Cubs/Bears: Joe Maddon becoming Chicago’s baseball version of Mike Ditka

Cubs/Bears: Joe Maddon becoming Chicago’s baseball version of Mike Ditka

Joe Maddon met Da Coach for dinner on Sunday night at Ditka’s Gold Coast restaurant. But the Cubs manager didn’t waste his time asking Iron Mike to compare his team to the ‘85 Bears, the way Chicago fans and media personalities will this summer, trying to fill time before what now looks like an inevitable playoff appearance. 

But with roots in blue-collar Pennsylvania, all those must-see press conferences and his own restaurant/endorsement portfolio, Maddon is already this city’s hardball version of Ditka, someone with a look distinctive enough to inspire Halloween costumes.

“It’s always fun,” Maddon said. “We talked a little bit about the Super Bowl. We talked about defense – the 46 defense – and how it worked and things like that.

“He watches our games. He knew everything that was going on. He asked how (Kyle) Schwarber was doing, things like that. (Coach Ditka’s) very much aware, very much alive. I thought he looked great.”

It’s too early to seriously talk about the World Series. So much can happen between now and October. But the 24-6 Cubs are, according to STATS, off to: the best start in franchise history since 1907; the best start for a National League team since the 1977 Los Angeles Dodgers; and the first 24-for-30 start since the 1984 Detroit Tigers.

Only the steady rain on Monday night slowed down a team with a plus-102 run differential, setting up Wednesday’s day-night doubleheader against the San Diego Padres at Wrigley Field. Baseball Prospectus (99.0 percent) began the day a little more pessimistic than FanGraphs (99.3 percent) in its playoff odds report.

Whether or not this group spawns “Saturday Night Live” sketches and comes anywhere close to the crossover appeal of Walter Payton, Jim McMahon and William “Refrigerator” Perry, the Cubs are in position to own this city for years to come.

“I wouldn’t want to be on any other team right now,” said Ben Zobrist, the NL’s co-player of the week (four homers, 15 RBI, .455 on-base percentage) along with New York Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon. “This is where everybody wants to be. 

“There’s probably a lot of players across the league that wish they were here, too, with what’s going on. Chicago is the place to be right now in baseball, on both sides. We’re having a blast on the North Side.”

That’s a reflection of Maddon, who absolutely loves the big-market spotlight after spending almost all of his 31 years in the California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels organization doing grunt work, and then managing the Tampa Bay Rays for nine seasons, always trying to do more with less.

“That’s my second meeting with Coach Ditka,” Maddon said. “It’s very comfortable and easy. He’s from Western Pennsylvania. We had the same kind of background growing up. We like the same kind of foods. He likes red wine. 

“He’s just entertaining to speak with. He’s watching everything that we’re doing. He loves what we’re doing. Just good conversation between football and baseball and what he had done in the past and what’s going on here now. 

“He’s just as he appears. He’s just a tough old football guy, man. And I know a lot of guys like him, so the conversation’s very easy.”

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.