Jon Lester survives line drive, looks like a Game 1 starter as Cubs top Reds

Jon Lester survives line drive, looks like a Game 1 starter as Cubs top Reds

Jon Lester views himself as a finisher, someone who gets stronger later in the season, when the games become bigger and bigger. That’s why the $155 million pitcher came to Chicago — to earn a third World Series ring and change this team’s entire identity.

That’s why Cubs fans might have seen their playoff hopes flash before their eyes when Joey Votto smashed a line drive that drilled Lester’s wrist as he tried to make the glove save, the ball ricocheting into shallow right field.

“It’s fine,” Lester said as soon as he sat down in the Wrigley Field interview room after Tuesday night’s 6-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds. “My right hand. I don’t need it.”

The lefty stayed in the game, faced seven more Reds after that scare leading off the sixth inning and finished the seventh, making a strong closing argument for the National League Cy Young Award voters and looking like the Game 1 starter when the Cubs face the wild-card survivor on Oct. 7.

This is a battle of attrition. The New York Mets are paying the price for last year’s World Series run, with Jacob deGrom (right elbow) scheduled for season-ending surgery, something Matt Harvey (thoracic outlet syndrome) already went through this summer.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are managing the herniated disc in Clayton Kershaw’s back and dealing with the blister on Rich Hill’s left middle finger. The Washington Nationals don’t know when Stephen Strasburg will return or if his right elbow will allow him to honor the seven-year, $175 million extension he signed four-plus months ago.

This much is clear: Washington’s 1-0 loss to the Miami Marlins combined with Lester’s dominant performance made three the magic number for the Cubs (96-55) to clinch the league’s best record and home-field advantage through their first two playoff rounds.

[SHOP CUBS: Get a Jon Lester jersey right here]

“If I’m chosen for Game 1, awesome, it will be a great honor,” Lester said. “If I’m not, it’s still a great honor to pitch in the postseason for this team.”

Lester leads the NL with 18 wins and ranks first in the majors with 25 quality starts. His ERA is now 2.36 after his seventh straight start allowing zero runs or one run. He’s peaking at the right time — 9-0 with a 1.46 ERA through 12 starts since the All-Star break — and one of the most accomplished postseason pitchers of his generation.

“I’m along for the ride,” Lester said. “We have a really, really good staff, so if I’m the guy, it will definitely be a huge honor.

“If I’m not the guy, tell me when I’m going. I’ll be there. I’ll be ready. I’ll be prepared. I’ll give you everything I got.

“But obviously it would be nice to start a home game here, whether it’s (Game 1 or 2). This atmosphere’s been great all year. It’s been a playoff kind of atmosphere all year. They’ve expected a lot of us. We’ve given them a lot. And they give us a lot in return, as far as energy.”

The Cubs placed a huge bet on durability, and Lester has now made 30 starts for the ninth consecutive season. With two more starts to go, he’s only nine innings away from hitting 200 for the eighth time in his career. The Cubs also wanted someone who wouldn’t be satisfied with a division title or allow teammates to become complacent.

“I don’t care what the lead is,” Lester said. “My mentality’s the same going into every start: I want to win every start. I don’t take days off when it comes to that.

“When it’s my day to go, it’s my day to go. I’m going to show up with the same intensity as if it was Game 1 or if we’re fighting for a playoff spot right now. I feel like if I let off the gas mentally, then I’m doing a disservice to my team.”

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons. The Cubs confirmed the move Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke out of the Rangers camp.

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

Since the Cubs' early exit from the postseason, many have turned their attention to the 2019 roster and wonder if Brandon Morrow will be the team's closer next year.

However, the question isn't WILL Morrow be the closer, but rather — SHOULD he be counted on as the main ninth-inning option?

Morrow didn't throw a single pitch for the Cubs after the All-Star Game, nursing a bone bruise in his forearm that did not heal in time to allow him to make a return down the stretch.

Of course, an injury isn't surprising given Morrow's lengthy history of arm issues. 

Consider: Even with a half-season spent on the DL, Morrow's 35 appearances in 2018 was his second-highest total since 2008 (though he also spent a ton of time as a starting pitcher from 2009-15).

Morrow is 34 now and has managed to throw just 211 innings in 126 games since the start of the 2013 season. 

Because of that, Theo Epstein isn't ready to anoint Morrow the Cubs' 2019 closer despite success in the role in his first year in Chicago (22-for-24 in save chances).

"[We're] very comfortable with Morrow as part of a deep and talented 'pen," Epstein said. "We have to recommit to him in a very structured role and stick with it to do our best to keep him healthy. Set some rules and adhere to them and build a 'pen around that. I'm comfortable."

Epstein is referencing the overuse the Cubs have pointed to for the origin of Morrow's bone bruise when he worked three straight games from May 31-June 2 during a stretch of four appearances in five days.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs were very cautious with Morrow early in the year, unleashing him for only three outings — and 2 innings — in the first two-plus weeks of the season, rarely using him even on back-to-back days.

During that late-May/early-June stretch, Morrow also three just 2 pitches in one outing (May 31) and was only called upon for the 14th inning June 2 when Maddon had already emptied the rest of the Cubs bullpen in a 7-1 extra-inning victory in New York.

The blame or origin of Morrow's bone bruise hardly matters now. All the Cubs can do at this moment is try to learn from it and carry those lessons into 2019. It sounds like they have, heading into Year 2 of a two-year, $21 million deal that also includes a team option for 2020.

"It's the type of injury you can fully recover from with rest," Epstein said. "that said, he has an injury history and we knew that going in. That was part of the calculation when we signed him and that's why it was the length it was and the amount of money it was, given his talent and everything else.

"We were riding pretty high with him for a few months and then we didn't have him for the second half of the season. And again, that's on me. We took an educated gamble on him there and on the 'pen overall, thinking that even if he did get hurt, we had enough talent to cover for it. And look, it was a really good year in the 'pen and he contributed to that greatly in the first half.

"They key is to keep him healthy as much as possible and especially target it for down the stretch and into what we hope will be a full month of October next year."

It's clear the Cubs will be even more cautious with Morrow in 2019, though he also should head into the new campaign with significantly more rest than he received last fall when he appeared in all seven games of the World Series out of the Dodgers bullpen.

Morrow has more than proven his value in this Cubs bullpen as a low-maintenance option when he's on the field who goes right after hitters and permits very few walks or home runs. 

But if the Cubs are going to keep him healthy for the most important time of the season in September and October, they'll need to once again pack the bullpen with at least 7 other arms besides Morrow, affording Maddon plenty of options.

When he is healthy, Morrow will probably get a ton of the closing opportunities, but the world has also seen what Pedro Strop can do in that role and the Cubs will likely add another arm or two this winter for high-leverage situations.