Cubs

John Lackey will push Cubs to be ‘100 percent’ focused on World Series

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John Lackey will push Cubs to be ‘100 percent’ focused on World Series

John Lackey has seen it all before.

A century-plus between championships won't intimidate a guy who won a World Series Game 7 as an Anaheim Angels rookie. The Chicago market shouldn’t bother someone who restored his reputation and helped the Boston Red Sox win a title only two years after the fried-chicken-and-beer expose.

Lackey has a lot of connections after 14 years in the big leagues and wanted to join the same rotation as good friend Jon Lester. But beyond just the people, a sense of history helped lure him here, taking a two-year, $32 million deal when he could have scored a bigger contract somewhere else.  

"The chance to win a world championship in this city [was why I chose the Cubs]," Lackey said. "At this point in my career, I'm trying to win. Winning is the biggest thing for me.

"These are my last couple years in the big leagues. To go out [with a championship] would be pretty dang cool."

[RELATED - Jon Lester ready for Year 2 after taking leap of faith with Cubs]

There will be great expectations next week when Cubs pitchers and catchers formally report to Arizona. The last game Lackey pitched was in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform - when he served up a three-run shot to Javier Baez as the Cubs clinched the National League Division Series at Wrigley Field.

To say Lackey was thinking about his free-agency tour at that point in October would be too much of a stretch. But he did admit Lester - his best friend in the game - has been in his ear for some time.

Lester accelerated the rebuilding process for the Cubs when he signed a $155 million megadeal last offseason and helped change the culture in the clubhouse.

Now, Lester has reinforcements in the form of a 37-year-old pitcher with almost 2,500 big-league innings under his belt.

"When [Lackey] walks into a room, he commands the room," Lester said. "Not only because of his size and stature and all that stuff, but because of what he's done in this game. He's a two-time World Series champ. He's made an All-Star team (and had) some Cy Young runs.

"That immediately commands guys' attention. The big thing about Lack is you'll definitely know how he feels when he feels it. You need guys like that on your team.

"You need guys that keep their mouths shut and go about their business. And you need guys that aren't afraid to say what needs to be said at that time. And he's definitely that guy.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Lackey helped fill a major offseason need for the Cubs, providing another reliable, battle-tested arm for manager Joe Maddon when October rolls around.

Maddon was the bench coach on the Angels team that won it all in 2002. Lackey acknowledged familiarity with Maddon, Lester and backup catcher David Ross helped entice him to take less money to sign with the Cubs.

But at the end of the day, it all comes back to the opportunity to end the longest championship drought in sports history.

"There's no bigger factor than a chance to win and do something special in this city," Lackey said. "You're seeing guys take less money to come here...and be a part of something special."

While Jason Heyward, the team's biggest offseason signing, said he hasn't really dreamed about what it would be like to win it all in Chicago, Lackey has no reservations about thinking World Series.

"One-hundred percent," he said. "That's the only reason I came."

On a mistake-filled afternoon, Javier Baez does what he does best and saves the Cubs

On a mistake-filled afternoon, Javier Baez does what he does best and saves the Cubs

Consider the Cubs’ starting middle infield in Saturday’s 6-5 win over the San Diego Padres to be comprised of two extremes. 

On one end of the spectrum was Addison Russell, who started at second base. Russell was doubled off second base on an Albert Almora line drive in the second inning — a ball hit hard enough where, had it fell in for a hit, he wouldn’t have scored. There was no spinning Russell drifting far enough off second base to be doubled up; it was simply bad baserunning. 

Russell, too, was thrown out at home on an Almora ground ball in the fourth inning. He appeared to lose a pop fly in the sun, too, which fell in for a double in the third inning. 

Manager Joe Maddon was willing to excuse the pop-up double — “The sun ball, there’s nothing you could do about that,” he said — but sounded frustrated with Russell’s far-too-frequent baserunning gaffes. 

“He’s gotta straighten some things out,” Maddon said. “He has to. There’s no question. I’m not going to stand here — he’s got to, we’ve talked about his baserunning in the past. 

“… The baserunning, there’s some things there — we’re making too many outs on the bases and we’re missing things on the bases that we can’t to be an elite team.”

Russell’s mistakes were part of a larger sloppy showing by both teams. As Cubs reliever Brandon Kintzler put it: “No lead was safe. It was really just who was going to survive and not make so many mistakes.”

Javier Baez ensured the Cubs would survive by not merely avoiding mistakes, but by coming up with two massive plays. 

Baez’s three-run home run in the fourth inning gave the Cubs’ the lead for good, and he fell a triple short of the cycle. He’s homered in consecutive games, and Maddon senses the 26-year-old is emerging from a slump that dropped his OPS to .853 after Wednesday’s game, his lowest mark since the small-sample-size landscape of mid-April. 

But it was Baez’s masterful tag in the bottom of the ninth inning that captured most of the attention around Wrigley Field, reminding everyone in the dugouts and stands just how incredible “El Mago” can be. 

Craig Kimbrel walked Wil Myers to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning, and after budding superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. inexplicably bunted (he popped out), Myers took off to steal second base. Kimbrel sailed a fastball high and inside, and Victor Caratini’s throw was well to the left of second base. Myers appeared to have the base stolen until Baez gloved the ball and rapidly snapped a tag onto Myers’ left leg:

”We needed a play made, and he made it,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s what he does.”

Baez’s home run increased the Cubs’ win expectancy by 35.7 percent; his tag on Myers upped it that mark from 83.3 percent to 96.5 percent. This is why the Cubs’ mantra, even when Baez is in a lull, is to let Javy be Javy. 

One player can’t carry a team forever — Baez had his best season as a pro in 2018, only to see the Cubs crash out of the Wild Card game, of course. But it’s hard to not think about the kind of plays Baez can conjure up when the Cubs need them the most in 2019’s playoff race. 

After all, stuff like that tag on Myers — the Cubs have come to expect that from Baez. 

“You saw a lot of plays today, they weren’t baseball plays,” Maddon said. “The game is clamoring for baseball players who know how to play this game, and he’s one. He is one. He’s got the biggest hard drive, the most RAM, he’s got everything going on every day. 

“He sees things, he’s got great vision. Technically, he’s a tremendous baseball player. He’s going to make some mistakes, like everyone else does, but what he sees and sees in advance — it’s like the best running back, it’s the best point guard you’ve ever seen. It’s all of that. As a shortstop, that’s what he is.

“… We needed him to be that guy today and he was. And again, it’s not overtly surprising.” 

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Dare we ask... are the Cubs back?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Dare we ask... are the Cubs back?

Rick Telander, Ben Finfer and Seth Gruen join Kap on the panel.

0:00 - The Cubs beat the Padres from their 6th win in their 7 games since the All-Star Break. Are they really this good or are they just feasting on sub-.500 teams?

7:00 - The White Sox have lost seven straight after the break. Should fans be furious with the slump or still optimistic about the future?

13:00 - The Bears report to Bourbonnais in 6 days. Will the 2019 season be a failure if they do not make it to the Super Bowl?

19:00 - Kap gives out his play of the night in the FanDuel Friday Faves.

Listen to the entire episode here or in the embedded player below.

Sports Talk Live Podcast

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