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.”

Kris Bryant's injury looms large as Cubs finish home stand in underwhelming fashion

Kris Bryant's injury looms large as Cubs finish home stand in underwhelming fashion

There are 162 baseball games in a season and some days, you’re just not going to have it. On Sunday afternoon, in a 10-2 loss to the Reds, the Cubs just didn’t have it. 

“It’s already in the trash can...” Maddon said. “... so let’s flush it out and move on.” 

Things were bleak from the very first at-bat of the game, when Kyle Schwarber took a 3-2 fastball looking for one of his three strikeouts on the day. Anthony Rizzo was the only starter not to strike out at least once, as the Cubs’ finished with 11. Reds starter Tanner Roark was responsible for 9 of them, his season-high. 

Things weren’t much better on the basepaths or in the field. Besides making two errors, Anthony Rizzo was thrown out at the plate in the 2nd inning and David Bote got doubled-up at first after drawing a walk in the 6th. The Cubs were playing playing their 13th game in 13 days, and it showed.

“I feel really good about how we’ve been playing until today,” Maddon said. “This whole month we’ve been in almost every game except for this one, and maybe the [7-0 loss on May 10th] against Milwaukee. There’s not a whole lot to be upset about, and I’m not. I just want to make sure everyone’s well moving forward.” 

There was a scary moment in the 6th inning, as Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward collided in the right field gap while trying to make a play on a fly ball from Eugenio Suarez. Bryant was slow to get up and eventually had to leave the game. He’s still being evaluated for a head/neck injury, and the Cubs don’t yet know if he’ll go into concussion protocol. For what it's worth, Bryant was cleared to fly with the team. 

“He’s doing okay,” he said. “He’s still under evaluation. We don’t know exactly what we’re doing with this whole thing yet, but we’re trying to talk with the doctors and find out exactly where we’re at.”

“We collided, and I called for the ball,” Heyward added. “We were both going hard to make a play and ran into each other.”

The loss dropped starter Jose Quintana to 4-4 on the season. Quintana went 5.1 innings while allowing six runs on 12 hits with one walk and two strikeouts. Despite relatively weak contact, the Reds hit well all weekend. Their 42 hits over three games was the most for them in a three-game series at Wrigley since 1976, and they finished the weekend with a .404 BABIP. 

“Yeah, I just had to keep pitching, you know?” Quintana said. “Keeping my focus. It was really tough - too many base hits. In some contests that happens. I just try to stay close in the game.” 

The Cubs finished their 7-game homestand at 3-4, and now hit the road for a two-city trip. Up first comes the 35-19 Astros, who are 20-7 at home. This season Houston ranks first in on-base percentage, second in slugging percentage, and third in home runs. Their closer, Ryan Pressley, has the lowest ERA of all qualified relievers and is fresh off a streak of 40 straight scoreless appearances.

“I’m excited,” Joe Maddon said before Sunday’s game. “Let’s get by today, but I’m excited for the whole week. Look at our schedule - it’s been pretty firm, and it continues to be pretty firm. And that’s the way it should be. I’m looking forward to it.” 

Kris Bryant leaves Sunday's game after outfield collision with Jason Heyward

Scott Chagnon/NBC Sports Chicago

Kris Bryant leaves Sunday's game after outfield collision with Jason Heyward

Add injury to insult for the Cubs. 

In the top of the 6th inning, with the Cubs already down 6 runs, right fielder Kris Bryant left the game after colliding with Jason Heyward in the outfield.

You can check out the video right here. 

It's possible that the move was simply precautionary. The Cubs are on their 13th game in 13 days, and being down six runs in the latter half of a getaway game isn't the time to roll the dice. That said, Bryant missing time would be a significant blow, as the Cubs' star is in the midst of a stellar season. Through 49 games, Bryant's slashing .288/.411/.576 with a .987 and a 160 wRC+. As of Sunday afternoon, only Javy Baez has a higher WAR (2.5) than Bryant (2.4). 

There's been no further announcement on the extent of Bryant's injury.