Cubs

Jon Lester can't stop the downward spiral as Pirates start to close in on Cubs

Jon Lester can't stop the downward spiral as Pirates start to close in on Cubs

PITTSBURGH — What’s wrong with Jon Lester? That suddenly becoming a question shows how much you have to reevaluate all those assumptions about the Cubs, from the Las Vegas odds to the magazine covers to the business side lobbying City Hall to make sure the Wrigley Field plaza would be up and running and selling alcohol in time for the postseason.

Playoffs? The Cubs will make it to the All-Star break as a first-place team, but one that looks like it needs to get away from everything rather than a group that’s primed for October.

The Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t going away, cutting their deficit to 6 1/2 games in the National League Central after Saturday’s 12-6 blowout at PNC Park. And the St. Louis Cardinals are still lurking, now only seven games out in the division, making this a three-team race again after last year’s 100-, 98-, 97-win finishes.

The night after Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta found beneath-the-surface positives in an 8-4 loss, Lester — coming off the shortest start in his 11-year career — lasted only three innings and gave up five runs against a surging Pirates team that had been 15 games out on June 19.

“Terrible,” Lester said. “I don’t know why if you pitch bad it’s got to be a physical reason. Just like hitters, you go through slumps, and you got to figure out ways to contribute. The last two starts were obviously null and void.

“Unacceptable.”

Lester — the NL pitcher of the month for June — has given up 13 runs and accounted for only 4 1/3 innings in two July starts combined. Arrieta has a 4.81 ERA since the beginning of June, showing signs of the mechanical issues and control problems that stalled his career with the Baltimore Orioles.

If the Cubs can’t rely on those two All Stars in the second half, then it doesn’t really matter who comes off the disabled list or what Theo Epstein’s front office does at the Aug. 1 trade deadline.

The rotation that fueled a 25-6 launch hasn’t powered through a quality start since June 30. The Cubs have become a 27-29 team across a two-month sample size, losing five games in a row, nine of their last 10 and 15 of their last 20.

“It seems like right now every time we make a mistake, it’s hit hard,” Lester said. “It seemed like early on, we couldn’t do anything wrong. I’ll be the first one to tell you — what we were doing (then) was pretty impressive. But just like with (the) pace we were on — 120 (wins) or whatever — we all knew that was not realistic.

“At the same time, we got to be better as a staff. We got to be better as a whole. And that starts with me tonight — I got to be better.”

Manager Joe Maddon said there are no physical issues with his pitchers, pointing out how his 2008 Tampa Bay Rays team lost seven games in a row before the All-Star break and made it to the World Series.

“We’ve hit a little bit of a snag,” Maddon said. “There’s no question. My bigger concern would be if people were actually injured, but they’re not. They’re not injured. They’re well.

“I really anticipate they’re going to be fine. They’re going to get back to where they had been. It happens. I’ve seen it happen before. It’s just a moment that we’re going through.”

But what if injuries begin to shred this pitching staff? This is a bad trade market to be looking for starters, and there are no elite pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system.

Sixth man Adam Warren — who looked sharp in a spot start while throwing 93 pitches against the Cincinnati Reds three days earlier — let this game get out of hand in the fifth inning when Josh Bell and Jordy Mercer blasted back-to-back homers that set off fireworks.

Bell’s pinch-hit grand slam cleared the right-field deck, earning him a curtain call from a sellout crowd of 37,796 after his second at-bat in The Show. Maddon compared Bell’s stance to Eddie Murray and the 23-year-old slugger’s potential impact to Kyle Schwarber. The Cubs don’t have a monopoly on young talent — and shouldn’t keep the champagne from Binny’s on ice in the middle of July.

“This game isn’t easy,” said Anthony Rizzo, who went 4-for-5 and would have hit for the cycle if his second double hadn’t bounced off the left-field wall in the eighth inning. “It’s impossible to boat-race a whole season like we were doing. It’s impossible. We just got to kind of clean up our pitching a little bit.

“We’ve had the formula most of the season for playing good baseball. We don’t have it right now. We’ll mix maybe a few cocktails together and figure it back out.”

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.