Cubs

Miguel Montero believes Cubs have what it takes to win big in October

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Miguel Montero believes Cubs have what it takes to win big in October

PITTSBURGH – The Cubs noticed the way Russell Martin helped change the culture around the Pittsburgh Pirates and targeted the free-agent catcher for his clubhouse presence, pitch-framing feel and take-charge style with a pitching staff.

When the Toronto Blue Jays outbid the Cubs last November – locking up Martin with a five-year, $82 million contract – it sort of created a here-we-go-again feeling for another lost offseason.

But the Cubs didn’t build an all-or-nothing team or ignore the weakened infrastructure that couldn’t withstand a 162-game season.

“We can win it all,” catcher Miguel Montero said.

The Cubs looked like legitimate contenders in beating the Pirates three times in roughly 50 hours and winning this four-game showdown series.

[MORE: Devastating injury for Kang, but Cubs are playing with an edge now]

When the Cubs open a 10-game homestand against the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday afternoon, their magic number will be nine, and Wrigley Field might not go dark in October.

“In the playoffs, it’s whoever gets hot at the right time and anything can happen,” Montero said, “so I like my chances with (Jon) Lester and (Jake) Arrieta. It’s random, (but) I still like my chances with my team. That’s it. That’s all I care about. I don’t care about anything else.

“I believe in my team. And I believe we can do something special. You just got to prove it.”    

After losing the Martin sweepstakes, Plan B became acquiring Montero from the Arizona Diamondbacks for two low-level pitching prospects and taking on the three years and $40 million left on his contract.   

Personal catcher David Ross became the $5 million insurance policy to Lester’s $155 million megadeal and a glue guy in the clubhouse.

Kyle Schwarber never stopped hitting from the moment the Cubs made him the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft, bashing his way from Indiana University through five minor-league affiliates and into a pennant race.

[ALSO: Arrieta will keep being a perfectionist]

The Cubs seemingly went from having not enough catchers to having too many catchers (with Welington Castillo getting traded away and Willson Contreras becoming a Double-A batting champion).

Montero didn’t think he would be in different three-catcher rotations at various points of the season or plan on spraining his thumb right before the All-Star break.

But Starlin Castro also doesn’t see a part-time second baseman when he looks in the mirror. And Chris Coghlan doesn’t want to go on vacation against left-handed pitchers.

The Cubs could go 5-11 the rest of the way and still finish with 90 wins because of their diverse portfolio and a star manager in Joe Maddon who has the juice to make it all work.  

“I would like to play every day, too,” Montero said. “But you know what, we can’t control that. It’s been a long year. There (has) been a lot of ups and downs mentally and physically. You got to go over those humps. When you’re winning…you can’t say much.

“You can’t be really mad about it because we’re winning. That’s what we’re looking for – winning. At this point, anything we can do to contribute to help the team to win. We’re all on board.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“Would I like to play? Yeah, everybody wants to play, of course. If there are guys here (who) don’t want to play, might as well just pack it up and go home.”

To close out the final six innings in Thursday’s 9-6 win over the Pirates, the Cubs used a guy who escaped from Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate (Clayton Richard), a workhorse reliever (Justin Grimm) and a one-time All-Star starter (Travis Wood).    

Montero contributed with a hit, a walk and two runs scored. He’s added some thump to this lineup (15 homers, 50 RBI and a .766 OPS), caught Arrieta’s no-hitter at Dodger Stadium and brought an edge to the clubhouse.

Montero isn’t for everyone – he probably needed a change of scenery and wouldn’t have been an ideal fit for that rebuilding situation in Arizona – but he has helped change a losing environment.

Montero’s messages went viral on Twitter and inspired the “We Are Good” T-shirts you see on TV and around the clubhouse.

“I don’t want people to get down on us,” Montero said. “I don’t want my teammates to get down on us. You’re going to go through tough times.

“You’re not going to be great every day. But as long as you believe that you’re a good player – and you know you can do it – that’s all that matters. It’s about confidence. It’s about belief in your abilities and let it play.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Jon Lester struggles against the division-rival Cardinals

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Jon Lester struggles against the division-rival Cardinals

It was a tough day for the North Siders.

The Cubs got obliterated by the Cardinals as Matt Carpenter had a three-homer, two-double day. Ben Finfer, Seth Gruen and Maggie Hendricks join David Kaplan on the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast to talk about the blowout.

Was Jon Lester due for this kind of terrible outing? And do the Cubs have enough to swing a big trade before the deadline?

Plus, the panel discusses Matt Nagy’s first training camp practice in the rain and Roquan Smith’s absence in Bourbonnais.

You can listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Jon Lester saw a start like this coming

Jon Lester saw a start like this coming

Jon Lester had easily his worst outing of the year, allowing the Cardinals to score eight runs on seven hits, the veteran All-Star only managed three innings before Joe Maddon turned to his bullpen. 

The Cardinals would take game two of the series by the score of 18 to 5, and while none of the Cubs pitchers could silence the Cardinal bats, Lester didn't shy away from his poor outing. 

"You know, I don't want to chalk this up as bad days happen," said Lester. "I think mechanically this has kinda been coming." 

Lester knew he was struggling to hit his spots, and while his ERA was a sparkling 2.58 coming into this start, his peripheral stats had him pegged as a potential regression candidate in the second half of the season.

His 4.35 FIP and 3.30 walks per nine innings show a pitcher who is relying heavily on his defense to get outs, which isn't surprising for a 33-year-old veteran but the walks are a concern. 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon was aware Lester had been working on his mechanics, but even he was surprised that Lester's start went downhill so quickly. 

"I thought he had good stuff to start the game, hitting [92-93 mph] and I'm thinking this might be a good day," said Maddon. "But you could just see from the beginning he was off just a little bit." 

Over Lester's last four starts his ERA has been an uncharacteristic 4.57, issuing 10 walks over those four starts, and only making it past the 6th inning once. At this point of Lester's career, he knows the best way for him to get outs isn't through strikeouts but by inducing soft contact and avoiding walks. 

And while both his hard contact rate and walks have increased this season, Lester's experience and high baseball I.Q. has allowed him to navigate his way through sticky situations. 

"I've been getting outs," Lester said candidly. "I just feel like when I've had that strikeout or I have a guy set up for that pitch I haven't been able to execute it." 

And while this outing was one to forget, it's at least a positive sign that Lester is aware of his issues on the mound. The veteran knows how to get outs and he knows what he needs to do to be successful in the latter part of his career. He just needs to get back to executing those pitches. 

Just don't expect Lester to dive head first into the analytics on how to fix his issues, he'll stick to hard work and baseball common sense. 

"I'm not too concerned with the analytic B.S., I'm worried about my mechanical fix for my next start."