Rained out in Pittsburgh, Jon Lester wants Cubs to play 'stupid' down the stretch


Rained out in Pittsburgh, Jon Lester wants Cubs to play 'stupid' down the stretch

PITTSBURGH — Jon Lester’s Cubs Way for young players learning on the job and experiencing a pennant race for the first time:

“This is going to sound really bad, but I’ve always been a big believer in playing stupid,” Lester said. “Being naïve.”

The Cubs wanted their young players to feel the thunder-and-lightning intensity of a playoff-type atmosphere against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.

The Cubs got actual thunder and lightning on Monday night, sitting through two separate rain delays that combined to last three hours and 29 minutes before the game got postponed at almost midnight local time.

Manager Joe Maddon didn’t become frustrated with the way this 1-1 tie got wiped away after four innings, blaming it on unpredictable, shifting weather patterns: “It was truly a nature situation. Typical Pennsylvania summer.”

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The game won’t be replayed this week as part of a doubleheader. The Cubs still have Jake Arrieta (11-6, 2.62 ERA) and Dan Haren (7-7, 3.42 ERA) lined up for Tuesday and Wednesday against the Pirates (61-43).

The Cubs (57-47) are already scheduled to return to Pittsburgh next month (Sept. 15-17) for another series that could have huge playoff implications. Lester remembered the win-or-else pressure he felt with the Boston Red Sox and how Maddon’s carefree Tampa Bay Rays did the worst-to-first turnaround and made it to the World Series.

“I saw it with the Rays in 2008,” Lester said. “They were naïve to the situation. They had nothing to lose. We have nothing to lose. We’re not supposed to win. We’re supposedly still in the rebuilding stages.

“If we make the playoffs, that’s just an added bonus. I like that. I like (how) we’re not really the underdog, but we’re (also) not really expected to do anything.”

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The Cubs are 10 games above .500 for the first time since the end of the 2008 season, when they captured a second straight division title before falling into an organizational abyss.

It’s hard to remember another week that’s been this anticipated around the team (or at least one that involved actual, meaningful games and not trade-deadline intrigue, the debut of another hyped prospect or some Wrigley Field renovation update).

The Cubs openly overpaid Lester — $155 million guaranteed — for his been-there, done-that big-game experience. Lester got five outs and pushed Francisco Cervelli to a 3-2 count before the storm became too much and both teams cleared the field in the middle of a scoreless game.

The first rain delay started in the second inning and lasted two hours and nine minutes, forcing the Cubs and Pirates to scrap what had been a matchup between two left-handed starters with elite stuff: Lester vs. Francisco Liriano.

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The Cubs haven’t reworked their rotation yet, but Lester threw only 32 pitches and sounded optimistic that he wouldn’t have to wait another five days. The San Francisco Giants will open a marquee four-game series on Thursday night at Wrigley Field.

During the second delay, PNC Park’s video board in left field showed the Atlanta Braves coming back to beat the Giants in the 12th inning. That 9-8 loss at Turner Field moved the defending World Series champs to a half-game out of the second wild-card spot now held by the Cubs.

All together now: Play stupid.

“When we play other teams outside the division,” Lester said, “that’s when we can really kind of pounce on the situation and take advantage of that, maybe kind of sneak attack guys and take two out of three before they know what happened.”

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.