Mets knock out Jon Lester and give Cubs another reality check

Mets knock out Jon Lester and give Cubs another reality check

NEW YORK – This played out like an October rerun, the Cubs looking lost and overmatched against the New York Mets and trying to figure out what just happened. 

This four-game sweep at Citi Field became another reality check for an anointed team, a giddy media corps and a fan base expecting a World Series parade down Michigan Avenue.    
It ended with Sunday afternoon’s 14-3 blowout, a resurgent Mets lineup absolutely rocking Jon Lester while Noah Syndergaard unleashed 100-mph heat on Cubs hitters in a rematch of last year’s National League Championship Series.

“We came in probably too excited about playing them again and getting revenge over what happened in the playoffs,” Miguel Montero said, “which I don’t think is a smart thing to do. You just got to play your game and forget. It’s already over.”

A showcase series between two big-market teams with star power devolved into Montero pitching in a 12-run game and getting the last four outs, because Lester could only get four outs at the start. Manager Joe Maddon likes to change the subject and play up the idea of esprit de corps when a veteran catcher pitches. But all jokes aside, Montero wasn’t quite feeling that spin.

“It’s terrible,” Montero said. “It’s just bad. They outplayed us, simple as that. We didn’t play good enough. We didn’t hit good enough. We didn’t pitch good enough. Overall, it was just a sloppy performance.”

The day after being named the NL pitcher of the month for June – during what’s been a terrific Year 2 (9-4, 2.67 ERA) of that $155 million megadeal – Lester walked off the mound in the second inning while a crowd of 36,137 stood and cheered.

“Guys have turned the page on last year,” said Lester, who faced 14 hitters and allowed nine hits, three homers, one walk and eight runs. “They’re swinging the bats really well right now, and they made us pay for our mistakes. I feel like they didn’t make a mistake the whole series. Sometimes, you run into a buzz saw like that.” 

Yes, the Cubs reached the halfway point of their schedule with a 51-30 record, an eight-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals, maybe seven All-Stars who will get all-expenses paid trips to San Diego and a creative front office that can make changes at the trade deadline.

That 25-6 start wasn’t a total mirage. The Cubs have playoff-tested veterans, premium young talent and a manager who knows what he’s doing. No one will be surprised when this lineup creates fireworks on the Fourth of July at Wrigley Field against the Cincinnati Reds and their Triple-A pitchers.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

But you also can’t ignore how the Cubs have played against teams trying to win now, losing series to the Washington Nationals, Cardinals, Miami Marlins and Mets since the middle of June.

“It’s not a matter of anybody in this clubhouse panicking by any means,” Lester said. “Let’s be honest, we weren’t going to be on that pace (for) the entire season. It’s 162 games. It’s a long year. There’s a lot of things that can happen. You guys are seeing them now.”

This can’t all be explained away by injuries, youthful mistakes and the natural ebb and flow of the season. The Cubs threw almost $290 million at their problems after an NLCS sweep where they never led at any point – and the Mets (44-37) again exposed some of those fundamental issues that haven’t completely gone away with the arrival of big-name free agents. 

The Cubs went 0-for-17 with runners in scoring position during the first three games in Queens, struck out 44 times overall against New York’s high-octane pitching staff, allowed 22 hits on getaway day and got outscored by a 32-11 aggregate. 

Good luck against Syndergaard, a 6-foot-6 beast with triple-digit velocity and pinpoint control. “Thor” didn’t seem bothered by that bone spur in his right elbow, allowing one run across seven low-stress innings and finishing with eight strikeouts against zero walks.

[RELATED: What if Cubs don’t get Jake Arrieta back pitching at a Cy Young Award level?]

If Jake Arrieta loses that intimidation factor – and starts to look more like a pretty good pitcher rather than an ace – then the Cubs can shred their World Series blueprint. 

But 81 games in, and with New York in their heads, all the Cubs can do is write this off, remembering how much it meant to beat the Mets seven times during the first half of last season.

“When you get two evenly matched teams, a lot of it has to do with what’s going on dynamically with the group at that particular moment,” Maddon said. “At the end of a pretty rugged road trip with a lot of banged-up guys, it happens. I don’t think you try to overanalyze it. You just move on to the next day and understand that our next really good run’s right around the corner.”

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Willson Contreras’ third-inning home run might not have ended up standing out too much in an All-Star Game featuring a jaw-dropping and record-shattering 10 dingers.

But, obviously, it will always stand out to the guy who hit it.

“I enjoyed every single second that I spent out there.”

Remarkably, Contreras repeated his feat from two seasons ago, when he hit his first big league homer on the first big league pitch he ever saw. Ditto on Tuesday night at Nationals Park, when he launched the first pitch he saw as an All Star out over the wall in left field.

“When I hit the ball and thought it was gone, I went back to 2016, playing in Chicago. It was the same thing, first pitch for a homer,” Contreras, all smiles, said following the American League’s 8-6 victory. “I’m really blessed with these kinds of situations. Those moments, they’re going to be history and they’re going to be in my mind and my heart.”

Contreras’ long ball was the highlight of the evening for fans watching back home in Chicago. Javy Baez got a hit in his first All-Star at-bat but was outdone by his teammate. White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu was hitless in his two trips to the plate.

And while it will be a highlight on this night for Cubs fans, it will be a highlight forever for Contreras, who enjoyed the heck out of his first All-Star experience.

“‘I did it, I did it,’” he said when asked what was going through his head. “I knew it was something special. And I wasn’t trying to do too much because these guys are nasty, throwing 98 in the first inning. I just tried to get the hit out.”

The nasty guy he went deep against was Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell, whose 2.27 ERA on the season made him a very worthy inclusion on the AL roster. But Contreras was more impressed with the guy who started the game for the National League, raving about Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer after the game.

“He was great, man. Great stuff, he gets so into the game,” Contreras said. “I would like to have him one day on my team or play with him for a few years. That guy is amazing.”

That’s not the current Nationals star Cubs fans are dreaming about, Willy, but point taken.

But it wasn’t Snell or Scherzer or even Baez or Jon Lester, also in the NL dugout, who Contreras was thinking about the most during his home run trot. Instead, Contreras was thinking about his grandfather, Ernesto, who passed away a few years ago.

“My grandpa, he died in 2015,” Contreras said. “I grew up with him.

“He didn’t play ball. But I feel like every time I go out there and step into the box, he’s at my back. It just feels amazing when you hit a homer or do something special, look at the sky and you know that he’s there smiling somewhere.”

It all made for a pretty incredible night for Contreras, who has officially and loudly taken his place among baseball’s best on the game’s biggest stage.

The only thing that was missing? The ball.

Yeah, Contreras didn’t get the ball, not that he really expected to. But if you’ve got it, he wants it.

“I don’t think they’re giving it back,” he said with a grin.

We’ll see. Social media’s a powerful tool. So reach out.

Manny Machado as a Dodger creates a formidable foe out west for the Cubs

Manny Machado as a Dodger creates a formidable foe out west for the Cubs

Well, it's finally happening, or at least it's going to happen. The Athletics' Ken Rosenthal reported during the MLB All-Star game that the Baltimore Orioles had agreed to officially move their franchise player Manny Machado. Neither team has confirmed anything at this time, but the deal has reportedly been as close to a done deal for the last day or so, and it would seem Machado is destined for finish his 2018 campaign in Hollywood. 

Of course, with this addition, the reigning National League champions look primed for another deep postseason run. Though, the club is clinging to a half-game lead in the NL West, with Machado in tow the Dodgers are right with the Cubs and Brewers as the elite squads in the National League. It could be argued the Dodgers didn't necessarily 'need' Machado, with an offense that was already in the top 10 in runs scored, but Machado might be the perfect addition for the Dodgers. 

After losing their young star shortstop Corey Seager for the season with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, the Dodgers were in need of a more permanent solution at shortstop. And despite Machado's defensive metrics showing a steep decline in his glove at shortstop, the Dodgers will welcome his robust slash line of .315/.387/.575 while ignoring any shortcomings on defense. 

But what this means for the Cubs, who are only two games off the 2016 World Series club pace, is the path to another championship will likely require another run-in with the Dodgers. The club's biggest threat has been at this point the Brewers, but it's not hard to envision the Dodgers distancing themselves as the clear favorites in the National League with Machado in the heart of the order.

The good news for the Chicago is at least Machado didn't end up in Milwaukee, but that also could mean the Brewers make a more concerted effort to acquire pitching before the July 30th deadline. The Cubs will also see the return of Yu Darvish, who despite only managing to win one game this season in a Cubs uniform, will be a massive upgrade over the scuffling Tyler Chatwood. If the Cubs pitching can start producing like many expected them to before the start of 2018, and guys like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant start to hit alongside All-Stars Javier Baez and Willson Contreras, it's not hard to imagine the Cubs separating themselves from the pack in the 2nd half of season. 

The Dodgers are no strangers to blockbuster deadline deals, acquiring Yu Darvish in a similar three-month rental situation, but the Cubs getting a bat like Rizzo right and an arm like Darvish healthy would be better than any deal Theo Epstein could make to improve this team. And if it's not enough, the Cubs have a solid track record of grabbing former Dodger rentals in the off-season. The push for the playoffs starts Thursday for the north-siders.