Giants knock out Jon Lester in heavyweight matchup vs. Cubs

Giants knock out Jon Lester in heavyweight matchup vs. Cubs

SAN FRANCISCO – Joe Maddon’s zany stunts, Jake Arrieta’s individual brilliance and all these star hitters generate most of the headlines about the team with the best record in baseball.

But the game still revolves around pitching, even if it sometimes feels like the Cubs rotation only gets noticed when it doesn’t do its job, or in the context of which big-name starter Theo Epstein’s front office should add by the trade deadline. 

Case in point: Saturday’s 5-3 loss at AT&T Park, where the San Francisco Giants knocked out Jon Lester in the third inning of what’s been billed as a potential playoff preview.

You can find all sorts of distracting stats and invented streaks, but this one actually mattered: Until this clunker, the Cubs had 48 straight regular-season games where their starter had gone at least five innings, the franchise’s longest stretch since 1910.

“Everybody’s talking about run differential and all this other stuff – fine,” Maddon said. “A lot of that’s based on the fact that our pitchers are so good.”

The Giants can compete with anyone. Just look at the 2010, 2012 and 2014 World Series flags flying above the center-field video board at their beautiful waterfront stadium that draws the younger, engaged, energetic crowds Major League Baseball is desperate to connect with now.      

This is a great city and a relaxed West Coast media market that doesn’t smother players. The Giants have a potential Hall of Fame manager (Bruce Bochy), an MVP catcher (Buster Posey) and an overall baseball-operations/business-side efficiency/harmony that’s become the industry’s gold standard.

All that synergy and postcard-perfect scenery – and more guaranteed money – still couldn’t convince Lester to change his mind before agreeing to the six-year, $155 million megadeal that shook the 2014 winter meetings.

The 431st straight regular-season sellout crowd here watched Giants pitcher Matt Cain snap an 0-for-46 streak in the second inning, blasting a two-out, two-run double off Lester and over the head of center fielder Dexter Fowler. Posey later drilled a two-run homer into the left-field seats off Lester in the third inning.

“I can’t walk the pitcher,” Lester said. “I got to take my chances with a heater and pulled it middle and he put a good swing on it. I can live with the Poseys of the world hitting homers. But to put myself in a 3-2 count with a pitcher and allowing him to do damage – that’s obviously not good.

“(There’s) a lot of things in the game that I wish I could go back (to) and rethink through or throw another pitch. But it is what it is.”

It doesn’t change the outlook for a 29-12 team that’s lost four of its last six games, and six of its last 10. Or a pitching staff that began the day with three top-seven pitchers among the National League ERA leaders: Arrieta (1.29); Lester (1.88); and Jason Hammel (2.31).

“Our rotation’s been pretty solid,” said Lester, who’s now 4-3 with a 2.60 ERA after giving up five runs in 2.2 innings against the first-place Giants. “We’ve been doing what we’re supposed to do – keep our team in the ballgame and put up innings – with the exception of today.

“We all knew coming in that our rotation was going to be pretty strong. And we have to be strong if we want to go where we want to go.”

Or as All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said: “If anyone thought that we were going to win 140 games, I want to know what they’re taking.”

Up next is ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” and Madison Bumgarner, the 2014 World Series MVP who thought Fowler and Jason Heyward had been tipping pitches during a Cactus League game and almost sparked a bench-clearing incident two months ago in Arizona.

If it could get that heated in spring training, imagine October with Arrieta vs. Bumgarner and Lester vs. Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija wearing black and orange making a playoff start at Wrigley Field.

“We’ll see,” Lester said. “We got a long season. There’s a lot of what-ifs and all this stuff that can happen along the way. We got to stay healthy and worry about the Cubs. If we’re able to get to that position, we’ll worry about the opponent when we get there. But they definitely have a good team. They’re a scrappy team. They put up good, quality at-bats. They make you work.”

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

USA Today

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Joe Maddon needed Mike Montgomery to get through at least six innings given the circumstances presenting the Cubs' manager before Game 2 of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Not only were the Cubs short a man in the bullpen (thanks to Brandon Morrow’s pants-related back injury), but Maddon had to use four relievers — including Pedro Strop for two innings — after Tyler Chatwood managed only five innings in Game 1 earlier in the afternoon. 

So when Montgomery — who had only thrown over 100 pitches once in the last two and a half seasons before Tuesday — saw his pitch count sit at 40 after two innings, and then 63 after three, he knew he needed to regroup to avoid creating a mess for the Cubs’ bullpen. 

What followed was a start that, statistically, wasn’t the most impressive of the five Montgomery’s made since re-joining the Cubs’ rotation earlier this year. But it was an important start in that the 28-year-old left-hander didn’t have his best stuff, yet didn’t give in to a good Dodgers lineup. And holding that bunch to one run over six innings was exactly what the Cubs needed in what turned out to be a 2-1 extra-inning win. 

“Especially when you don’t have have your best stuff, you always gotta — that’s when you really learn how to pitch,” Montgomery said. 

It’s also the kind of start that could be a major point in Montgomery’s favor when Maddon is presented with a decision to make on his starting rotation whenever Yu Darvish comes off the disabled list. Knowing that Montgomery can grind his way through six innings when his team needs it the most without his best stuff only can add to the confidence the Cubs have in him. 

Montgomery didn’t have his best stuff on Tuesday, issuing more walks (four) than he had in his previous four starts (three). He threw 48 pitches between the second and third innings, and only 25 of those pitches were strikes. Of the nine times the Dodgers reached base against Montgomery, six were the result of fastballs either leading to a walk or a hit. 

Even though the Dodgers were able to bother Montgomery a bit on his fastball, Maddon said that’s the pitch of his that’s impressed him the most over the last few weeks. 

“He never got rushed,” Maddon said. “In the past he would seem to get rushed when things weren’t going well, when he spot-started. Overall, fastball command is better — even though he was off a little bit tonight, the fastball command still exceeds what I’ve seen in the past couple of years on a more consistent basis. The changeup, really, good pitch. He got out of some jams but I think the fact that he knows where his fastball is going now is the difference-maker for him.”

Darvish will throw a simulated game on Wednesday after throwing two bullpen sessions last week. Maddon still doesn’t have a timetable for the $126 million right-hander’s return, and said he’s not entertaining what to do with his rotation until Darvish comes off the disabled list. But Maddon did mention Montgomery’s relative lack of an innings load — the most he’s thrown in a season in 130 2/3, which he did in 2017 — as a reason to perhaps not rush him into a permanent starting role the rest of the season. Going to a six-man rotation is a possibility, too, Maddon said. 

But the over-arching point is this: Montgomery will remain in the Cubs’ rotation as long as he keeps earning it. That can be the product of strong outings in which he has good stuff, or games like Tuesday in which he shows the Cubs the kind of resiliency most starters need to get through a full season. 

“I pitch well, good things happen,” Montgomery said. “I’ve always thought that. Opportunities, you just gotta make the most of them.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

For the second time in 1998, Sosa went back-to-back games with multiple home runs. After going yard twice on June 19 of that season, Slammin' Sammy again sent two balls into the bleachers on June 20.

He singlehandedly beat the Phillies that night, driving in 5 runs in a 9-4 Cubs victory.

But that wasn't the most impressive feat of the day from Sosa. His second homer was actually measured at a whopping 500 feet! It was the longest of the season, but not the longest of his career. On June 24, 2003, Sosa hit a homer at Wrigley measured at 511 feet.

The back-to-back big games raised Sosa's season OPS to 1.083 with a ridiculous .685 slugging percentage. He began June 1998 with a .608 slugging percentage.

Fun fact: Kerry Wood struck out 11 batters in 7.1 innings on June 20, 1998 to pick up his 7th big-league victory. As Wood marched to the National League Rookie of the Year that season, he finished with a 13-6 record and 233 strikeouts in only 166.2 innings for a career-high 12.6 K/9 rate.