Cubs

Kris Bryant to Eric Thames: ‘Dude, we got to hit together’

Kris Bryant to Eric Thames: ‘Dude, we got to hit together’

Eric Thames now has an open invitation to "The Bryant Man Cage" this offseason.
 
Thames had been so far off the baseball map that Kris Bryant didn't realize they both live in Las Vegas and used to play in the West Coast Conference. But where Bryant's fast track made him a Rookie of the Year, National League MVP and World Series champion within three-and-a-half years of leaving the University of San Diego, Thames has bounced around since the Toronto Blue Jays grabbed him in the seventh round of the 2008 draft out of Pepperdine University. 

Traded to the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Selected off waivers by the Houston Astros and released three months later. Putting up 124 homers and 382 RBI in the Korea Baseball Organization led to a three-year, $16 million commitment from the Milwaukee Brewers. 

If they had no idea who this guy was, the Cubs know now after clawing back for a 7-4 victory on Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field, where Thames looked like the Triple Crown candidate for small sample sizes.

"I was talking to him at first," Bryant said. "I was like: ‘Dude, we got to hit together.' But he's on some type of run right now. It's impressive to watch.

"Everybody has a story. He had to go to Korea for three years. And it's hard not to feel happy for a guy like that who's worked his butt off to get back to this point and things are paying off for him."

Maybe Thames will stop by the house where Bryant grew up and his father, Mike, gives lessons and passes on what Ted Williams once taught minor-leaguer hitters in the Boston Red Sox organization. Dexter Fowler has worked out there and Shane Victorino lives in the neighborhood. 

Against the defending World Series champs, Thames went 6-for-11 with three doubles, three walks, a homer and six runs scored during this three-game series. There will be cynical reactions.  

After Thames homered in his fifth straight game on Monday night, USA Today reported a representative from Major League Baseball's drug-testing program approached him in the visiting clubhouse.  

"Random, right?" Thames told USA Today, laughing. "Guess it comes with the territory, right?"

Manager Joe Maddon called the production "Bonds-esque" and compared Thames to the zone Daniel Murphy got into when he became a new Mr. October and the New York Mets swept the Cubs during the 2015 National League Championship Series.

"If you want a guy that's really disciplined and knows the strike zone, you probably have to draft it or buy it," Maddon said. "It's hard to create it or nurture it. My experience is that with a guy that's more of a swinger, it's easier to get him to not strike out as opposed to accept the walk. That's just in their nature.

"You could get them somewhat better. But to go from being an absolute free-swinger to a disciplined hitter, that's rare. That's absolutely rare. Maybe it's his situation, going away from the limelight and just getting into a little bit more secluded area that he could test things."         

Until Opening Day this year, Thames, 30, last appeared in a big-league game on Oct. 1, 2012, the end of a season that saw him generate nine homers and a .672 OPS and 87 strikeouts in 290 combined plate appearances for Toronto and Seattle.

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Veteran catcher Miguel Montero – who never played in the American League – had the same reaction as Bryant: Who is this guy?

"He's swinging a hot bat," Montero said. "He doesn't really have a lot of holes in his swing. We went in, he covered inside. We went away, he covered outside. We went breaking ball, he covered breaking ball. 
 
"When you're swinging good, it doesn't matter what they throw you, you're going to hit it. Obviously, we need to find a way to pitch him better next time."

Imagine what some time in "The Bryant Man Cage" might do to Thames' game.

"I think we're just excited when we get him out," Bryant said. "We all go through runs like that where you feel like you just hit everything on the nose – outs, hits, homers – and you just got to ride the wave because they don't happen all the time."

How Cubs' Jon Lester just got 126 innings closer to returning to Chicago in 2021

How Cubs' Jon Lester just got 126 innings closer to returning to Chicago in 2021

One more year of Jon Lester?

A few months ago that looked uncertain at best — figuring to come down to a $25 million decision for the Cubs to mull at the end of this season (or a $15 million decision, given the $10 million buyout on the option clause).

But the vesting part of Lester’s hefty seventh-year option on his original six-year, $155 million contract suddenly looks tantalizingly within reach for the longtime ace.

Major League Baseball and the union have finalized an agreement on details for vesting contract options that simply pro-rate the original terms for the shortened season, according to The Athletic.

So that 200-inning threshold Lester needed to reach to assure the additional $25 million year — a threshold he hasn’t reached since 2016, when he was 32?

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In a season only 37 percent as long as normal, that means 74 innings earns the extra year.

It’s still roughly the same average of innings for 12 projected starts (6.17) this year as it would have been for 32 (6.25) in a full season.

But that’s a lot fewer potential aches, pains and injuries to navigate for two months compared to six months — and a stretch that doesn’t include the bone-chill cold of April and weather volatility of May.

Lester, who ranks eighth on the all-time list of postseason innings pitched, said when spring training opened in February he “obviously” wanted to finish his career as a Cub.

“Hopefully, I have a good year, and it’s null and void, and we don’t have to talk about it,” Lester said then of trying to vest the option.

“I signed here hoping that the option was kind of going to take care of itself and [I’d] finish out the seventh year. After that, I can’t predict tomorrow, let alone what’s going to happen two years down the road.”

Lester pitched in his first intrasquad game of the restarted training period on Sunday and looked strong enough to get sent out to face two more batters after finishing his scheduled two innings — retiring seven of nine, with one reaching on an error and another on a 15-foot tapper in front of the plate.

“He was commanding all of his pitches,” catcher Willson Contreras said. “From what I saw, he’s looking in good shape.”

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What Jon Lester's intrasquad outing says about his Cubs Summer Camp progress

What Jon Lester's intrasquad outing says about his Cubs Summer Camp progress

Jon Lester knows his body better than anyone.

That’s the line Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy consistently used as the 36-year-old southpaw worked to catch up to the rest of the starting rotation. If Hottovy was  going to place that kind of faith in pitcher, Lester was as safe a bet as anyone, even during an unprecedented season.

Then in Sunday's intrasquad scrimmage, Lester’s  performance through 2.1 innings rewarded Hottovy’s trust in the veteran.

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“He did really good,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said of Lester on Monday. “He was commanding all of his pitches. … Yesterday was only a two-inning outing, but from what I saw he’s looking in good shape.”

In Lester’s first intrasquad game of Summer Camp, he struck out four of the first five batters he faced. He was originally only scheduled to throw two innings, but he kept his pitch count so low that he remained in to start the third. He stepped off the mound after 28 pitches. Lester had only allowed one hit, and even that was dribbler.

“He’s Jon Lester and has had such a good career for a reason,” Hottovy said, “because he’s able to repeat his delivery so well. You see Jon Lester from eight years ago, it’s really similar. One thing we’ve talked about and worked on just delivery-wise is being more athletic and getting back into that rhythm and some of that flow.”

On Sunday, Hottovy was pleased to see Lester “repeat that delivery.”

Hottovy would rather think in terms of pitch-count than innings. But barring unforeseen circumstances, he expects Lester to be ready to throw about five innings by the time the regular season begins.

The Cubs have yet to announce their opening day starter or the order of their rotation.

“We might have a pending test in two days and have to shuffle our entire schedule and rotation,” Hottovy said. “A lot of this is going to be how we get through this next week healthy, with the testing protocols in place. And then we can start really lining up what we want to do when it starts.”

Lester predicted that after Sunday’s intrasquad scrimmage, he’d “start building from there, kind of like a normal spring.”

In some ways, the ramp-up  will be normal. Lester will spend the last couple weeks of Summer Camp on a five-day rotation schedule. But the process is condensed.

In Lester’s three Spring Training starts before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Cactus League, he averaged just over two innings per outing.

Now, he only has time for two more live pitching session -- an intrasquad scrimmage and potentially a Summer Camp game -- before the regular season.

Other pitchers were regularly throwing simulated innings during the shutdown, and the other four presumed members of the starting rotation threw multiple innings in intrasquad scrimmages the first weekend of Summer Camp. But Lester was on a different timetable.

“I figured that if I kept my body in shape and I kept my arm going that I would be fine when we got to this stage; it would just be a little slower,” Lester said Saturday. “And I feel like we’ve done that, and I feel like I’m in a good place.”

On Sunday he backed up that feeling.

 

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