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.

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“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.”

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

With Anthony Rendon officially joining the Angels, the Nationals have a vacancy at third base.

Washington has options to replace Rendon; Josh Donaldson is still available in free agency, and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant could potentially be had via trade.

The Nationals have reportedly inquired with the Cubs about Bryant, and while they “love” the 27-year-old, their focus is on Donaldson, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. The Cubs would likely seek center fielder Victor Robles in a deal, a holdup on Washington's end, Heyman said.

From the Cubs perspective, it would make all the sense in the world to ask for Robles. He’s 22 years old, plays excellent defense (22 DRS in 2019, No. 1 in MLB by center fielders) and is only scratching the surface as a big-leaguer. Robles is projected to be a star, but Bryant already is one. If the Nationals want Bryant badly enough, they’ll have to sacrifice talent in a deal.

On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why Washington would be unwilling to trade Robles, who's under team control through 2024. Bryant will hit free agency after 2021, but if he wins his ongoing grievance case, he'll hit the open market after next season.

Nonetheless, if the Nationals do engage in Bryant trade talks, you can bet the Cubs will at least ask for Robles in return. A trade could be worked out without him, but for a Cubs team searching better center field production, you've got to wonder who could be more enticing than Robles.

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Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

It didn’t take long for Willson Contreras to introduce himself to Major League Baseball. On the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer, the Cubs catcher cranked a two-run home run to center field — on Sunday Night Baseball, nonetheless.

That moment was a sign of things to come for Contreras, who has since established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. The 27-year-old holds a career .267/.350/.470 line with a 117 wRC+ and 67 home runs in four seasons. He’s started back-to-back All-Star Games, the first Cubs catcher to do so since Gabby Hartnett (1937-38).

Contreras offers so much to the Cubs besides his bat. His cannon of an arm and athleticism behind the plate are integral to the Cubs controlling opposing run games. His pitch framing is a work in progress, and admittedly, he could improve in this area by throwing behind runners less, ensuring he gets strikes called.

However, back-picking is part of Contreras’ value. He may lose some strike calls by not sticking a frame, but there've been plenty of occasions where Contreras' arm has provided the Cubs with a spark. His boundless energy is unmeasurable, but its importance to the Cubs — who feed off of it — cannot be overstated.

There are areas where Contreras can improve, and that's a scary thought. But he's already is one of the best backstops in baseball and has earned the starting catcher spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Welington Castillo, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Geovany Soto