Jon Lester pushes Cubs to verge of division title (while still thinking World Series)

Jon Lester pushes Cubs to verge of division title (while still thinking World Series)

ST. LOUIS – Jon Lester didn’t come here for a haircut, either, to quote cowboy philosopher John Lackey. This year is all about jewelry and Big Boy Games. If the Cubs don’t win the World Series, it will be a massive letdown and a total shock to the system. That’s how 2016 is set up for a too-big-to-fail team.

With TV cameras taking up more and more clubhouse space, Lester reminded the swelling group of reporters who traveled to Busch Stadium for a potential clinch party that the Cubs haven’t accomplished anything yet, that this team will ultimately be judged in October.

This is why the Cubs handed the big-market-tested, two-time World Series champion with the Boston Red Sox a $155 million contract. Lester absolutely looked like a Game 1 starter on Wednesday afternoon, dominating the St. Louis Cardinals in a 7-0 victory that chopped the magic number to win the National League Central down to one.

Beat the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday night at Wrigley Field on CSN and the Cubs can pop champagne bottles and celebrate in front of their fans, friends and families.

“You guys have seen our team,” Lester said with a smirk to the reporters crammed into a clubhouse hallway for a makeshift press conference. “We definitely don’t like to party too much. I’m sure it will be fairly low-key.”

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Less than 48 hours after Kyle Hendricks almost threw a no-hitter, Lester responded with his own Cy Young Award statement, accounting for eight scoreless innings and limiting a strong St. Louis lineup to three singles while finishing with eight strikeouts against one walk.

So the clubhouse guys will have goggles and cover the lockers in plastic inside that new state-of-the-art facility. The Cubs should enjoy this moment, because winning 93 games by Sept. 14 is extremely difficult and a reflection of the entire organization.

But when you wear “Embrace The Target” T-shirts, market the idea of “When It Happens” and sell free agents like Lester and Lackey on the idea of making history, does winning the division even matter if you don’t win the World Series?

“That’s conjecture,” manager Joe Maddon. “I’m just worried about winning the division. And then keep moving it from there.

“Of course, if you win it, then it’s easy. Everything’s easy. The beautiful prose is written. Everybody’s wonderful.

“If it weren’t to occur, then it’s up to whomever wants to write whatever they want to write. Whatever your perception is – I’m not even there yet. I cannot emphasize enough – it’s about today.

“It’s going back home, clinching soon, building the method to get ready for the playoffs. And then attack the playoffs. That’s it. All that other stuff – I understand. I get it. But I don’t worry about things like that.”

The Cubs will have even more confidence if Lester (17-4, 2.40 ERA) keeps pitching like an ace, freed from some of the first-year pressures and dead-arm issues that bothered the lefty last season.

Lester faced only two batters over the minimum through eight innings, with assists from personal catcher David Ross, who threw out two runners trying to steal second base. And on a day where Carlos Martinez struck out five of the first eight Cubs who came to the plate, Lester (.077 average) drove in the first run with a line-drive single up the middle in the third inning.

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Lester is now 7-0 with a 1.02 ERA in his last nine starts, a stretch where the Cubs have won all those games except for a 1-0 loss at Dodger Stadium.

“This whole run he’s been on is maybe as good as I’ve seen,” said Ross, who blasted a two-run homer off Martinez that traveled 429 feet onto the center-field berm in the fifth inning. “In ’13, I think he gave up a run in the (World Series), so that was pretty impressive, too.

“But right now, he’s the complete pitcher. He’s sinking it. He’s throwing his cutter. He’s got a four-seam (fastball moving) in and out. He’s got a really good changeup and his curveball. It’s nice for me to have that many options to call a game. It makes my job really easy.”

This isn’t the time for guarantees or predictions, but Lester certainly appears to be peaking at the right time. 

“Everybody’s goal coming into spring training is to win the World Series,” Lester said. “Hopefully, we’ll save some bullets and guys are feeling good going into October. We’ll put one good, last run into it and see where we’re at.”

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.

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?


2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.