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.”

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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. 

Cubs first round pick Nico Hoerner makes unexpected visit to Wrigley Field

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USA TODAY

Cubs first round pick Nico Hoerner makes unexpected visit to Wrigley Field

There is nothing quite like visiting Wrigley Field for the first time, and for Cubs 2018 first round draft pick Nico Hoerner, his first visit to his future home park was special despite the circumstances being less than ideal. 

The 21-year-old shortstop drafted out of Stanford will miss the rest of the season due to a left elbow injury, which was examined by Cubs team doctors Thursday morning. It was concluded Hoerner suffered an injury to a ligament in his left elbow, but would not require surgery. 

But after finding out his season was likely done, he figured he'd at least stick around for the Thursday night Cubs game against the Cardinals. 

"I had no idea this was going to happen today," Said Hoerner. "I flew in from the Quad Cities this morning, saw the doctor and said [to the Cubs] 'Hey can I come to the field?" 

Hoerner was able to spend time with the Cubs during batting practice this afternoon, mentioning the conversations he had with the players, in particular, Anthony Rizzo who made a lasting mark on the young Cub prospect. 

"Rizzo pulled me over and introduced me to the group. He actually clumped everyone into guys who were drafted in the first round and guys who weren't." 

Hoerner also got the chance to speak with Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis, who seemed to have struck a chord with the shortstop. Hoerner said the conversation was 'refreshing' and focused less about what he needed to do with his swing and more about competing with the pitcher. 

As for the future for Hoerner, he'll start rehabbing in Arizona and focus on getting right for the start of next season. It wasn't clear if the Cubs planned on trying to get their top pick back on the field in 2018, but Hoerner looked impressive during his short time in the Cubs minor leagues. 

Slashing 327/.450/.571 in 60 professional at-bats, Hoerner was showing he belonged in this league, having just recently being promoted to the Cubs Low-A South Bend Cubs.

But he only managed four games before injuring his left elbow making a diving stop to his left. But Hoerner seemed in good spirits, showing a resiliency that exemplifies his future ballclub. 

"It's always a work in progress. Just like everybody, I'm working to get better." 

 

Brandon Morrow and the state of the Cubs bullpen ahead of the trade deadline

Brandon Morrow and the state of the Cubs bullpen ahead of the trade deadline

Brandon Morrow is getting an extended All-Star Break.

For the second time in the last month, the Cubs closer is heading to the disabled list to get another break, this time with inflammation in his right biceps.

That leaves the Cubs without their best relief pitcher — a guy with a 1.47 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 22 saves in 24 chances — for the next week as the team hits the ground running in the second half with 12 games in 11 days against the Cardinals and Diamondbacks.

"It's been bothering him a bit, but we thought it was manageable," Joe Maddon said before the Cubs kicked off play Thursday evening. "But now it's not [manageable], so just have to take a little bit of a break. 

"We don't anticipate him being gone for a long time, but it seems to be prudent to go this course right now."

Maddon pointed to a bit lower velocity Morrow had in San Diego Sunday and believes now is "the right time to back off for the latter part of the season."

The Cubs do have Carl Edwards Jr. back from the paternity list and the 26-year-old flamethrower already got a "break" of his own earlier this season when he missed about 5 weeks with a shoulder issue.

The word "break" is key here because that's how Maddon and the Cubs characterize these little stints on the disabled list.

After all, they are "breaks," even if they're not built into a season like the All-Star Break.

The Cubs want both Morrow and Edwards to be healthy and dynamic in late September and throughout the postseason in October. They've been uber-cautious about the two pitchers throughout their respective Cubs careers and a stint on the disabled list serves to save bullets and wear and tear on their right arms in the dog days of the season.

After all, Morrow has already appeared in 35 games this season, which he's only done once since 2008 — last year, when he pitched in 45 games. Morrow has a long history of arm issues, so the Cubs have given him plenty of slack as they try to keep him healthy for the most important stretch of the season.

But that's also why the Cubs are looking to add some reinforcements to the bullpen before the trade deadline. They were linked to Brad Hand before the lefty was traded to the Cleveland Indians Thursday and they've also been linked to Orioles closer Zach Britton.

If Britton's healthy, he could serve as a perfect fit for the Cubs as a rental with closing experience and a guy from the left side to help fill both needs in the Chicago bullpen.

The Cubs currently have Justin Wilson, Randy Rosario and Brian Duensing as left-handed options in the bullpen, but all are at varying levels of confidence at the moment.

Wilson still has some issues with control, but otherwise has been very good of late. Rosario is a rookie and his outlying numbers indicate his 1.95 ERA is a bit of a mirage. Duensing just recently returned from the DL himself and currently boasts a 6.59 ERA and 1.83 WHIP on the season.

Then there's Mike Montgomery, who right now has a stranglehold on a spot in the Cubs rotation while Yu Darvish gets healthy. There is currently no update on Darvish, which means Montgomery won't be moving back to the bullpen anytime soon.

With less than 2 weeks left until the trade deadline, Maddon would be all for adding another arm or two to his pitching staff.

"Sure. All of the pitching, they're definitely going to want to look at it," Maddon said. "Our numbers are among the best in the NL both overall and as a bullpen and then even into the starters.

"But you're always looking to make it better. That's what GMs do. We'll see how it all plays out. We're hoping the [Morrow] thing is a shorter situation, which we believe it will be."