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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.

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"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."

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

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USA TODAY

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.