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.”

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

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Scott Changnon

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

On the latest CubsTalk Podcast Scott Changnon and Tony Andracki discuss the state of the Cubs offense, the value of Javy Baez and Addison Russell and what it means now that the starting rotation looks to be finding its form.

With 17 games in 17 days (most of which come against contending teams), the Cubs started things off right with a series victory in St. Louis.

Listen to the entire podcast here:

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.