got it. It’s there to be nurtured. It’s right there.”

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. 

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Much has been made about Wednesday night's brawl between the Marlins and Braves, which started when Braves young star Ronald Acuna was nailed in the elbow with a 99 mph fastball from Jose Urena. The strangest part of the whole situation was that it seemed like Urena was unprovoked by Acuna or any of the Braves players prior to plunking the former No. 1 prospect in all of baseball.  

The ever wise Cubs skipper Joe Maddon was asked about the incident prior to Thursday's game, making it clear he felt plays like these needed to leave the game entirely. 

It was announced Thursday afternoon that Urena would be suspended just 6 games for intentionally throwing Acuna, which means the Marlins starter will likely only miss one game for trying to hurt Acuna. The good news is that Acuna did not sustain any serious injuries, but Joe Maddon is right there is no reason for people to be hurling nearly triple-digit fastballs at players. Whether provoked or not, intentionally throwing at players is something that needs to be phased out of the game, and its safe to assume Maddon would agree.