Cubs

Cubs see Jon Lester trending in the right direction

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Cubs see Jon Lester trending in the right direction

Has Jon Lester turned a corner with the Cubs?

The $155-million ace wasn't willing to go that far after Friday night's outing against the Reds, but he and the Cubs saw some positive signs that could point to a turnaround.

Lester picked up a no-decision in the 11-inning 7-3 Cubs win, but did collect his first quality start with the new team, going six innings and allowing three runs on five hits and a walk. He struck out 10 while throwing 104 pitches, lowering his ERA (6.23) and WHIP (1.57) in the process.

That's a step up from his first three starts, in which he gave up 12 earned runs and 24 hits in 15.2 innings.

"His last two innings were his best," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "I keep saying - it's getting better, better, better. It's trending in the right direction. He felt really good. I think he had a lot of fun tonight, which is a good thing."

[MORE: Cardiac Cubs strike again, top Reds in extras]

Lester got out to a rough start, surrendering a single to Reds speed demon Billy Hamilton to lead off the first inning. Hamilton immediately stole second, scooted to third on a wild pitch and then scored on a Joey Votto groundout.

It was Hamilton again in the third, who led off with another single, stole second and third and then scored on a Brandon Phillips groundout.

But Lester settled in after that, allowing only a solo run in the fourth - on a sacrifice fly by Cincinnati shortstop Zack Cozart - and retired the final nine hitters he faced.

"After about the second inning, I got in a little better rhythm," Lester said. "Kept some guys off the bases. That's been kind of the thing that's been plaguing me - just the continued baserunners.

"It was a lot better. Had a better feel for my cutter tonight. I'm learning. New league, new faces, new guys, kind of figuring it out as we go and keep adjusting."

[MORE: Bryant, Stanton and the popularity of power prospects]

Lester was sidelined for part of spring training with a "dead arm" period and Maddon believes that has played a factor in the southpaw's slow start. The Cubs manager also admitted Lester may have been feeling some pressure from the megadeal he signed as a free agent over the winter.

Lester said he has gotten back on the right track by focusing on the task at hand, instead of looking at the past start or the next outing coming up.

"It's a work in progress," he said. "It's a constant adjustment for me right now. We'll take what I did five days ago into today and what I did today into the next one and we'll just keep building.

With Cubs reeling, Jon Lester comes up big and plays stopper

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USA TODAY

With Cubs reeling, Jon Lester comes up big and plays stopper

The last three games have been more than forgettable for the Cubs.

From Wednesday’s 11-1 drubbing at the hands of the Phillies to back-to-back walk-off losses on Thursday and Friday, the Cubs’ current road trip has looked much like those that preceded it. At various times, the offense has scuffled, the rotation has pitched a clunker and the bullpen has cracked.

The solution to the latest road trip woes? Give the ball to Jon Lester and get the hell out of the way.

Lester —  who pitched a clunker himself Aug. 6 against the A’s — did what the Cubs have become so accustomed to see him do over the past four seasons. The 35-year-old tossed 6+ shutout innings, allowing just four hits, leading the Cubs to a 2-0 win.

Lester had no room for error on Saturday, as the Cubs offense went hitless for the first 4 1/3 innings. While the Cubs bats were asleep, the Pirates threatened to break the game on open multiple times, loading the bases with one out (first inning), no outs (fifth) and getting runners on first and second with no outs in the sixth.

The latter two of those instances were assisted by errors by third baseman Kris Bryant, but that’s neither here nor there. Point being, with how the Cubs looked offensively, any Pirates runs could have proved critical on Saturday. Instead, Lester worked out of every jam, stymying the Pirates bats to an 0-for-12 line with RISP.

Winning Saturday’s game was obviously important for the Cubs, as it puts them a game ahead of the Cardinals in the win column (pending the outcome of St. Louis's game against the Reds later Saturday). But it was equally important for Lester, who called himself the “weakest link” in the Cubs starting rotation after that tough outing against the A’s.

The beautiful thing about baseball is that the regular season is 162 games long. Each day presents teams with a new slate, a chance to forget about what happened in the previous game and move forward.  If Saturday’s start shows anything, it’s that Lester and the Cubs are more than capable of putting a tough game in the rearview mirror and keep moving forward.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Get to know Kelly Crull podcast

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NBC Sports Chicago

Cubs Talk Podcast: Get to know Kelly Crull podcast

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, we get to know Kelly Crull. Kelly tells Luke Stuckmeyer about her love of bowling growing up, why she became a reporter and some of her favorite moments covering the Cubs.

01:00 Kelly's love of tennis at an early age

04:00 Following basketball while growing up in Indiana

06:00 Possible tennis showdown between Kelly and Megan Mawicke

09:30 Kelly talks about working in London & interviewing J.K. Rowling

14:00 When did she decide to become a reporter?

15:00 What is her favorite food?

16:00 Kelly's go-to karaoke song

18:00 Kelly's favorite NBA story (it involves Kevin Durant)

21:00 Favorite moments covering the Cubs

24:00 Dealing with the weather at Wrigley Field

28:00 Something we don't know about Kelly

31:00 What does Kelly enjoy watching at home the most?

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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