Cubs waiting for everything to click with Dexter Fowler


Cubs waiting for everything to click with Dexter Fowler

Joe Maddon floated the idea that Dexter Fowler would be the right player at the right time for the Cubs. The manager talked up his new switch-hitting leadoff guy/centerfielder in spring training as someone on the verge of a breakout season.

Maddon felt Fowler would be playing at a prime age (29) and had already seen a lot with the Colorado Rockies and Houston Astros.

The media noticed how Fowler had once made the interesting decision to turn down an offer to play basketball at Harvard University. Cubs officials pointed out Fowler had worked with new hitting coach John Mallee last season in Houston and would help create this new identity as a grinding type of offense. 

[MORE: Cardinals make it another frustrating night for Cubs and Jon Lester]

It hasn’t quite happened yet.

“I believe it’s there,” Maddon said at Wrigley Field. “I believe you’re going to see it by the end of the season. He’s probably even trying a little bit too hard to set the table for us. And that’s why I wanted to back it off a little bit.”

So Maddon dropped Fowler to the seventh spot on Monday and moved Chris Coghlan into the leadoff position. It didn’t make a difference in a 6-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals — lineup shakeups usually don’t matter and the offensive issues are team-wide now. But Fowler did walk, single and drive a ball to the warning track against right-hander John Lackey.     

“Just take a little heat off him,” Maddon said. “I actually texted him today — we went back and forth. I just told him I had a different idea for today until he really gets it going from the left side. Because when he’s got it going on, he really does make us great. Look at the numbers when he gets on base and scores a run, (see) what our record looks like (27-12).

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“It’s obvious right now there’s a disconnect between the left- and right-handed side.”

Fowler should be back at the top of the order for Tuesday’s doubleheader against St. Louis left-handers Tyler Lyons and Tim Cooney. Fowler is hitting .340 with an .833 OPS against lefties — while hitting only .210 with a .655 OPS against right-handers.

Overall, Fowler is hitting .230 in his walk year, with eight homers, 11 stolen bases and 51 runs scored. His .308 on-base percentage is 58 points lower than his career average heading into this season.

That makes tagging Fowler with a qualifying offer — and getting the draft-pick compensation once he signs elsewhere — a more complicated decision.

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Then again, it’s not like the Cubs have all these outfielders forcing the issue at Triple-A Iowa and Double-A Tennessee for 2016 (unless you pull the plug on Kyle Schwarber’s catching experiment).

Fowler still has the second half to put it all together, and the Cubs in a pennant race will be a big platform.

“His defense has been really good, and his baserunning has been really good,” Maddon said. “I have a lot of faith in this guy. He’s really a bright young man. He comes to play every day. It hasn’t manifested itself yet.”

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Cole Hamels' dominant start to his Cubs career continued on Friday in stellar fashion, and with some considerable help from his infield.

The 34-year-old veteran not only pitched seven innings of five-hit ball without allowing a run, but induced five ground ball double plays. The Cubs finished with a staggering seven double plays in a 1-0 win at the Pirates on Friday.

The last time the Cubs turned five double plays was in 1985. 

All five hits Hamels gave up were groundball singles. The 16 groundballs induced is the most for a Cubs pitcher this year.

After Hamels exited after seven innings, the Cubs got double plays in the eighth, on a line drive double play with Jorge De La Rosa on the mound, and ninth, on a groundball induced by Jesse Chavez to end the game.

Hamels was initially brought in to provide depth to a struggling rotation and ease the pain of Yu Darvish being unavailable. But Hamels has now started an honest debate over who should be the Cubs' starter in Game 1 of the postseason. He has been otherworldly since joining the Cubs, with an 0.72 ERA, three wins and one no-decision (the Cubs won and he had nine strikeouts). 

The 1-0 win over the Pirates gives the Cubs more breathing room in the NL Central. The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday, pushing the Cubs lead to 4.5 games in the division.

And the Hamels hot-streak comes at an excellent time for the North Siders, who took in Jon Lester's gem of an outing on Thursday, where he went six innings with no earned runs and eight strikeouts in a win against the Pirates. The Cubs starting pitching seems to be turning the corner, and with three straight series against sub-.500 teams following their series in Pittsburgh, this could be the beginning of a great run of outings that carries the Cubs confidently into the postseason.

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.