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.”

Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening


Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening

Is this the offseason that Cubs executive Jason McLeod finally becomes an MLB general manager?

According to Bruce Levine, the Giants are reportedly interested in McLeod, the Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development, for their vacant general manager position.

McLeod joined the Cubs' front office in 2011 alongside Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Before the Cubs, he spent six years in the Red Sox front office and two in the Padres' (with Hoyer, who was San Diego's general manager from 2010-2011). 

Of course, the Giants' reported interest in McLeod doesn't necessarily mean that he will interview for the job. However, it's worth noting that McLeod interviewed for the Twins' general manager job in 2016; he also withdrew his name from consideration for the Padres' general manager job in 2014. 

In addition to the Giants, McLeod's name has been linked to the Mets' general manager vacancy. This is more speculation, but the point is that it seems to be only a matter of time before McLeod is hired as general manager elsewhere.

For what it's worth, though, McLeod is under contract through 2021 and has previously said that he is grateful to be with the Cubs. 

“I’m exceptionally grateful,” McLeod said. “All of us are. Look at where we are at this moment in time with this team," McLeod said in 2016. "I can’t imagine a better environment, a better culture to work at in baseball.

"We’ve been together a long time. We’re friends. We’re good. We embrace the fact that we are good. And we challenge ourselves to be even better.”

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons. The Cubs confirmed the move Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke out of the Rangers camp.

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.