Cubs

Cubs will keep their foot on the gas pedal with chance to clinch in St. Louis

Cubs will keep their foot on the gas pedal with chance to clinch in St. Louis

Cubs-Cardinals coverage begins on CSN Monday night at 7 p.m. with "Bases Loaded" airing at 6:30 p.m.

The Cubs celebrate every win with loud music and dance moves, the fog machine pumping so much that it sometimes sets off the fire alarms inside Wrigley Field’s underground clubhouse. So imagine how much this group would love to clinch the division at Busch Stadium, party in front of The Best Fans in Baseball and trash the visiting clubhouse, spraying bottles of champagne everywhere and dumping beers all over each other.

The St. Louis Cardinals are still the gold standard in the National League Central, and would be a dangerous team in a best-of-five series – if they can make the playoffs and win the wild-card game. The Cubs actually have a losing record (6-7) against the Cardinals, a hard-to-read, bridge-year team with a losing record (32-39) at home. With the magic number at five, it would take a three-game sweep for the Cubs to fly back to Chicago on Wednesday night as division champs. 

“We’ve proved that regardless of what our lead is, we got the gas pedal down,” second baseman Ben Zobrist said. “I don’t see anybody letting up.”

Clinching at Busch Stadium would be an exclamation point to the Cubs eliminating the Cardinals from last year’s playoffs and signing Jason Heyward and John Lackey as part of a $290 million spending spree – or another middle finger in a heated rivalry that began in 1892 and has seen St. Louis win 11 World Series titles.  

Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who grew up as a Cardinals fan in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining territory, used his first year on the job to play mind games with St. Louis (“I don’t know if Tony Soprano was in the dugout…we’re not going to put up with that from them or anybody else”) and emphasize how a young team needed to go into hostile environments and learn how to win, the way his Tampa Bay Rays teams couldn’t become intimidated in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.   

Except for misunderstandings between Cubs fans wearing his “Try Not To Suck” T-shirts in April – and ushers enforcing ballpark policy on clothing with explicit language – Maddon has mostly let his team do the talking at Busch Stadium. The 2016 Cubs are a fully formed contender with blue-chip talent, a relentless attitude and a unique clubhouse culture.

“I anticipate hair on fire,” Maddon said. “I don’t care what our record indicates – I expect our guys to go out there and play the game right.

“From spring training right to now, man, I’ve been really pleased and impressed with our ability to come ready to play every night.”

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The Cubs responded to their worst month (12-14 in July) with their best month (22-6 in August), giving them a chance to clinch before Week 2 in the NFL, in a division that produced three teams with at least 97 wins last year.

As much as the Cubs feasted on the rebuilding/tanking Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds (20-8), they also ruined 2016 for the Pittsburgh Pirates (winning 12 of those 15 division games) and won the season series against the Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.

“I don’t think that anybody is looking at where we’re at and celebrating,” Zobrist said. “We celebrate after the wins, one at a time. But outside of that, we know that there’s a lot of work to do. We come to play every day. And we come to get better every day. And we feel like our work is still a long ways from over.”

Zobrist earned a World Series ring last year with the Kansas City Royals and had been a key piece of the Rays team that shocked the baseball world by winning the 2008 American League pennant. The Cubs wanted that focus and experience to help them get back to October.

“The contributions are coming from everywhere, so everybody wants a piece of the pie,” Zobrist said. “In a way, you feel like if you haven’t done anything recently, you haven’t done anything, because there’s so much good play happening around the clubhouse here.

“You look at the starters, to the relievers, to the starting position players, to the bench players, there’s been contributions everywhere. So everybody’s kind of hungry to contribute and do what they can and prove that they (belong) on that postseason roster.

“That’s a good thing. That’s a good problem to have.” 

The Cubs have lined up their rotation for St. Louis with two Cy Young Award candidates going on Monday night (Kyle Hendricks) and Wednesday afternoon (Jon Lester), with Jason Hammel in between trying to show he’s a viable option for the playoffs. A Cardinals team that’s a half-game out of a wild-card spot will try to keep pace with Mike Leake (9-9, 4.61 ERA), Jaime Garcia (10-12, 4.58 ERA) and Carlos Martinez (14-7, 3.05 ERA).

Whether or not it happens near the Gateway Arch, it’s almost time for the Cubs to get their goggles ready.

“We haven’t slowed down since Day 1,” Hammel said, “so there’s really no reason to see why we would now.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Jon Lester struggles against the division-rival Cardinals

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Jon Lester struggles against the division-rival Cardinals

It was a tough day for the North Siders.

The Cubs got obliterated by the Cardinals as Matt Carpenter had a three-homer, two-double day. Ben Finfer, Seth Gruen and Maggie Hendricks join David Kaplan on the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast to talk about the blowout.

Was Jon Lester due for this kind of terrible outing? And do the Cubs have enough to swing a big trade before the deadline?

Plus, the panel discusses Matt Nagy’s first training camp practice in the rain and Roquan Smith’s absence in Bourbonnais.

You can listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Jon Lester saw a start like this coming

Jon Lester saw a start like this coming

Jon Lester had easily his worst outing of the year, allowing the Cardinals to score eight runs on seven hits, the veteran All-Star only managed three innings before Joe Maddon turned to his bullpen. 

The Cardinals would take game two of the series by the score of 18 to 5, and while none of the Cubs pitchers could silence the Cardinal bats, Lester didn't shy away from his poor outing. 

"You know, I don't want to chalk this up as bad days happen," said Lester. "I think mechanically this has kinda been coming." 

Lester knew he was struggling to hit his spots, and while his ERA was a sparkling 2.58 coming into this start, his peripheral stats had him pegged as a potential regression candidate in the second half of the season.

His 4.35 FIP and 3.30 walks per nine innings show a pitcher who is relying heavily on his defense to get outs, which isn't surprising for a 33-year-old veteran but the walks are a concern. 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon was aware Lester had been working on his mechanics, but even he was surprised that Lester's start went downhill so quickly. 

"I thought he had good stuff to start the game, hitting [92-93 mph] and I'm thinking this might be a good day," said Maddon. "But you could just see from the beginning he was off just a little bit." 

Over Lester's last four starts his ERA has been an uncharacteristic 4.57, issuing 10 walks over those four starts, and only making it past the 6th inning once. At this point of Lester's career, he knows the best way for him to get outs isn't through strikeouts but by inducing soft contact and avoiding walks. 

And while both his hard contact rate and walks have increased this season, Lester's experience and high baseball I.Q. has allowed him to navigate his way through sticky situations. 

"I've been getting outs," Lester said candidly. "I just feel like when I've had that strikeout or I have a guy set up for that pitch I haven't been able to execute it." 

And while this outing was one to forget, it's at least a positive sign that Lester is aware of his issues on the mound. The veteran knows how to get outs and he knows what he needs to do to be successful in the latter part of his career. He just needs to get back to executing those pitches. 

Just don't expect Lester to dive head first into the analytics on how to fix his issues, he'll stick to hard work and baseball common sense. 

"I'm not too concerned with the analytic B.S., I'm worried about my mechanical fix for my next start."