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Jon Lester lives up to 'ace' status as Cubs keep on rolling

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Jon Lester lives up to 'ace' status as Cubs keep on rolling

This may start to feel like a dream for Cubs fans.

The Cubs are on a six-game winning streak, Jon Lester suddenly looks like a $155 million ace again, the bleachers are open again and Wrigleyville is rocking as the weather heats up.

What more could Cubs fans ask for?

Lester hurled seven strong innings Saturday as the Cubs took down the Pirates 4-1 in front of 38,883 fans at Wrigley Field, the largest crowd of the season to date.

[MORE: Cubs' Joe Maddon: The world revolves around confidence]

Lester worked around nine hits and one walk in his seven innings, allowing just one run on 110 pitches.

"Jonny was fabulous and that permitted everything to work for us today," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.

Lester racked up seven strikeouts, including catching Andrew McCutchen looking to end the seventh with two men on base, prompting a loud scream and fist-pump from Lester as he strutted off the field.

"That was a huge turning point in the game right there," Lester said. "They got a little momentum, some infield hits. To get out of there unscathed is huge. Especially in that tight game. We had a lot of baserunners today, but we were able to make pitches when we needed to.

"It's a big win for us to continue this little streak we're on."

Lester got ahead of McCutchen 0-2 immediately, but had to call time during the at-bat as he dealt with a cramp.

Maddon and a Cubs trainer went out to talk to Lester and with sweat dripping off his hat on a hot, humid day, Lester convinced Maddon to keep him in to finish off the Pirates star.

"I went out there and he calmly looked at me and said 'I'm fine.' There was no 'maybe,'" Maddon said. "That's very cool. He wanted it."

This is why the Cubs signed Lester. His ace mentality came through on a day when the Cubs were extremely short-handed in the bullpen, the wind was blowing out and a good divisional opponent was in town, looking to atone for Friday's failed comeback.

"He's done it before and he knows what it takes to be [an ace]," Maddon said. "He made really good pitches and that's what it takes. Everybody's talking about the wind, but if you make good pitches, you could still survive the wind blowing out and that's what he did today."

The Cubs did not record an RBI hit on the day, instead providing productive outs to get runners home.

Starlin Castro drove in the first two runs with a sacrifice fly in the first inning off Pittsburgh ace Gerrit Cole. Castro came through again with an RBI groundout in the third.

Addison Russell walked with one out in the seventh, stole second, advanced to third on an error by catcher Chris Stewart and scored on a wild pitch. Anthony Rizzo drove home the fourth run later in the inning with a sacrifice fly to left field.

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Kris Bryant collected two singles, walked twice and scored a pair of runs to lead the offense.

"We're having a lot of fun with this and hopefully we can keep it going," Bryant said.

After Lester was pulled, the Cubs escaped a jam in the eighth inning when the first two Pirates hitters singled and doubled, putting runners on second and third with nobody out. But Phil Coke and Jason Motte came up big combining to induce a groundout to the pitcher, a strikeout and then a lazy fly ball to right field to end the threat.

Travis Wood pitched the ninth to pick up the first save of his career.

The Cubs' Achilles' heel is rearing its ugly head again this winter

The Cubs' Achilles' heel is rearing its ugly head again this winter

If the Cubs ultimately don't sign Bryce Harper or another big ticket free agent this winter and fans are wondering why, look no further than Rob Zastryzny.

It's not Zastryzny's fault, of course. 

But he is the poster boy of sorts for the Cubs' issues in drafting and developing pitching that can make any sort of an impact at the big-league level.

Zastryzny has made at least 4 appearances over each of the last three seasons, racking up 34.2 innings to lead the way for the 147 pitchers drafted by Theo Epstein's front office over the last seven summers. 

As a result, the Cubs have had to spend a lot of money to form their pitching staff over the last few years. That money adds up. 

Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. — who spent time in the Cubs farm system, but were originally drafted and largely developed by the Texas Rangers — are the only two truly impactful pitchers that have come up through the minor leagues and still a big part of the current roster. 

Where are the Josh Haders and Corbin Burnses and Josh Jameses and Walker Buehlers coming up through the Cubs system?

All four of those guys played major roles for their respective teams (Brewers, Astros, Dodgers) this fall.

Look, it's no secret to the Cubs they haven't developed a Hader-type weapon and they're disappointed about it, too.

"Candidly, those guys aren't found on the market very often," GM Jed Hoyer said last week. "Those guys are usually found internally. We haven't been able to develop that guy. Hopefully we will in the future. That guy makes a massive, massive impact."

Former Cubs draft picks accounted for 27 innings in the majors in 2018, and 1 of those innings came from Ian Happ (who is obviously not a pitcher). Of the remaining 26 innings, 5.1 came from Dillon Maples (who was drafted by Jim Hendry's front office in 2011).

That leaves 20.2 innings for a trio of draft picks — Duane Underwood Jr. (2012 selection) Zastryzny (2013) and James Norwood (2014). 

The Cubs are projected to pay more than $130 million (with arbitration included) to only 12 pitchers in 2019 and they still figure to add at least another late-inning bullpen arm or two to that mix.

That obviously hampers what they want to do this winter in a free agent class loaded with potential impact bats that could make a huge difference for an underachieving lineup, though would come with a hefty price tag.

Last winter, Epstein's front office committed $185 million to a trio of free agent pitchers — Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow, Tyler Chatwood — and all three guys were out of the team's picture by September either because of injury or ineffectiveness.

The contracts of those three guys are hanging over the 2019 squad and major questions follow each guy entering the new year. 

But the Cubs are also in a tight spot financially because their homegrown position players are now starting to get exponentially more expensive.

"Of course we want more out of our homegrown pitching and I think we will have more as we go forward," Epstein said. "But we also built around bats. We built around homegrown bats and developing a nucleus that way knowing that in our minds, the right strategic move was to develop bats and then acquire pitching that's already good or about to become good or known commodities. 

"If you look at our pitching track record, it's really good. Yeah, it's expensive. That's part of it."

The Cubs still have high hopes for young right-hander Adbert Alzolay, the top pitching prospect in their system who was shut down halfway through 2018 with a lat injury. But he's also only pitched 72.1 innings above A-ball in his career and will undoubtedly have an innings limit and other restrictions coming off the injury, so it's hard to count on him as a potential cost-effective part of the 2019 pitching staff.

The Cubs hope more pitchers are on the way along with Alzolay, but they don't know why the arms are lagging so far behind the bats.

"I think it's improving," Hoyer said. "I think our pitching depth is improving and hopefully that will start to bear fruit this year or next year. Overall, I think we've done an exceptional job of developing hitters. 

"The pitching has lagged behind that. That's no secret. We're very accountable to that and we need to figure out why."

2018 Cubs Trivia… in Reverse

2018 Cubs Trivia… in Reverse

Normally baseball trivia is consumed by the average fan in a question-answer format.  Today, we are going to try something different.  I’ll name a player from Cubs history, present a little background of that player, then finally reveal why the player is relevant in terms of 2018 Cubs trivia.  Let’s get started.

Ted Savage
Savage was the 1961 International League MVP for the Buffalo Bisons. After a promising rookie season with the Phillies, he was traded to the Pirates and ended up bouncing around the league for several seasons. In all, the outfielder played nine Major League seasons with eight different teams. His finest season was 1970 when he played for the Brewers in their first season in Milwaukee (they had been the Seattle Pilots in 1969), hitting .279/.402/.482 with 12 HR & 10 SB. 

In 1967 Savage was purchased by the Cubs from the Cardinals. He appeared in 96 games for Chicago, and he stole seven bases.  Three times he stole second.  Twice he stole third.  Twice he stole home.  And no Cub would again steal home twice in a season… until Javier Báez in 2018. 

Fred Pfeffer
Fred Pfeffer hit one home run in 85 games in 1882 as a rookie for the Troy Trojans.  He hit one home run the following season in 96 games for the Chicago White Stockings (the team we know today as the Cubs).  He hit 25 home runs in 1884.  This wasn’t really an incredible power surge, since the fences at Chicago’s Lake Front Park were about 180 feet away and prior to that season anything over the fence was a ground rule double.  Three of his teammates also hit at least 20 homers.  They ended up moving to a new park the next season.  But still, Pfeffer was the second baseman of the dominant Chicago teams of the 1880s. 

Back to that 1884 season.  Pfeffer not only hit 25 home runs that season, he also knocked in 101.  And he even made an appearance on the mound.  Does that sound familiar?  It should.  Because Anthony Rizzo also hit 25 home runs with 101 RBI and a pitching appearances this past season. Rizzo and Pfeffer are the only players in franchise history to do that.  Of course Rizzo had a higher degree of difficulty.

Ellis Burton
A switch-hitting outfielder, Burton played for the Cardinals for eight games in 1958 and 29 games in 1960.  After some more time in the minors, he resurfaced with the Indians in 1963 and was purchased that May by the Cubs. August 1963 was easily the most eventful month of his Major League career.  On the first of that month, he homered from each side of the plate – the second Cub ever to do that; the other was Augie Galan on June 25, 1937.  On the final day of August he had perhaps his finest moment.  The Cubs trailed Houston 5-1 entering the bottom of the 9th inning.  It was 5-2 with two outs after a pair of flyouts, three singles and a walk.  Burton stepped to the plate to face Hal Woodeshick (who replaced Hal Brown – unlikely we’ll ever see a two-Hal inning again), and hit an ultimate grand slam – a walkoff grand slam with the team down three runs.  

It was a feat which wouldn’t be duplicated by a Cubs batter until David Bote turned a 3-0 deficit to a 4-3 win with one swing of the bat on August 12 against the Nationals.