Cubs

Messing with Jon Lester gets Dodgers nowhere as Cubs move closer to World Series

Messing with Jon Lester gets Dodgers nowhere as Cubs move closer to World Series

LOS ANGELES – This isn’t some WikiLeaks bombshell: Jon Lester has the yips. It must be in every scouting report by now, the reminder to get inside his head and make him feel uncomfortable, forcing him to field his position, throw to first base and become distracted with the running game.  

It’s not a secret, since the Cubs have openly answered those questions for the last two years, a timeframe that has seen the beginning of Lester’s $155 million megadeal and back-to-back trips to the National League Championship Series. 

It’s just so much easier said than done. The Los Angeles Dodgers got cute and tried to toy with Lester, and now they are one loss away from going home for the winter and wondering how good they could have been with another No. 1 starter to pair with Clayton Kershaw.  

Lester did not look like someone you would want to mess with on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, channeling all that adrenaline into an 8-4 victory that gave the Cubs a 3-2 lead in this NLCS. A big Game 5 performance means the Cubs could clinch their first NL pennant in 71 years by beating Kershaw on Saturday night at Wrigley Field, which would set up an irresistible World Series matchup against the Cleveland Indians.  

“I play this game with emotion,” Lester said. “And if it rubs people the wrong way, oh well.”

A Dodgers team that can’t handle left-handed pitching (major-league-worst .622 OPS during the regular season) didn’t have any other answers for Lester, who unloaded 108 pitches and allowed only one run across seven intense innings.

Lester’s first inning began with his only walk, throwing four straight balls to Kike Hernandez, who showed bunt and then danced and hopped off first base. Hernandez never scored and the diversionary tactics simply didn’t work.

“It is what it is,” Lester said. “People have been doing it all year. I’d prefer Adrian Gonzalez and Joc Pederson to try to bunt. They’re home-run guys. They hit 30 homers, so I’d rather them put the ball on the ground and let these guys try to field it and take my chances that way.”

Lester didn’t let one of his infielders grab the ball Pederson bunted toward the left side of the mound, making a one-hop throw to first base to end the second inning. Lester looked back at the home dugout and gave the Dodgers a death stare.

When Lester felt like he got squeezed and finally struck out Corey Seager swinging to end the third inning, he screamed, flexed his muscles and glared at umpire Alfonso Marquez behind the plate.

The Dodgers did manufacture a run in the fourth inning with Howie Kendrick’s double down the left-field line, headfirst slide to steal third base (verified on replay review) and a Gonzalez groundball. But the Cubs have so many ways to counteract anyone thinking about exploiting that weakness, from Lester’s quick delivery to personal catcher David Ross to changing tempos to the explosive stuff that made a Cy Young Award contender this year. 

“They’re trying to find a way to beat one of the best pitchers in the game, and I don’t blame ‘em for that,” Ross said. “They were trying to rattle him a little bit. We’ve dealt with that all year, so it’s nothing new. 

“I want them to bunt. I want them to give us free outs. That’s fine. We have great athletes in the infield. Guys are ready for it.

“Every out matters in the playoffs, every pitch matters. And so you give one away, that’s one you’re not getting back.”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

There is also something about October that brings out the best in Lester, a money player who’s allowed two runs in 13 innings during this NLCS, to go along with his 1-0 win over Johnny Cueto and the San Francisco Giants in the divisional round.  

Lester (.064 career batting average) even did an over-the-top bat flip after flying out to left field in the seventh inning, moments after NLCS LVP Joe Blanton gave up the go-ahead, two-run homer to Addison Russell, one of the dynamic young talents Theo Epstein’s baseball-operations group once sold the big-name free agent.

The Cubs caught fire last year and won 97 games, but 2016 was really supposed to be The Year where The Plan came together. When Lester made his recruiting trip to Chicago to check out a last-place team just before Thanksgiving 2014, he kept telling Epstein: “They’re going to burn this city down again when we win the World Series.”

Lester missed being on that 2004 team that forever changed the Boston Red Sox by two years, earning World Series rings in 2007 and 2013. Now the Cubs are on the verge of making history – and there will be no running from that. 

A Hobbled Hero: Baez, Cubs keep finding wild ways to win

A Hobbled Hero: Baez, Cubs keep finding wild ways to win

Javy Baez has only seen one pitch in the Cubs-Phillies series, but that's all he needs to make a major impact.

"El Mago" notched his first walk-off RBI since May 8, 2016 in the bottom of the ninth inning Tuesday night, lacing the only pitch he saw from Juan Nicasio down the right-field line. Baez had missed the entire series to that point due to a heel injury he suffered Sunday in Washington D.C. and actually underwent an MRI before Tuesday's game to make sure there was no other damage.

Baez's single put the finishing touches on the Cubs' first win this season when trailing after eight innings. They now lead the majors with five walk-off victories.

After another blown lead by the bullpen (the third in the last week), the Cubs entered the bottom of the ninth down 2-1, but Kris Bryant led off with a walk and then Anthony Rizzo doubled. After a Willson Contreras flyout, Jason Heyward was intentionally walked and then Albert Almora Jr. hit a tapper in front of home plate that Bryant just barely beat out at home to tie the game.

Then came Baez, as Joe Maddon opted to go to the hobbled star in place of Daniel Descalso, who was 0-for-4 on the evening to that point.

Prior to the ninth inning, Maddon wasn't sure if Baez would even be available to pinch hit in the game, but trainer P.J. Mainville taped up Javy's foot/ankle at the start of the inning and gave the Cubs skipper the all-clear.

"Just give PJ some credit on the tape job," Maddon joked. "This is right out of the Lombardi era kind of stuff. Tape and aspirin — go ahead and play. That's what everybody's football coach said."

If Baez hadn't delivered the walk-off hit and the Cubs wound up in extra innings, Maddon said he didn't know if Baez would be able to even play the field on his injured heel and the only player left on the bench was backup catcher Victor Caratini.

"In moments like that, you can only think it so far," Maddon said. "And then at some point, you gotta throw it at the wall and see what happens."

Maddon doesn't know if Baez will be able to play Wednesday night, but plans to make two lineups and then check with the shortstop to see about his status when he arrives at the field.

Baez's Cubs teammates are no longer surprised at the ridiculous things he does or how easy he makes some very difficult tasks look. Bryant joked he was actually upset Baez didn't hit it over the fence for a walk-off grand slam.

"I don't even know what's going on with him half the time anyway," Bryant said. "It's like, 'oh, Javy's pinch-hitting. And then I was debating like, 'don't swing at the first pitch," but I was like, 'no, it's Javy.' 

"It was awesome. He just like goes up there and swings the bat. If he didn't have to run to first base, he wouldn't. It's just like, 'I'm so good, I'm just gonna get this hit and then we're gonna go home.'"

However awe-inspiring Baez's Kirk Gibson impression was, the only reason the Cubs were even in the spot to win the game at that moment was because of the hustle and aggressive baserunning from Bryant. 

His game-tying run on Almora's tapper in front of the plate was huge, but his first trip around the bases was even more impressive. 

With Bryant on second base and Rizzo on first in the first inning, both runners were off on the full-count pitch to Contreras, who hit a routine grounder to Phillies shortstop Jean Segura. As Segura made the throw to first to retire Contreras, Bryant never hesitated around third base and scored on some heads-up, aggressive baserunning that looked like a page right out of the El Mago Playbook.

Bryant said as he was running, he thought about what it's like to play the left side of the infield on such a routine play and felt like he could catch the Phillies by surprise.

"I saw [third base coach Brian Butterfield] holding me up, too, and I just kept going," Bryant said. "I almost felt like I had eyes in the back of my head. It was kind of like one of those experiences that it's hard to explain, but I just kept going."

That run was all Jose Quintana and the Cubs needed for six innings, until Carl Edwards Jr. came on in relief for the seventh. Edwards allowed a leadoff single and then a double two batters later, giving way to Brandon Kintzler with two outs.

Kintzler gave up a groundball single up the middle to Andrew McCutchen and just like that, the Cubs' thin 1-0 lead had evaporated in the blink of an eye. And with the offensive issues (they were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position before Baez's hit), that looked to be enough to send the Cubs to their second straight defeat in frustrating fashion.

But the magic of El Mago and Bryant allowed the Cubs to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and send fans home happy and with a little more belief that this just might be a special summer on Chicago's North Side.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Jake Arrieta discusses his return & Mark DeRosa talks the leadoff spot

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Jake Arrieta discusses his return & Mark DeRosa talks the leadoff spot

Hear from Jake Arrieta after his first start as a visitor at Wrigley Field, including his thoughts on facing his former teammates and the standing ovation he received during his first at-bat (1:30). Then, Luke Stuckmeyer is joined by MLB Network's Mark DeRosa to discuss the Cubs' leadoff spot, the team outperforming expectations so far, and much more (8:15).

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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