Cubs

How Cubs see Jon Lester and Willson Contreras working together

How Cubs see Jon Lester and Willson Contreras working together

MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester’s so far beyond the first step of admitting there’s a problem, posting a self-deprecating message on his Twitter account to celebrate Major League Baseball’s labor peace: “While my efforts to eliminate pitchers from having to throw to 1B didn’t pass, I’m proud of the PA & Owners for coming together on a new CBA!”

Adding a third World Series ring to his collection won’t stop the questions for Lester, who sat through a press conference on Friday morning that lasted almost 19 minutes, talking about the yips and answering why he thinks throwing to young catcher Willson Contreras instead of Grandpa Rossy won’t be an issue.    

“I’m not the one that keeps bringing it up, other than that joke,” Lester said. “I’ve been open with it since Day 1. It’s nothing to hide from. It’s there.”  

David Ross is now walking around the Sloan Park complex as a special assistant in baseball operations, and part of his Mesa portfolio will be helping show Contreras the right buttons to push with Lester, what they learned as teammates on that 2013 Boston Red Sox championship team.  

“Rossy and I just didn’t jump in and all of a sudden click,” Lester said. “It took a few starts for us to kind of hammer some things out – and him get used to what I like to do and vice versa. That’s all it really comes down to – just pitching, time on the mound, time behind the plate.

“Willson’s a smart kid and he cares and he wants to get better. He’s eager to please, so I think he has all the attributes to be a really good catcher in this league for a long time. I don’t think there’s going to be much of a learning curve.”

Beyond Lester’s Cy Young Award-level stuff, the Cubs used several mechanisms to help cover up the issue, from varying his times to the plate to disguising pitchouts to coordinating pick-off plays with Gold Glove first baseman Anthony Rizzo to putting together the best defensive unit in the majors.     

“Willy’s probably got a little bit more arm than David actually has physically,” manager Joe Maddon said. “David was really good about feet and release – (and) I think Willson can also be that good.

“Realizing that Willson’s behind the plate, the thought process (for the other team) will be very similar to David behind the plate, regarding the ability to throw to first or throw to second. So I don’t perceive an edge for the other side based on that flip-flop.

“The biggest thing for me there is just purely the person, David’s knowledge, his experience, whatever, working with Jon. That’s going to be the part, to me, that we have to be aware of.

“When it comes down to controlling the running game and all that stuff, I feel pretty good about it.”

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At this time last year, Contreras had never before played above the Double-A level, part of an accelerated development that turned him into a key rookie contributor for a 103-win team and the obvious catcher of the future. With Lester signed to a $155 million contract through at least the 2020 season, the Cubs clearly want this to work with Contreras.

“Me and Rossy didn’t reinvent the wheel with anything special,” Lester said. “It’s a matter of having a game plan. And when the game plan isn’t going well or you’re not able to execute that – the ability to go to a Plan B is where I feel like Rossy and I kind of clicked.

“I saw Willy do that last year a lot with everybody else, so I don’t think it’s going to be any problems. He’s very talented and very willing to learn.

“He’s ready to go. I don’t think there’s going to be any issues at all.”

[MORE: Cubs reboot the Kyle Schwarber catching experiment]

Except for that inexplicable mental block for one of the greatest big-game pitchers of his generation.

“It is what it is,” Lester said at least three times. “I’ll keep worrying about throwing it 60 feet, six inches.”

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

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USA TODAY

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

WASHINGTON, D.C. — How could someone like Kyle Schwarber play the villain?

The fan favorite who’s always quick with a smile — or an Uncle Sam costume on the Fourth of July — Schwarber doesn’t fit the mold of a loathsome target of boos. But he made quite the heel turn in the minds of Washington Nationals fans Monday night, and of course he knew it was coming.

Schwarber went from getting cheered by the legions in attendance at the Home Run Derby to getting booed when he took on, and eventually lost to, hometown hero Bryce Harper in the final round.

“I was down in the tunnel saying, ‘If we get to the finals, Harp, they’re all going to be against me. I think they’re all going to be against me,’” Schwarber said Monday night. “And then I went out there and got booed after they all got pumped up for me. That’s just the beauty of it, and I was happy for Bryce that he won it in front of the home crowd.”

Harper delivered an incredibly memorable baseball moment Monday night, catching up to Schwarber’s 18 home runs with a ridiculous display of repetitive power to win a Home Run Derby for the ages. The format of this event, revamped a couple years ago, made for a dramatic and hugely entertaining evening. Harper smacked nine homers over the final 47 seconds of the final round to tie Schwarber, then bested him in bonus time. Unsurprisingly, the home crowd was going ballistic for their boy.

But earlier in the night, it was Schwarber getting all the cheers, when he made his own last-second comeback to beat Philadelphia Phillies slugger Rhys Hoskins in the second round. Schwarber was pumping up the crowd, pumping his fists and screaming while putting on a show of his own to catch and pass Hoskins' 20 home runs and advance to the finals.

How quickly the locals forgot.

By the finals — during which Schwarber looked understandably exhausted — the crowd had turned on him, trying to get every advantage for Harper.

“As soon as I got done with that round, I told myself that he had it,” Schwarber said. “I knew that he had the home crowd behind him, and I knew that he was a very prolific power hitter with a great swing. For him to come in and do that and started getting down to the wire, all of a sudden he started racking them up one at a time. You kind of just accept your fate there.”

Perhaps the night could’ve ended differently for Schwarber had he listened more closely to the advice of his teammates, Javy Baez and Willson Contreras, who were quick with Gatorade, a towel and words of encouragement on Monday. Baez hit 16 home runs in his own first-round appearance, though Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Max Muncy knocked him out.

“I was just telling him to slow down,” Baez said. “He was kind of rushing a little bit, that’s why he was jumping to the ball.”

“They were actually giving me really good advice that I didn’t take because I was really dumb-headed,” Schwarber said. “‘Make sure you take some pitches and get the pitch that you want.’ At the end, I felt like I was swinging at everything. I was just running out of gas. I felt like I had to put up as many swings just to try to put a couple out.”

Schwarber was totally content with losing out to Harper’s home-field advantage. Though as his homers flew out deep into the right-field seats Monday night, you couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if Schwarber was instead taking aim at Sheffield Avenue and getting his own home-field advantage from Cubs fans.

The North Side hasn’t played host to the All-Star Game since 1990, so perhaps Schwarber will still be slugging the next time the Friendly Confines are the site of the Home Run Derby.

“That’d be really cool one day if the All-Star Game’s at Wrigley,” Schwarber said, “and to participate in the Derby, that’d be fun.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 36th homer in 1998

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AP

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 36th homer 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.

 

Sosa went down and golfed a pitch out for his 36th homer on July 17, 1998. He smacked Marlins reliever Kirt Ojala's (who??) pitch just over the wall in center field at Pro Player Stadium for a 2-run shot that closed out the Cubs' scoring in a 6-1 victory.

 

The blast accounted for Sosa's 88th and 89th of the season. By comparison, Javy Baez currently leads the Cubs (and the National League) with 72 RBI on July 17, 2018.

 

Steve Trachsel tossed a complete game for the Cubs in the victory that day and Sosa finished with the only extra-base hits for either team (he also had a double).

 

Fun fact: Former Cub Ryan Dempster started the game for the Marlins, but lasted just 4.1 innings to run his season record to 1-4 with a 6.70 ERA.