Cubs

Cubs show they’re bigger than just Jon Lester

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Cubs show they’re bigger than just Jon Lester

The Cubs are bigger than just Jon Lester.

This isn’t exactly how Theo Epstein’s front office drew up The Plan, or how any big-name free agent wants to make a first impression in a new city starving for a winner.

But the Cubs are now alone in first place in the National League Central after Monday night’s 7-6 comeback victory over the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field. It took 10 innings before Lester’s teammates bailed him out, leaving the Cubs (4-2) more than one game over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2009 season.

“At the end of the day, we won,” Lester said. “That’s the main thing.”

Lester should get the benefit of the doubt, because he had the guts, the nerve and the will to beat cancer and cement his reputation as a big-game pitcher, winning two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox. Until the All-Star lefty shows why he got $155 million guaranteed, the Cubs are going to ride a different wave of momentum.

[MORE CUBS: The wait for Kris Bryant could be almost over]

Jorge Soler got his first curtain call, and that might have been the only time the Cuban outfielder got nervous on a two-homer, four-RBI night that had Lester comparing his raw power to David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.

Joe Maddon pushed the right bullpen buttons as Brian Schlitter, Jason Motte, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon combined for four scoreless innings. Chris Coghlan finished a triple shy of the cycle and even played out of position at third base. Arismendy Alcantara finished the comeback with his first hit of the season, a bases-loaded, walk-off shot that started a mosh pit at the edge of the infield.

Without all that, the feeling would have been very different inside the interview room/dungeon after the Reds (4-3) hit Lester hard, putting up six runs on 10 hits in six innings.

Maybe Lester is still working through that “dead arm” that limited him in spring training.

“Obviously, I haven’t hit my stride yet, but I don’t want to use anything as a crutch,” Lester said. “Things have to be better. When you have (four) guys going out there and doing their jobs, when you’re the loose end of the chain, that’s never good.

“Back to work tomorrow. A lot of things to work on, a lot of things to improve on. And I’ll get back to being the front end of that chain instead of the back end and letting these guys down. It will be better.”

Two starts into a six-year contract is way too early to overreact, but all this can’t be completely ignored, either. Combine Lester’s performance against the Reds and an Opening Night loss to the St. Louis Cardinals and here’s what you get: Nine runs on 18 hits in 10.1 innings (plus 10 strikeouts).

“Physically, everything’s fine,” Lester said. “Absolutely.”

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Buy a Jorge Soler jersey here]

Maybe the Boston/Bristol/Chicago press corps has it all wrong and “the yips” are overblown. That storyline wouldn’t go away, either, even with the Reds sitting Billy Hamilton as their speedster dealt with an injured finger.

Lester got mock cheers from the crowd of 26,390 in the second inning after throwing over to first base for the first time since April 2013.

Moments later, Lester airmailed a ball that went nowhere near Anthony Rizzo, bouncing up and away from the right-field line and ricocheting off the rolled-up tarp and into the visiting bullpen. That’s where Soler picked it up and made what Maddon called a “ridiculous” throw to third base to nail Zack Cozart.

“It’s been awhile,” Lester said and sort of chuckled. “The second one, I got a little excited. I looked over there and the guy was going the other direction.

“When you’re not used to doing stuff like that, I just got a little overexcited and tried to throw the ball a little bit too soon. But once again, Georgie picked me up (and) makes a great play.

“There’s a lot of things to work on. That’s one of them. The adjustments that we’ve made through spring training until now have felt really, really good.

“It’s just a matter of doing it repeatedly and keeping those guys at bay, and we were able to do that. We had the one stolen base in the first and then after that kind of shut it down a little bit.”

Just like “the yips,” the Cubs being in first place in the middle of April will get blown out of proportion. But your mind can also wander and wonder what this team could look like if Lester really gets rolling as the No. 1 guy he’s supposed to be.

Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

As if things weren’t already going well enough for the Cubs during this strange, short season of baseball in a pandemic, now the baseball gods are dropping gifts into their laps.

The Cardinals’ lengthy shutdown because of a coronavirus outbreak has the Cubs’ arch rivals restarting their season Saturday in Chicago with a patched-up roster and eight games over the next five days, including five games against the Cubs.

And although that means the relative hardship of two doubleheaders for the Cubs in three days, all five of those games Monday through Wednesday are against a decimated Cards roster that won’t have the front end of its rotation for any of the games.

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They catch the Cardinals at their weakest point of the early season a week after catching an otherwise formidable Cleveland team at a moment of clubhouse crisis involving protocol perps Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger.

That one resulted in a two-game sweep by a combined score of 14-3.

This one already has resulted in all 10 games against the Cardinals now being scheduled for Wrigley Field.

Combine that with the three road games against the White Sox next month, and it means that the team with baseball’s best record on the field, the perfect record in player COVID-19 testing and no significant injuries to key players so far will play 60 percent of its games within its Chicago bubble if the Cubs and MLB pull off the full 60-game season.

If the Cubs were positioned any better to make the playoffs, they’d already be there.

“You can look at it that way if you want,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “We’re just doing our thing.”

No other way to look at it from here. Have you seen the rest of the schedule?

The Cubs have 43 games left, including 29 within a National League Central Division that doesn’t include another .500 team three weeks into a nine-week season. Nine more games are against the Tigers and White Sox.

The best team on the schedule is the Twins, and all three of those games are at home and not until the second-to-last weekend of the season.

With all due respect to Ross and his fear of “bad juju,” the Cubs can’t lose.

“It’s still early on,” the manager said.

Nothing’s early in a 60-game season. And the Cubs already have matched the hot starts of their 2016 and 1908 World Series champions.

“We’ve still got a long ways to go in the season,” Ross said.

The Cubs did have to scratch Tyler Chatwood from his scheduled start Friday night because of back tightness. And Kris Bryant has missed the last two games because of a sore finger after rolling his wrist trying to make a diving catch in left field in Cleveland Wednesday.

But Alec Mills looked good in short-notice replacement duty Friday until a rough four-pitch (and three-run) sequence in the sixth. And Chatwood might be ready for one of Monday’s games — or possibly one of Wednesday’s.

“Things falling in our favor?” Ross said. “We’re playing good baseball, and that should be the focus for me and not the other stuff.”

Granted, they still have to play the games. Granted, Bryant wasn’t available off the bench with the bases loaded in the eighth Friday, and Josh Phegley struck out instead.

And, yes, they actually lost a game to the Brewers Friday night.

But if you still don’t believe the baseball gods are stirring the Cubs’ pot so far this season, you weren’t paying attention in the ninth inning when Craig Kimbrel struck out Avisail Garcia swinging at a 98-mph fastball to start the scoreless inning and Manny Piña swinging at a 96-mph fastball to end it.

What closer problem? Bring on the Cardinals, right?

These guys might not lose another game.

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Cubs' Colin Rea to start on Saturday, Tyler Chatwood possibly Monday

Cubs' Colin Rea to start on Saturday, Tyler Chatwood possibly Monday

The Cubs plan to start swingman Colin Rea on Saturday against the Brewers, manager David Ross said after Friday's game.

Alec Mills was originally slated to pitch Saturday but was bumped up to Friday because Tyler Chatwood was scratched with mid-back tightness. The Cubs will evaluate Chatwood to see if he's an option to pitch on Monday, when they're scheduled to play a doubleheader against the Cardinals.

Rea, 30, has made two appearances this season, allowing no runs and one hit while striking out three in three innings. He was named the 2019 Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year, sporting a 3.95 ERA in 26 starts.

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Rea's last big league start was July 30, 2016 with the Marlins. He allowed one hit in 3 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out four with no walks.

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