Jon Lester won't point fingers after Cubs can't finish off Cardinals


Jon Lester won't point fingers after Cubs can't finish off Cardinals

ST. LOUIS — Time to grow up.

Jon Lester sent that message while meeting with reporters after his Cactus League debut in early March, when the Cubs had young talent, rising expectations and honestly no idea if this would actually work.

Lester had come of age with the Boston Red Sox and their World Series-or-else mentality. If you didn’t do your job, he said, they would simply find someone else. Next.

Six months later, this series showed how much these Cubs have matured and how far the organization has come. Even if the bullpen couldn’t finish off the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday afternoon at Busch Stadium, another meltdown leading to a 4-3 loss that exposed a potential major weakness for October.

Blame your teammates? Second-guess the manager? Start popping champagne bottles already? Lester wouldn’t have any of that.

“Have we gotten in the wild-card game yet?” Lester said. "That’s putting the cart before the horse. We got a long way to go. I know it looks good on paper right now to sit and talk about it. And I know everybody is excited about it.

“But we got to worry about playing Philly tomorrow. That’s what we got to worry about. And not worry about who’s pitching the wild-card game. We got to get there first."

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Just when it looked like the Cubs would put the exclamation point on a three-game sweep and make this division race more interesting, the best team in baseball made its comeback.

Cubs fans have seen this before, the bullpen unraveling in the eighth inning and the Cardinals suddenly turning a two-run deficit into a one-run lead.

Lester allowed one run on two hits in the first inning — and then put up zeroes across the next six. The $155 million lefty retired 20 of the final 21 batters he faced before manager Joe Maddon pulled the plug at 105 pitches.

“Right now, it’s glaring, because it’s here and now and fresh in our minds,” Lester said. “But we’ve closed out plenty of those games this year against good teams.

“The natural reaction for everybody is to go: ‘Oh, what happened?’ We’ve been there all year. We’ve been doing it all year. That’s why we’re in the position that we’re in. We won plenty of one-run games and two-run games this year.

“The bullpen has a hard job. They’re called upon every single day. They don’t know when they’re pitching.

“When they don’t succeed in those high-leverage situations, it’s real easy to stand back and point the finger at those guys. Those guys have done it all year for us.”

[MORE CUBS: Jon Lester endorses Jake Arrieta for wild-card game]

Lester said he wasn’t surprised by Maddon’s decision or lobbying to throw 120 pitches.

“I don’t make those decisions,” Lester said. “That’s Joe’s decision. It’s easy to go back and second-guess any decision that’s made when you lose. Put it this way: When he came down to the end of the dugout, I didn’t fight him.”

Maddon has pushed almost all the right buttons — and explains his moves with such detail and inspires so much confidence within his players — that it’s difficult to slam his decisions.

But this didn’t work out in the eighth inning, Pedro Strop giving up a walk and a hit, lefty Clayton Richard losing his matchup against Matt Carpenter (line-drive RBI single) and Stephen Piscotty blasting Fernando Rodney’s 91-mph fastball out toward the center-field wall for the go-ahead, two-run double.

Maddon didn’t think he took the ball away from Lester too soon: “If somebody were to get on base, you’re probably going to want to do something anyway, so give the guy a clean inning.

“You got 7, 8, 9 (in the order) coming up right there. It was a perfect spot for Stropy. And part of it was to reestablish his confidence, too.”

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Maddon laid out the logic behind Richard vs. Carpenter.

“The big thing there is that Carpenter has not hit homers against lefties,” Maddon said. “He hits them against righties, so you have a better chance of just a single, which did occur. But Richard came out, threw strikes and a good hitter got him up the middle. No big deal.”

What about having unofficial closer Hector Rondon get five outs?

“You can’t just burn people out in an attempt to win a game today,” Maddon said. “Everybody’s got to do their job for us to be successful. Moving down the road, you can’t alter these opportunities for these guys. Everybody was in the right spot today. It didn’t play.”

The Cubs now trail the Cardinals by 7 1/2 games in the rugged National League Central. To set the mood for the next stop on this three-city road trip, Maddon blasted Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” from his office inside the visiting clubhouse.

The Cubs have done such a good job this season with finding the right balance between relaxed and intense, focused and oblivious, youth and inexperience.

Lester remembered another lesson from his time in Boston, the epic collapse in 2011 that led to seismic changes at Fenway Park.

“I’ve been on the other side of it,” Lester said. “I’ve been up and then not make the playoffs and we were talking about who’s starting Game 1. We got a long way to go.”

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

As the Cubs peruse over their list of managerial candidates, one name reportedly made a strong impression following his interview with the team.

According to NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan, Astros bench coach Joe Espada left the Cubs front office “exceptionally impressed” following his interview on Monday.

Espada, 44, has spent the last two seasons as Astros bench coach following three seasons as Yankees third base coach. He is one of MLB’s more sought after managerial candidates this winter and one of three known external candidates for the Cubs’ opening, along with Joe Girardi and Gabe Kapler.

Former Cubs catcher and current front office assistant David Ross has been the presumed front runner for the Cubs' opening. But based on Kaplan’s report, Espada clearly has given Epstein and Co. something to think about, which makes sense, considering Espada is coming from an innovative Astros organization.

Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference that there’s no timeline for the Cubs’ managerial search. However, MLB prefers teams to not make big announcements during the World Series, which kicks off on Oct. 22. Thus, the Cubs may not make an announcement for little while longer, though this is purely speculation.

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The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs


The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

If anybody thought the Cubs' 2019 season was a roller coaster, it was nothing compared to what Brad Wieck has gone through this year.

Wieck — the 6-foot-9 left-handed reliever — went from a cancer diagnosis to a Padres cast-off and wound up finishing the year carving through the heart of the Cardinals order in the eighth inning of a must-win game in late-September for the Cubs.

Wieck began 2019 with a testicular cancer diagnosis in January and underwent surgery shortly after. That left him playing catch-up all spring training, unable to lift, run or throw off a mound for a month after the surgery. He only ended up facing live hitters twice before the regular season started and was never able to recover with the Padres, putting up a 5.71 ERA in 34.2 MLB innings. 

Then the Cubs came calling.

While the rest of Cubdom was understandably occupied on Trade Deadline Day celebrating the Nick Castellanos move, Theo Epstein's front office made a smaller move with the San Diego Padres. And Wieck wasn't even the central focus of that trade, as more of the emphasis was on the departure of Carl Edwards Jr. — a polarizing figure in the Cubs bullpen the last few seasons, including throughout the 2016 World Series run.

Yet Epstein's front office didn't treat Wieck like a throw-in. From Day 1 with the organization, the Cubs handled the southpaw more like a first-round draft pick.

Right after the trade, Wieck was immediately assigned to Triple-A Iowa, where he made a pair of appearances against the Tacoma Rainiers. From there, he was invited to Chicago to meet with the Cubs front office and throw a bullpen off the Wrigley Field mound.

"So I got here and they had a whole presentation of what my current curveball looked like and what they would like the shape of it to look like and so we just started messing around with grip," Wieck said. "I went to a spike curveball grip and we got in the lab and we started throwing it more and we came up with consistent break of what we thought was gonna be a better break than the curveball that I had.

"Just trial and error, honestly. We just looked at Rapsodo stuff and saw what spin efficiency is doing and spin rate and trying to get my curveball spin to replicate the exact opposite of my fastball. That's what our goal was."

That led to a trip to the "Pitch Lab" in Arizona where Wieck worked with Josh Zeid, the Cubs' pitching analyst, to continue to mess around with the new curveball grip and add a new, consistent weapon to his arsenal. 

If the term "spike curveball" sounds familiar, it should. It's become the unofficial pitch of the Cubs (you know, if organizations defined themselves by just one pitch). Rowan Wick — Wieck's former roommate in the Padres system — broke out as a trusted big-league reliever in large part because of the emergence of his spike curve. Craig Kimbrel throws one and also taught the pitch to Yu Darvish, who added it to the plethora of options already at his disposal. 

Wieck's time in Arizona was about getting comfortable with the new pitch and not worrying about facing hitters or pitching in a game. After a couple weeks in the desert, the Cubs threw him back out on the mound in Iowa, where he made four appearances before getting the call to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September. 

Right off the bat, we got a look at that spike curve and there is no doubt it can play at Wrigley Field, especially when the shadows roll in:

Just like that, a new weapon was born and Wieck developed more confidence in that reshaped curveball.

"I like that they're forcing me to throw it more because I've been a fastball-heavy pitcher my whole life," Wieck said. "I trust my fastball with my life. To have a catcher get back there and make you throw it, that's really good."

The Cubs' confidence in Wieck also grew as the month went on. He emerged alongside his buddy Wick as vital pieces of the late-season bullpen while Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler dealt with injuries. It got to the point where Joe Maddon kept Wieck in to face the Cardinals' big boppers (Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — both right-handed hitters) with a 1-run lead in the eighth inning on that final homestand. We all know how that game ended (Kimbrel served up homers on back-to-back pitches for another gut-wrenching Cubs loss), but Wieck did his job and proved he's far more than just a lefty specialist.

This fall was the first time Wieck had been a part of a playoff push and that outing against the Cardinals was only the 46th MLB appearance of his young career. Moving into 2020, the 28-year-old southpaw looks to be one of only a few arms penciled into the Cubs bullpen. 

The Cubs had their eyes on Wieck for a while before they were able to trade for him and they don't plan on rolling out a big presentation for each acquisition or ask every new arm to start throwing a brand new pitch or completely remake one of their existing pitches. This was a unique situation, but it's one that already paid dividends in a short period of time and could help set up the bullpen for the future. 

It's also another indicator that the "Pitch Lab" can work, as Wieck joins Wick and Kyle Ryan as products of the Cubs' new model they hope to fine-tune and grow. Epstein will hire a director of pitching for the organization this winter and the Cubs are hoping to change the narrative surrounding their shocking lack of pitching development under this front office. 

In Wieck's case, it was a group effort from the Cubs — the front office, research and development department, big-league coaching staff (led by pitching coach Tommy Hottovy), the pitching analytics unit based in Arizona and minor league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara all teamed up to make it happen for the tall lefty in only a month's time.

It's a model the organization will attempt to duplicate moving forward, beginning this winter.