Cubs

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

MIAMI – Jon Lester dropped his head and wiped the sweat from his face. The Cubs ace didn’t jerk his neck and twist his body, hoping the swing and the sound somehow fooled him. The slow turnaround revealed the obvious – the 75-mph curveball out of his left hand flew over the left-field wall and nearly into the Clevelander bar billed as an adult playground. 

Lester gripped the next ball, stared out into the visual noise at Marlins Park and went to work late Saturday afternoon after J.T. Realmuto’s two-out, three-run homer in the first inning. This is the bulldog determination and tunnel vision that’s been the antidote to the big-market pressures at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field and made Lester such a big-game pitcher.

“You really just have to lock it down,” Lester said after doing just that in a 5-3 win. “You have to try to figure out a way to pitch innings. That was one thing I learned at an early age in Boston with ‘Schill’ (Curt Schilling) and Josh (Beckett). It doesn’t matter. Now we start over. You have to take that mindset of ‘It’s back to zero’ and not keep looking at the scoreboard.”

From that Realmuto moment, Lester retired the next 13 hitters he faced, 15 of the next 16 and 18 of his last 20 at a time when the Cubs needed that performance to buy time for their young hitters, weather a series of injuries and survive a brutal schedule.

Lester believed enough in the coming waves of talent to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season, and got rewarded with his third World Series ring, continually impressed with this group’s poise and maturity.

The day after getting shut out for the sixth time this season, Addison Russell, Ian Happ, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. – four 24-and-under players – combined to go 7-for-15 with five RBI and four runs scored.

“It’s a test for everybody,” Lester said. “These guys are kind of getting broken in early. They’re going to figure it out and we’re going to go. Now it seems like our guys are really feeling comfortable at the plate. We’re having good at-bats, normal at-bats.

“The results will come. This is, obviously, a results-driven industry. But the plans – as far as on the mound and in the batter’s box – just look a lot smoother right now, a lot cleaner and hopefully we can just keep playing good baseball.”

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The Cubs are 38-36, a half-game behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and in position to win three consecutive series for the first time since April. Whether or not Lester (5-4, 3.83 ERA) returns to Little Havana for the All-Star Game, he is the bellwether for this rotation.  

“Jonny’s just got this thing going on right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He knows where the ball is going and he gets the high-number velocity when he wants to. He’s not just pitching at 92, 93, 94 (mph). It’s in his back pocket when he needs it. And he gets it with command when he wants it.

“As well as I’ve seen him pitch – I know he had a great run last year also – from a stuff perspective, command perspective, it’s as good as he can pitch.”

This $155 million investment will at some point become a sunk cost. The Cubs understand the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers and how desperately they need reinforcements. But almost 100 innings into this title defense, Lester feels like he’s just getting started. 

“I feel better now than I did in April and May, for sure,” Lester said. “I think bigger bodies just take a while sometimes. Some years are different than others. Some years you come out like gangbusters and you’re ready to go and the body feels fine. And other years it takes a while to get into that rhythm of pitching every five days again. This was one of those years.”

Why Cubs GM Jed Hoyer thinks a playoff bubble could be in MLB's 'best interest'

Why Cubs GM Jed Hoyer thinks a playoff bubble could be in MLB's 'best interest'

Instituting an MLB “bubble” for the postseason would make sense to Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer.

“The first round this year, you would just travel once,” he said Monday. “But once you get into later rounds and sometimes, you're traveling multiple times a week. And I think what we've learned so far is that travel is a difficult part of this.”

Less than three weeks into the regular season, MLB has dealt with outbreaks on two different teams. The first positive COVID-19 tests in both the Marlins’ and Cardinals’ outbreaks were taken on the road. MLB has already committed to an expanded 16-team postseason. So, the question becomes, if Major League Baseball can make it to the postseason, how can it increase its chances of finishing the playoffs?

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Other leagues have had success with quarantined bubbles. Last week, the NHL announced zero positive COVID-19 tests since its teams reported to the league's two hub cities. 

Both the National Women's Soccer League and Major League Soccer had teams drop out of their tournaments before competition began, due to team outbreaks. But the NWSL completed a month-long tournament without a COVID-19 case in its Utah bubble, and MLS' participating teams have produced all negative tests since July 10. 

The WNBA has not had a positive COVID-19 test since the initial round of testing, as players arrived at the clean site. Last week, the NBA reported its third consecutive batch of weekly tests without a new positive.

"We're only as good as our weakest link," Hoyer said. "And this thing spreads."

Even just this weekend there were examples of players and teams violating health and safety protocols.

Cleveland pitcher Zach Plesac  left the team hotel to go out in Chicago during the team’s series against the White Sox.

The A’s and Astros had a benches-clearing brawl after Houston pitcher Humberto Castellanos hit Oakland’s Roman Laureano with a pitch. It was the third time that Laureano had been hit in the series and second time in that game.

From the Astros dugout, hitting coach Alex Cintrón began jawing back and forth with Laureano, until Laureano charged. The benches cleared.

“Frustrations are going to boil over,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “… As a coach, we have to contain our emotions, a little more than probably the players. Players do the best they can, but as coaches we have to stay professional in every aspect.”

Both incidents happened after Major League Baseball tightened health and safety protocols and postponed the Cubs’ weekend series at St. Louis in response to more positive COVID-19 tests from the Cardinals. The Cardinals have played an MLB-low five games due to their coronavirus outbreak. At least 16 St. Louis players and staff members have tested positive.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he believed there was still time for the Cardinals to play enough games to be considered a “credible competitor.” Whether they can fit a whole 60-game schedule in remains in question.

“I think there's going to be real decisions about how to reschedule those games and what to do,” Hoyer said. “But at this point I think that the focus is on making sure that those guys are all healthy, the staff and players, and stopping the spread. And who knows how long it’s going to take.

“I think we all expected to play this weekend, and now, I don't know if they'll be able to play Thursday, Friday or until after the weekend. So, at this point there's no point in speculating (on if the league would shut down a team) because we just don't know when they're going to be able to take the field.”

A few hours later, MLB announced that the Cardinals' Thursday doubleheader against the Tigers had been postponed.

The regular season hurdles continue, even without the kind of back-and forth travel that comes with the playoffs.

“With buses and planes and hotel rooms and smaller club houses, things like that,” Hoyer said of travel, “I think it's that that's been a challenge. And a challenge the league is trying to address, but still a challenge nonetheless. And so I think a bubble situation for the playoffs could be in the best interest to make sure that those games are played and that the right players are on the field deciding it.”

 

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Cubs’ Ian Happ claimed center field after AAA detour: 'He's the real deal'

Cubs’ Ian Happ claimed center field after AAA detour: 'He's the real deal'

Ian Happ paused before answering, the moment of silence punctuating his matter-of-fact response.

“No,” he said. “I don’t feel that way.”

Looking back, he doesn’t feel like he rose to the Major Leagues too quickly.

Happ has had to field that question since spending 2/3 of last season in Triple-A. But already this year, Happ has hit three home runs, tied for the most on the team, while also maintain a top-three batting average (.297). Not only is he performing on the field, Happ has also embraced a leadership role and taken over for Kris Bryant as the team’s MLBPA representative.

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“He’s the real deal,” Ross said Sunday, after Happ went 3-for-3 with two doubles in the Cubs’ intrasquad scrimmage.

The club’s decision to send Happ to Triple-A Iowa at the beginning of last season came as a surprise. Much of Happ’s conviction that he was ready for the major leagues when he debuted came from his standout rookie season.

Happ hit 24 home runs as a rookie – still his career high – and finished eighth in rookie of the year voting in 2017. His batting average regressed the next year (from .253 to .233), and his strikeout number rose (from 129 to 167). But he joined the .350 club in on-base percentage.

“We believed then and we believe now that he’s going to be a really good player,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said this week. “We thought it was the right move and something that was necessary even though it was really unpleasant to send him back there. To his credit, he made the absolute most of it, took personal responsibility.”

When Happ returned to the big leagues, his progress showed. He won NL player of the week in the final week of the season. But he’s made even more of a splash this year, from Spring Training through the first two weeks of the regular season.

Entering the year, center field was one of the main position battles to monitor for first-time manager Ross.

“Right now, the job is Ian Happ’s,” Ross said Sunday.

Ross’ lineup choices had suggested as much already. Happ has appeared in all 13 of the Cubs games, at least pinch hitting in the three he didn’t start.

“It’s hard to take Ian Happ out of the lineup,” Ross said of the switch-hitter. “The guy’s swinging the bat really well, and his right-handed at-bats have gotten tremendously better. He’s been a staple.”

Happ started his season off with a two-run home run in his first plate appearance. He was batting ninth, and through all of Ross’ reshuffling of the bottom third of the batting order, Happ has been the Cubs’ most frequent nine-hole hitter.

With the Cubs’ No. 7 and 8 hitters consistently getting on base, in the nine-hole has showcased Happ’s ability to drive in runs (he’s tied for second on the team with six RBI) or set the table for the Cubs’ unconventional top of the order.

“I feel great about where I'm at right now,” Happ said, “my ability to help the team and get on base for those guys that are hitting behind me.”

Just as he set the tone in the batter’s box early, with an Opening Day home run, Happ flashed some leather in the opening series against the Brewers. Three days into the season, Happ tracked a long fly ball back to the wall. He leaped and caught it just before his back slammed into the ivy, which barely cushioned the brick behind it.

Happ slid down the wall into a crouch, his body no doubt feeling the results of the impact. But it wasn’t long before he stood back up.

“I think he absolutely took advantage of his time down (in Iowa),” Epstein said, “and is in a different and better phase in his career now because of what he went through.”

 

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