Cubs will see what they’re made of against Nationals


Cubs will see what they’re made of against Nationals

PHOENIX – Men vs. Boys.

That’s how Dale Sveum summed up the four-game beatdown the Cubs got from the Washington Nationals in D.C. in September 2012, when there appeared to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

The Plan won’t be something so far off in the distance when the Cubs return to Wrigley Field on Memorial Day as a wild-card leader, even after Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

The Cubs didn’t clean up during this 3-3 road trip through San Diego and Phoenix. It again exposed the defense (eight errors). It led to questions about closer Hector Rondon and a shaky bullpen. It saw the end of an 0-for-31 streak while hitting with runners in scoring position. All these issues won’t disappear overnight.

[MORE: The friendly rivalry between Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper]

But the buzz is still building. The national TV networks want a piece of the Cubs again. Sports Illustrated already did a feature on Kris Bryant. Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Jeff Garlin have been hanging around the team.

Now the Cubs can see how good they really are during this six-game homestand. The Nationals – a World Series team on paper – are coming to the North Side. The Kansas City Royals – the defending American League champs – will be the second act.

“Bring it on,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’m sure the place will be raucous.”

[MORE: Maddon thinks Kyle Schwarber could help Cubs this year]

Sveum, the ex-manager, will be there with the Royals as their hitting coach, and he must be wondering about the type of job he could have done in Wrigleyville with $155 million lefty Jon Lester fronting the rotation and All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo maturing into an MVP candidate.

Even Maddon admits a lot of the heavy lifting had been done before he left the Tampa Bay Rays, signed a five-year, $25 million contract and offered to buy everyone at The Cubby Bear a shot and a beer. The Cubs are 24-19 on Memorial Day weekend and you probably would have taken that back in spring training.

“We’ve been aware that we have a tough schedule coming up,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “But I think we approach games with equal importance, regardless of who the opponent is, because we know that at the end of the day, every one counts. We’ve seen several times how seasons can come down to that final four or five days determining who gets in and who’s going home.

“But it’s kind of a measuring stick with a team like Washington. Kansas City has continued to grow and get better as a team. It’s going to be an exciting couple series at home for us. We know what we have to do to win, and we’ll be ready.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

A young lineup that leads the majors in strikeouts will have to face Washington’s nasty rotation – Tanner Roark, Jordan Zimmermann, Max Scherzer – before dealing with Kansas City’s nightmare bullpen.

“This will be a good test for us,” Bryant said. “It should be fun. It’s always good to see how you fare against the top guys in the league. I’m excited for the challenge and look forward to it.”

The Nationals notched 96 victories last season and then signed Scherzer, a Cy Young Award winner, to a seven-year, $210 million megadeal. Washington general manager Mike Rizzo, a Chicago guy, reshaped the franchise through the top of the draft, gutsy trades and targeted free-agent signings.

The Cubs are running a few years behind the Nationals in their rebuild, but that’s essentially how the Theo Epstein administration is trying to construct a sustainable 90-game winner at Clark and Addison.

“I always like playing good teams,” Maddon said. “I always believe that’s going to bring out the best in your team. That’s the part I’ve always enjoyed about playing good teams. And I also think with young teams that are getting better, they need to see that kind of competition to really get to that level you’re looking for them to get to.”

This week we’ll see just how close – or far away – the Cubs are from being real contenders.

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.