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.”

Cubs not yet considering ways to get Victor Caratini and Willson Contreras in lineup together

Cubs not yet considering ways to get Victor Caratini and Willson Contreras in lineup together

Offensive production is very much judged in a "what have you done for me lately" manner.

And by that measure, the Cubs offense is just fine and there's no need to tinker.

However, overall, this lineup has weaknesses, including second base (Cubs rank 21st in MLB with .675 OPS from their second basemen) and center field (19th in MLB with .698 OPS). Before the trade deadline hits, it seems apparent Theo Epstein's front office will add another hitter of some sort to augment this offense. 

But what if the Cubs had an in-house solution?

Victor Caratini had another big game Sunday — going 2-for-3 with a sacrifice fly RBI and his only out was a 109.1 mph liner to left field — and is now hitting .301 on the season with a .383 on-base percentage and .505 slugging percentage.

Caratini wasn't initially scheduled to be in the Cubs lineup Sunday, but with Willson Contreras nursing a sore foot, he got the call and continued to do what he's done all year — play very solid defense behind the plate with quality production at the dish. 

Between Caratini's emergence this season and Contreras' huge bounceback year, Cubs catchers are pacing baseball in OPS, average, OBP, SLG, runs and RBI and rank second in homers and hits.

So with Contreras' ability to play the outfield, will the Cubs try to find ways to get both Caratini and Contreras in the starting lineup at the same time in search of more consistent offense?

"We haven't talked about that," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after Sunday's game. "We have a lot of guys who have to be in the lineup when things are rolling properly. I haven't looked at that right now, honestly."

Maddon conceded that as a switch-hitter, Caratini is still utilized almost exclusively as a left-handed hitter. The second-year player is hitting .556 with a homer and a double from the right side this season, but that's come in only 10 plate appearances.

Maddon also admitted the best way to get both catchers in the lineup at the same time is if there's an injury or a natural day off for a regular player. For example, Contreras played a game in right field in Pittsburgh before the All-Star Break while Caratini started behind the plate with both Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward nursing minor injuries.

Caratini has also drawn some starts at first base over the last couple years when Anthony Rizzo is either ailing or getting a day off. 

But beyond that, it doesn't appear as if we're gonna see Contreras and Caratini as cohorts in the starting lineup on even a semi-regular basis.

"Maybe part of the reason they're both playing so well or Victor's hitting as well as he is or playing as well as he is is based on the amount of usage," Maddon said. "Everybody sees a guy do well and all of a sudden, that immediately indicates he should play more often. Maybe just playing the right amount."

Jose Quintana delivers as Cubs sweep Pirates: 'He doesn't get enough credit'

Jose Quintana delivers as Cubs sweep Pirates: 'He doesn't get enough credit'

The Cubs have made a trademark out of having a strong second half, and after beating the Pirates 8-3 Sunday, they completed the sweep in their first series since the all-star break and look on their way to putting more space in the NL Central between themselves and the other four teams.

But through the first three innings, the Cubs and starter Jose Quintana looked more like they were going to let the third game of this series get away.

Quintana held the Pirates scoreless in the first two innings, but then in the third he gave up three consecutive singles, threw a wild pitch, allowed a sacrifice fly, and gave up a double, undoing the 1-0 lead the Cubs had established in the second inning on Robel Garcia's double.

But the difference in Sunday's game was how Quintana pitched after that. He tossed three more scoreless innings, completing a 90-pitch quality start and even contributed an RBI single in the fourth.

"He always goes out there and he competes. He’s so focused," Kris Bryant said of Quintana after the game. "He doesn’t get enough credit for what he does."

Leading up to Quintana's single, Garcia hit a two-out double and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle opted to walk David Bote to get Quintana to the plate for what seemed like a sure out. Instead, Quintana poked Trevor Williams' four-seam fastball to right field, allowing Garcia to score from second and trim Pittsburgh's lead to 3-2.

Quintana had already thrown a scoreless top of the fourth inning, but he gave two more after his RBI single. The hit was a timely confidence boost.

"Felt great, finally to get the base hit," Quintana said. "So excited."

This was Quintana's fifth career RBI and first since 2017, and it may have helped catapult the rest of the offense. The Cubs would score three more runs in the fifth inning to take the lead, and then added some cushion with another three in the sixth.

"Literally, when Q got that hit, Tony goes, 'homer right here,'" Jason Heyward joked after the game.

It wasn't Quintana who got the home run, but Heyward was the one to give the Cubs the lead with his own two-run homer in the fifth after Victor Caratini's sacrifice fly had scored Bryant to tie the game earlier that inning.

"We have fun with that," Heyward said of Rizzo's joking. "But we pull for them obviously because they’re out there pitching their ass off. They want to keep the game close, and sometimes they need to pick themselves up too."

Quintana's last three innings on the mound kept his team in the game. He started the fourth with a walk to Elias Diaz and then did not allow another baserunner until Corey Dickerson's one-out single in the sixth.

"I kept throwing my pitches and believing in my stuff and waiting for our offense to come back in the game, and they did really well," Quintana said. "Always in my mind was they can take more runs, so I wanted to keep it there and wait for our hitters to get back in the game. They did great work. It’s a really good feeling around us right now."

One of the keys to a strong second half for the Cubs is getting more wins like Sunday's. Bryant said after the game that it's important to get a few wins that you shouldn't, like one when the team is down 3-1 halfway through the game. And especially in the last game of a three-game set where the Cubs had already won the first two. With the series win safely secured, it would be easy to let up and drop the final game, but Quintana's timely hit and good pitching in the second half of his outing helped make the difference.

"As soon as he hits his knock, he pitched really well after that," Joe Maddon said. "He got better after the knock."

Quintana might struggle to live up to the expectations of coming from across town in a trade two years ago that cost two darling prospects, but it's worth noting that the average ERA in the National League is 4.39, and after Sunday's win, Quintana's is down to 4.21. If he's the team's back-of-the-rotation starter, that'll do just fine.

He's very capable of stringing together quality starts and pitching like the team's ace, like he has over his last three outings with three straight quality starts, but there are also stretches like his run from May 26 to June 22 where he lost six starts in a row and his ERA climbed from 3.73 to 4.50.

Either way, if Quintana makes more of his starts like Sunday's, the Cubs are in very good position to continue their yearly trend of winning in the second half of the season.


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