John Lackey returns as Cubs move forward with six-man rotation

John Lackey returns as Cubs move forward with six-man rotation

John Lackey hadn't pitched in a game in almost a month, but naturally came out firing with a no-hitter through four innings Sunday.

Of course. Would you expect anything less with this Cubs team?

In a way, it was almost a worst-case scenario for Joe Maddon and the Cubs as Lackey kept the Giants hitless through the first 13 outs.

Before the Cubs' wild 3-2 walk-off win in 13 innings Sunday, Maddon said he wanted to limit Lackey to around 80 pitches, which could've meant putting a run at history on the backburner.

That situation never played out, however, as Eduardo Nunez lined a double to right-center with one out in the fifth inning and Lackey was removed after five with 76 pitches under his belt.

The veteran right-hander showed no ill effects from the shoulder injury that has sidelined him since Aug. 14, dialing it up to the low 90s with his fastball and showing his typical command.

"I felt pretty good," Lackey said. "I was locating the ball pretty well today. We had a good mix goin' on.

"You're not gonna feel nothing. It's just not possible. This time of year and this point in my career. There's things you gotta grind through; there's things you gotta adjust to. I feel like I can do that pretty well."

Lackey allowed two runs (one earned) while striking out four.

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Prior to Sunday's game, Maddon confirmed the Cubs will move forward with a six-man rotation, with Mike Montgomery getting the start Wednesday in Milwaukee.

With a big lead in the NL Central and a playoff spot all but assured, the Cubs are aiming to keep every pitcher at the top of their game for a potential World Series run.

"Just trying to keep guys fresh for the rest of the year," Maddon said. "It's no more complicated than that. ... "I think every factor that can be considered right now, just makes all the sense in the world."

Maddon pointed to the rest of baseball, where young pitchers are being shut down for the season and even veterans are worn down by the grind of a six-month slate of games. 

Maddon acknowledged veteran starters like Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester may not like the addition of a sixth man to the rotation as creatures of habit, but everything is about winning that final game of the season.

He also referenced the way Arrieta ran into a wall in the postseason after pitching by far the most innings of his career.

"At the end of the day, these guys have been trained to think a certain way," Maddon said. "And I get that. I totally get it. But I also believe the training that really surpasses the conventional part is to get to a World Series.

"Last year, we saw it right before our very eyes with Jake and the jump that he had encountered and what it meant at the end of the season.

"Right now, our starters are pitching probably as well as they have all year. So I like to think that if we continue along this path, we can keep that kind of freshness about them."

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. 

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Much has been made about Wednesday night's brawl between the Marlins and Braves, which started when Braves young star Ronald Acuna was nailed in the elbow with a 99 mph fastball from Jose Urena. The strangest part of the whole situation was that it seemed like Urena was unprovoked by Acuna or any of the Braves players prior to plunking the former No. 1 prospect in all of baseball.  

The ever wise Cubs skipper Joe Maddon was asked about the incident prior to Thursday's game, making it clear he felt plays like these needed to leave the game entirely. 

It was announced Thursday afternoon that Urena would be suspended just 6 games for intentionally throwing Acuna, which means the Marlins starter will likely only miss one game for trying to hurt Acuna. The good news is that Acuna did not sustain any serious injuries, but Joe Maddon is right there is no reason for people to be hurling nearly triple-digit fastballs at players. Whether provoked or not, intentionally throwing at players is something that needs to be phased out of the game, and its safe to assume Maddon would agree.