With playoffs looming, is Jon Lester back where he needs to be?

With playoffs looming, is Jon Lester back where he needs to be?

If Jon Lester is going to continue the recent tradition of taking the ball for every Game 1 of a Cubs postseason series, he's in a good spot.

The veteran southpaw tossed five shutout innings Saturday in a 9-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field in his final tune-up before the playoffs. 

That now makes just one earned run on nine hits and a pair of walks in 11 innings over the last week for Lester, a far cry from the 14 earned runs he gave up in 21.1 innings in his first four starts since returning from the disabled list on Sept. 2.

Lester struck out seven Reds and walked none, using 75 pitches to get through the five innings, a total Cubs manager Joe Maddon believes is a "theoretically perfect" number.

So is Lester back to where he needs to be?

"I feel good," he said. "The last two have been a lot better as far as being able to repeat and command the baseball and throw those different pitches. Kinda got back to throwing a lot more fastballs. But obviously, the teams and the guys that you face dictate that as well with what you're trying to do.

"It feels good to be crisp. ... Good to have good command. Mixed in all our pitches and threw some pitches in different counts that we normally don't throw. So it was good. Had some weak contact. They hit a couple balls hard, but guys made some good plays on'em, so that was good."

The Cubs are still mulling over who their Game 1 starter is Friday in Washington D.C., but it appears as if Lester and Kyle Hendricks are the two options with Maddon already confirming Jake Arrieta would be pushed back and Jose Quintana joining Arrieta in Wednesday's simulated game.

"I don't make those decisions," Lester said. "I told somebody the other day, if they so choose to make me Game 1, obviously that's a huge honor, a huge responsibility to put on your shoulders and go out there and try to get your team off to the best start.

"But if I'm in any of the other games, go out there and compete, just like I would any other start."

Maddon said there are still a "couple moving parts" to nail down before the Cubs make their final decision.

"I hope it's not complex. I don't like complex; I just like simplex," Maddon said, smirking.

Lester finishes the season with a 4.33 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, his worst yearly totals since 2012 (4.82 ERA, 1.38 WHIP). 2017 also marked only the second time over the last decade Lester has not reached the 200-inning plateau in a season.

But even for a guy who has a career 2.63 ERA in 133.2 postseason innings spanning 22 games, Lester admits he has some anxiety before every start.

Whether he goes Game 1 or Game 2 next weekend in D.C., he'll have Sunday through Thursday to go through his normal between-starts routine.

"I don't really get anxious until the day of," Lester said. "I think I'm so engrossed in my routine and what I'm doing and what I'm trying to prepare for.

"And then when you get to that day, it's kinda 'OK, I don't know what to do.' And then I have to pitch. That's when the anxiety and the nervousness kicks in."

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.