Not-so-usual suspects helping Cubs to baseball's best record

Not-so-usual suspects helping Cubs to baseball's best record

Joe Maddon knew what Tommy La Stella could do.

But surely there weren’t many who predicted that La Stella would be among the best hitters in a lineup that features Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Dexter Fowler.

Of course, many of those guys have swung a good bat, too, as the Cubs have surged out of the gate to an incredible 22-6 start during which they’ve posted a jaw-dropping plus-98 run differential. But La Stella’s efforts — as well as those of Matt Szczur, David Ross and even Cubs pitchers — have been an important key in making the Cubs the best team in the big leagues.

“It shows how deep we are,” La Stella said Friday. “And it’s important because you have your horses — the guys who are going to carry the offense and the pitching and everything like that — but it’s important as you go down the stretch to have that depth, to give those guys days off so they’re fresh for the end of the year and to be able to fill in in big situations.”

La Stella has hit the cover off the ball this season, posting a .356/.420/.667 slash line with a trio of three-hit games. He continued that type of play Friday, hitting the first of the Cubs’ four home runs off Nationals ace Max Scherzer.

And he hasn’t been the only one. Szczur has a .367/.441/.600 slash line with 10 RBIs. Ross  has gone from an offensive liability to a consistent contributor. He’s batting .250/.360/.450 after posting a gruesome .176/.267/.252 line last season and is just one RBI away from matching his 2015 total after already hitting twice as many homers as he did a year ago. Javier Baez was expected to be a prime offensive contributor, but he counts as a bench player, too, and he’s hitting .311.

“When you have bench players like that, you give your regular guys days off comfortably, game in progress, you can do things without any concern. It matters a lot,” Maddon said Saturday. “You don’t have the record that we have right now without a really wonderful supporting cast or other members that are able to participate as if they’re a regular.”

In a season with World Series expectations for the Cubs, a key would undoubtedly be to stay healthy. That hasn’t exactly been the case through nearly 30 games, as numerous players have hit the disabled list. Most notably, Kyle Schwarber’s season ended on the team’s season-opening road trip with that cringe-worthy knee injury. Miguel Montero, the team’s starting catcher, remains on the DL. Even Szczur is currently on the shelf.

But the Cubs haven’t missed a beat through any of it, getting offensive contributions from every spot in the order and every name on the roster. Maddon raved about up-from-the-minors catcher Tim Federowicz before Saturday’s game. In his first start with the team this season, outfielder Ryan Kalish reached base twice and scored a run in Thursday’s win.

“I think it speaks to the depth that we have. We’ve got a ton of guys that are capable of filling in,” La Stella said. “There’s a lot of talent on this team, and we’re deep and we’re young. Guys really pull for each other, I feel that makes a big difference. It doesn’t matter who’s in there, everybody’s on the same page and everybody’s pulling for each other.”

While it’s impressive seeing not-so-usual suspects fueling the Cubs’ remarkable start, the inverse might be true, as well. With so much talent, such high expectations and a clubhouse staying loose thanks to Maddon’s managing and all this winning, newcomers are finding it easy to jump in and contribute.

“It’s contagious in here. There’s confidence brewing in all aspects,” Kalish said. “The more everyone gets out there, the better. When you see guys like Tommy and people making names for themselves, it’s really good to watch.”

“That happens when you’re with any good team,” Maddon said. “The Patriots in football is a good example of that particular concept. I would say right now if you showed up at Golden State you’d become a pretty good basketball player. So I think when you get talented people that show up in a good environment, it’s going to bring out the best in you. And I’m not just talking about our clubhouse. I’m talking about the city, the fan base, the ballpark, the ownership. All those things matter.

“Ask any guy that’s new here ask how good they feel if they’re sitting on that bench or on that field when that game begins. There’s energy. There’s energy in the moment. I think maybe energy and expectation should become synonymous terms.”

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season. 

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Much has been made about Wednesday night's brawl between the Marlins and Braves, which started when Braves young star Ronald Acuna was nailed in the elbow with a 99 mph fastball from Jose Urena. The strangest part of the whole situation was that it seemed like Urena was unprovoked by Acuna or any of the Braves players prior to plunking the former No. 1 prospect in all of baseball.  

The ever wise Cubs skipper Joe Maddon was asked about the incident prior to Thursday's game, making it clear he felt plays like these needed to leave the game entirely. 

It was announced Thursday afternoon that Urena would be suspended just 6 games for intentionally throwing Acuna, which means the Marlins starter will likely only miss one game for trying to hurt Acuna. The good news is that Acuna did not sustain any serious injuries, but Joe Maddon is right there is no reason for people to be hurling nearly triple-digit fastballs at players. Whether provoked or not, intentionally throwing at players is something that needs to be phased out of the game, and its safe to assume Maddon would agree.