Cubs

Jon Lester, Cubs can’t overcome Padres in rubber match loss

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Jon Lester, Cubs can’t overcome Padres in rubber match loss

Cubs manager Joe Maddon predicted before Sunday’s game everyone was finally going to see how good Jon Lester can be.

That premonition didn’t fulfill itself, though, as Lester lasted just 5 1/3 innings and the Cubs fell to San Diego, 5-2, in front of 29,113 fans at Wrigley Field.

Lester allowed three runs on six hits with two walks and four strikeouts, throwing 97 pitches before being lifted for Brian Schlitter in the sixth. Through three starts — a small sample size, of course — Lester has a 6.89 ERA and has yet to throw more than six innings.

[MORE: Cubs won’t overload Kris Bryant with too much information]

The Cubs jumped out to an early 2-0 lead thanks to some spotty defense from San Diego in the first. Dexter Fowler led off the inning with a single and advanced to second when right fielder Matt Kemp couldn’t cleanly field the ball, and he came around to score on Jorge Soler’s single.

The inning continued when first baseman Yangervis Solarte dropped a throw, allowing Starlin Castro to reach and Chris Coghlan to drive in Soler.

Will Middlebrooks blasted a two-run equalizing home run in the second, an inning which featured Lester — who’s struggled this year throwing the ball to first base — fielding a sharp comebacker and lobbing his glove, with the ball in it, to Anthony Rizzo for an out.

"I mean obviously that isn’t something you draw up. I was more surprised that I caught the ball more than anything," Lester said. "And then we you go to grab it and it’s not there. I thought I missed it or knocked it down or something.

It was the mad scramble there to figure out what was going on and obviously it happens in a matter of seconds. I would have liked to get the double play, but we’ll settle for the out. I never had to do that before but an out’s an out and I’ll take it any way I can."

Lester began the sixth by walking Kemp and giving up a single to Derek Norris. He retired Middlebrooks and was pulled for Schlitter, who got Jedd Gyorko to fly out before Will Venable jammed an 0-2 fastball into center for the go-ahead single.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs’ offense floundered after its strong start against former North Sider Andrew Cashner, only reaching base once — a Kris Bryant double in the fifth — between the third and eighth innings.

Solarte ripped a two-run home run off right-hander Jason Motte in the seventh to give the Padres some breathing room. With two out in the ninth, Chris Denorfia chopped an infield single and Fowler bunted for a hit off Joaquin Benoit to put the tying run at the plate, but Soler struck out to end the game. 

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

Albert Almora Jr. joins Kelly Crull on the Cubs Talk Podcast to weigh in on a variety of topics, including his budding bromance with rumored Cubs target Manny Machado, his expanded role and how he spends his time off away from the ballpark.

Plus, Almora has a surprise pick for the organization’s unsung hero, stating the Cubs would’ve never won the World Series without this guy.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."