Cubs

Maddon, Cubs trying to 'unearth' Soler with lineup switch

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Maddon, Cubs trying to 'unearth' Soler with lineup switch

Jorge Soler checked off another big league "first" Saturday.

The 23-year-old slugger hit leadoff for the first time in his brief MLB career in Cubs manager Joe Maddon's attempt to get Soler going at the plate.

Standing at 6-foot-4 with a 215-pound frame, Soler looks more like a linebacker than a leadoff guy, but Maddon thinks this move could help get Soler back on track.

"I've been debating on this one," Maddon said before Saturday's game against the Brewers. "I've done it in the past with different guys, just to have them think differently.

"It's not about changing your mechanics or trying new things — it's just to think differently. And I'm all about when a hitter is not going as he can, the last thing you want to do is change up his mechanics. You want to change your mental mechanics first.

"So right now, he sees his name in the leadoff spot, he's got a different vibe about him, probably a little more carefree — I would think — about the day."

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Soler leads the National League with 35 strikeouts, having played in all 21 of the Cubs' games this season.

Since going 2-for-5 with a double and two runs in the Cubs' win over the Pirates on April 21 in Pittsburgh, Soler has been in a slump at the plate, hitting just .133 with a .424 OPS — and that includes a 2-for-4 game Friday.

In the last eight games, Soler is 4-for-30 and has seen his average fall from .327 to .259 on the season. He also has struck out 17 times in that stretch.

Soler has made 14 career starts in the No. 2 spot in the order, but is hitting just .250 with a .270 on-base percentage and .603 OPS in that slot. He has failed to hit a homer in 60 at-bats while batting second.

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Maddon thinks the switch can help put Soler at ease, and he wants the rookie to go up there with a different approach, worrying more about setting the table than cleaning it up.

"The whole job I want to get across from him is — you're out there to score runs," Maddon said. "Don't worry about home runs. Don't worry about hits. Go out there and score runs."

In order for Soler to lead off, Maddon had to bump Dexter Fowler down to the two-hole. Fowler has been doing his job this season as a tablesetter, with a .367 on-base percentage and 12 runs on the season.

Fowler is in the midst of a six-game hitting streak in which he's 10-for-21 (.476 average) with a 1.046 OPS.

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Maddon isn't concerned that a different spot in the order will affect the veteran centerfielder much.

"I told (Fowler) I just wanted to try to unearth the other guy," Maddon said. "I wasn't worried about Dexter; I think he's going well.

"This is more designed to Jorge specifically to see if we can get him to feel a little bit better about himself."

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Cole Hamels' dominant start to his Cubs career continued on Friday in stellar fashion, and with some considerable help from his infield.

The 34-year-old veteran not only pitched seven innings of five-hit ball without allowing a run, but induced five ground ball double plays. The Cubs finished with a staggering seven double plays in a 1-0 win at the Pirates on Friday.

The last time the Cubs turned five double plays was in 1985. 

All five hits Hamels gave up were groundball singles. The 16 groundballs induced is the most for a Cubs pitcher this year.

After Hamels exited after seven innings, the Cubs got double plays in the eighth, on a line drive double play with Jorge De La Rosa on the mound, and ninth, on a groundball induced by Jesse Chavez to end the game.

Hamels was initially brought in to provide depth to a struggling rotation and ease the pain of Yu Darvish being unavailable. But Hamels has now started an honest debate over who should be the Cubs' starter in Game 1 of the postseason. He has been otherworldly since joining the Cubs, with an 0.72 ERA, three wins and one no-decision (the Cubs won and he had nine strikeouts). 

The 1-0 win over the Pirates gives the Cubs more breathing room in the NL Central. The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday, pushing the Cubs lead to 4.5 games in the division.

And the Hamels hot-streak comes at an excellent time for the North Siders, who took in Jon Lester's gem of an outing on Thursday, where he went six innings with no earned runs and eight strikeouts in a win against the Pirates. The Cubs starting pitching seems to be turning the corner, and with three straight series against sub-.500 teams following their series in Pittsburgh, this could be the beginning of a great run of outings that carries the Cubs confidently into the postseason.

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season.