Cubs

Lester thinks Cubs will give Cardinals a run for their money

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Lester thinks Cubs will give Cardinals a run for their money

ST. LOUIS – This is why the Cubs gave Jon Lester six years and $155 million guaranteed: To beat the best team in baseball – the franchise’s biggest rival – and transform this group into the kind of contender they watch here seemingly every October.

These are the benefits that come with having an ace: Boosting clubhouse confidence, giving a beat-up bullpen a break and stopping the four-game losing streak.

This definitely wasn’t one of Joe Maddon’s oil paintings, and the degree of difficulty became higher than it probably needed to be. But the Cubs still hung on for a 6-5 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday night at Busch Stadium.

Lester beat St. Louis twice during the 2013 World Series to win his second ring with the Boston Red Sox. So he’s not going to concede anything, even with the Cubs (14-12) in the middle of their youth movement and the Cardinals (20-7) jumping out to a 5.5-game lead in the National League Central.

“It’s May – we got a long ways to go,” said Lester, who went seven innings, giving up four runs (one earned). “They’re obviously a very, very good team, a team that’s built on a history of winning. They’ve got a certain way they go about things. We got to find our way. This team hasn’t done anything. We got a bunch of talent. But that doesn’t get you anywhere.

“We got to keep grinding it out and keep playing these guys tough. We’ve been in every game that we’ve played these guys. It’s not like we’re coming in here and getting our butts kicked.

“You play 162 for a reason. We’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing and see where we’re at – at the end.”

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Lester finished April at 0-2 with a 6.23 ERA but has notched two wins within the first week of May, chopping that ERA down to 4.04. If the All-Star lefty sharpens his cutter and really gets rolling, maybe this team will take off this summer.

“We can play with these guys,” Maddon said. “Head-to-head, I like it. Not a little bit. A lot. … I really believe that. We need more experience. We need a little bit more salt and pepper, a little oregano.

“We have to do a better job once you get on top of making pitches – and being more assertive – and the kind of things that take you to that level. But purely when it comes man-for-man, I’m good right now. I feel good about it.”

Lester walked up the dugout steps at 7:32 p.m. and jogged out to the mound with a 2-0 lead before he threw his first pitch. But the Cardinals are relentless, capitalizing on mistakes and creating their own sense of momentum. Lester couldn’t handle a throw from Anthony Rizzo while covering first base in the second inning, and that led to one unearned run.

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Cubs fans must have been feeling like here we go again: With two outs in the sixth inning, Jhonny Peralta hit a sinking line drive that went underneath Addison Russell’s glove and through his legs for an “E4” that led to two more unearned runs.

But Lester ended that second-and-third threat by striking out pinch-hitter Matt Adams swinging. And Lester pumped his fist after freezing Mark Reynolds with a 92 mph fastball to end the seventh inning, leaving the potential game-tying run stranded at second base.

The Cubs survived, with Pedro Strop needing a double-play ball to escape an eighth-inning jam with only one run scoring. And Hector Rondon putting runners on the corners in the ninth before getting his sixth save. But you definitely notice a team with a lot more nerve this season, and that should start with Lester.

“We haven’t been playing all that great,” Lester said. “We’ve had our chances and everybody knows that. But (it’s being) able to separate it and just go play a game. Yesterday was yesterday and we’re going to worry about today. For the most part, I feel like these guys have done a great job of that this year. You worry about the task at hand.”

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.

For now, it appears Javy Baez has avoided serious injury on hit-by-pitch

For now, it appears Javy Baez has avoided serious injury on hit-by-pitch

ST. LOUIS — Cubs nation can breathe a sigh of relief for now.

The team announced Javy Baez has a left elbow contusion after taking a 90 mph fastball off it in the third inning of Sunday night's game. He was initially scheduled for an X-ray to make sure there is nothing more sinister at play, but that was deemed not necessary throughout the course of the game and it looks as if the Cubs' dynamic young infielder has avoided serious injury.

"I'm fine. Just really sore," Baez said. "It got me really good right on the elbow. I thought the pain was gonna go away right away but kinda numbed my whole arm. We've been icing it. It feels pretty sore, but right now, I'm good."

Baez said he didn't move his arm for almost an hour after getting hit, but wasn't experiencing any numbness or lack of feeling in his left hand or fingers after the game. He didn't rule out playing in Monday night's homestand opener at  Wrigley Field.

Still, this is not what the Cubs wanted to see.

The Cubs entered play Sunday night having gone 24-12 since getting swept out of St. Louis in the first weekend of May. They were feeling good about themselves, starting to get their mojo back and playing more like the team everybody expected.

And then Baez took a fastball off the left elbow.

After a couple minute delay, Baez was led off the field and Addison Russell came in off the bench to replace him at first base.

The 25-year-old is in the midst of a breakout season for the Cubs, sitting 5th in the National League with 46 RBI and on pace for a near 30-30 season (33 homers, 29 stolen bases). 

He had slowed a bit (.175 average, .502 OPS in June) but still gives the Cubs so much energy and versatility on a daily basis with his ability to move around the infield and lineup.