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Lester struggles as Dodgers blank Cubs in finale

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Lester struggles as Dodgers blank Cubs in finale

With the Cubs already facing plenty of questions with their starting rotation, the last thing they needed was a rough outing from Jon Lester.

Yet that's exactly what happened Thursday.

Lester lasted just four innings, allowing four runs on four hits and four walks as the Cubs dropped the series finale 4-0 to the Los Angeles Dodgers in front of the largest crowd of the season at Wrigley Field (41,498).

Lester got out to a rough start after the second batter of the game - Jimmy Rollins - reached on a bunt base hit.  Lester then walked the next two hitters before Howie Kendrick lined a double inside the right-field line. 

"Jon didn't have his best day," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "It really came down to fastball command. He just didn't have that going on. And of course, if you don't have that, nothing else plays well off it.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

"That's what I saw. The fastball just wasn't going where he wanted it to go."

Lester agreed.

"Physically, I felt fine," he said. "Obviously, didn't have great location today. It's hard to pitch when you're Ball 1, Ball 2 all day."

Lester gave up two more runs in a second inning that was marred by home plate umpire Andy Fletcher marching out to the mound and apparently barking at Lester after the southpaw walked a Dodgers hitter. 

Catcher David Ross intercepted Fletcher and Maddon eventually came out too and order was restored before too long.

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"I didn't know what was going on," Lester said. "I had my back to the whole thing. When I yelled, I guess he thought it was directed at him. I had my head down, wasn't looking at him, wasn't looking at anybody.

"... Obviously I had been struggling with command. I know the strike zone's not gonna be great when you're struggling with command. You kinda almost surprise the umpire when you throw a strike."

Lester settled in after the second, retiring the last six hitters he faced. Still, manager Joe Maddon opted to lift the Cubs ace for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the fourth.

"Everything this year has been an adjustment period," Lester said. "It's a different game over here. There's been times in my career where I've given up four in the first and gotten into the eighth.

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"That just doesn't happen here [in the National League]. It's a different game when you don't have the DH."

Lester has now allowed 17 earned runs in five June starts, good for a 5.74 ERA. It looked like he had turned a corner in May (1.76 ERA) after a tough April (6.23 ERA) and the $155-million man had surrendered just two runs in 13.1 innings his last two starts before Thursday, including just one run in 6.1 innings over the weekend in Minnesota.

"I thought he threw really well his last outing," catcher David Ross said. "He pitched great. He hasn't been as consistent as he wanted to be. I think he just had a bad day."

Lester admitted frustration in his inconsistency and said he may be trying to nibble too much in an attempt to make the perfect pitch instead of just attacking the zone and going after hitters.

Following Thursday's start, Lester's season ERA sits at 4.03 to go with a 1.37 WHIP.

"It just comes down to the things I keep preaching and harping on: Fastball location and executing pitching," Lester said. "That's what it comes down to and I'm not doing it consistently enough right now to help this team."

The Cubs have a lot of problems with the back end of their rotation and will need more from Lester if they want to keep the good times rolling late into the season.

Tsuyoshi Wada is working through cramps in his throwing shoulder and the team still doesn't know if he can make his scheduled start Saturday. Meanwhile, Kyle Hendricks has allowed 10 runs in 10 innings his last two starts and carries a 5.88 ERA in June.

The Cubs failed to capitalize on a hot start in the statement series against the Dodgers after they beat Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke on back-to-back nights. Now they head into St. Louis for a three-game series with the Cardinals on a down note.

"Going into [the series], 2-2 sounds nice," Maddon said. "But once you get to that point early, you definitely at least want to win the series.

"So there's both contentment and disappointment involved in that series."

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

If the season ended today, Javy Baez may be your National League MVP.

Of course, the season isn't ending today, only the first half of the 2018 campaign is.

He flashed his skills again over the weekend — scoring the game-winning run Friday, posting a 5-RBI game Saturday and then drove in the Cubs' first run in their 7-4 victory Sunday to close out a sweep of the Padres.

Entering the All-Star Break, Baez should be the frontrunner for Most Valuable Player.

For starters, he's the best player on the best team in the league.

Thanks to a recent hot surge by the Cubs and an ugly weekend for the Brewers (who have lost 6 straight), Baez and Co. will go into the break with the best record in the NL. 

Baez, meanwhile, leads the Cubs in WAR and nearly every offensive category — OPS, slugging percentage, homers, RBI, runs scored, doubles, triples, total bases, stolen bases and hits.

And that's not even saying anything about his glovework at any position on the infield or dynamic baserunning.

He's on pace to become the first Cubs player to drive in 125 runs since Sammy Sosa in 2001.

Baez also is on track for a 30-30 season — something only Sosa accomplished in a Cubs uniform in 1993 and 1995. 

El Mago will enjoy his week in the Home Run Derby and as the NL's starting second baseman in the All-Star Game, but those shouldn't be the end of his accolades this year if he can find a way to keep this pace up in the second half.

What other NL candidate would be a better choice for the MVP right now?

Baez is tied for the league lead in RBI. Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar is just behind Baez with 70 RBI, but he also has 70 fewer at-bats than the Cubs star due to a platoon to begin the year. 

Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett are also having great years, but the Reds are nowhere close to a playoff spot. 

Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt are also having very good seasons on teams that are currently in the playoff hunt, but how do you deny the best player on the league's best team?

After all, where would the Cubs be without Baez this season? 

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have battled through injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness, the pitching staff has had all kinds of consistency/health woes and Willson Contreras has yet to find his power stroke at the plate.

At the very least, "El Mago" has been the most important player on the North Side of Chicago during the first 3.5 months of 2018.

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Cubs first-round pick Nico Hoerner made his debut with the Class-A South Bend Cubs, and he did not disappoint.

The 23-year old shortstop showed off impressive hops during an acrobatic grab in the topf of the second inning in his first game with the South Bend Cubs. Hoerner will surely be an exciting defensive prospect with ability like this.

As far as offense goes, through four at-bats at South Bend, Hoerner is batting .500, and this comes after he hit .318 with a home run and two RBI through seven games with the Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs Class A short-season affiliate.

Here is to hoping we continue to see big-time plays from Hoerner.