Cubs

Ready for Pittsburgh: Cubs storm into playoffs with 97 wins

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Ready for Pittsburgh: Cubs storm into playoffs with 97 wins

MILWAUKEE – Playoffs? Joe Maddon almost sounded like he had been pregaming a little too hard before his first press conference at The Cubby Bear last November.

And then the new Cubs manager offered to buy everyone the first round The Hazleton Way – a shot and a beer – at the bar opposite the Wrigley Field marquee. Whatever, forget it, he’s rolling.  

But this party will continue into October, the Cubs finishing an unbelievable regular season with 97 wins after Sunday’s 3-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

As crazy as that would have sounded at the beginning of spring training – when Maddon kept talking about the playoffs, man – how about that only being good enough for third place in the National League Central?

The Pittsburgh Pirates finally clinched home-field advantage for the wild-card game on Sunday, beating the Cincinnati Reds 4-0 to notch their 98th win.

So the Cubs will fly to Pittsburgh on Monday, work out at PNC Park on Tuesday and start potential Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta on Wednesday against Gerrit Cole (19-8, 2.60 ERA) and a Pittsburgh team that’s been hardened by earning three postseason appearances in the last three years.

[MORE: Why Cubs believe Jake Arrieta could be unstoppable in October]

“Obviously, the adrenaline’s going to run a little more,” Anthony Rizzo said. “But I think we’re ready for it. We played tough games against Pittsburgh all year – at their place, at our place – and we got Jake on the mound. We know when he’s out there, we’re a really, really loose bunch. We’re excited for it.”

Rizzo – who got his 100th and 101st RBIs with a bases-loaded single in the first inning – had stood in the same visiting clubhouse after Game 162 last season and said it was finally time to compete. 

That was before Maddon escaped from his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays, Jon Lester signed a $155 million megadeal to make history in Chicago and Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber made their big-league debuts.

The All-Star first baseman then predicted a division title during a stop at a local elementary school leading up to Cubs Convention. The St. Louis Cardinals won the Central, but this is still a 24-game improvement from 2014.

“I just had a feeling that this was going to be a good year,” Rizzo said. “I obviously said it in January. But we just raised our bar. The bar is set from here on out – to keep repeating this.”

[ALSO: Motte trying to get back to Cubs for playoffs]

The Cubs watched Arrieta develop into a 22-game winner and finish with the lowest post-All-Star break ERA in major-league history (0.75). Bryant became an All-Star and had a Rookie of the Year season with 26 homers and 99 RBI.

Dexter Fowler had a sensational walk year, scoring 102 runs and filling holes at the top of the order and in center field. Hector Rondon – the Rule 5 guy – saved 30 games and put up a 1.67 ERA. 

“I’m really hoping or anticipating that our guys are going to be the same,” Maddon said. “That’s why I preach it all year long – I want us to play the same game. We’re not going to do anything differently.

“There’s not going to be anything new to put in there. There’s no new packages. We’re not running a new offense. We’re not going to blitz any more. No 3-4 (defense). Please don’t do anything differently. Just go play.”

The Cubs have gone 46-19 since getting no-hit by Cole Hamels and swept by the Philadelphia Phillies, the worst team in baseball, finding another gear that Theo Epstein’s front office didn’t see coming in Year 4 of the rebuild. 

The Cubs won 34 one-run games this year, 23 in their last at-bat and 13 in a walk-off celebration, showing mental toughness and pitch-to-pitch focus for a goofy bunch that likes to rub helmets and have dance parties in the clubhouse.

The Cubs closed with an eight-game winning streak and a real sense of momentum knowing Arrieta will stare down the Pirates in a one-game playoff. 

[SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

“We like our chances,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “We feel good about it. Everybody is pulling in one direction, believing. And that’s a powerful thing when you got millions and millions of fans and players and personnel all believing we can pull this thing off.

“We’re on a good roll. We just want to keep rolling. All we want to know is if it’s a day game or a night game.” 

It will be a 7 p.m. CST start on Wednesday in Pittsburgh and we’ll see how this group responds under the bright lights of October. The Cubs essentially had identical records at Wrigley Field (49-32) and on the road (48-33) this year and have an anytime/anywhere attitude with Arrieta on the mound.  

After finishing in fifth place five times during his first five seasons, making three All-Star teams, losing his job at shortstop and moving to second base without complaint, Starlin Castro might appreciate this more than anybody else inside the clubhouse.

“We worked so hard to be good,” Castro said. “And now is the time. Just keep showing it.”

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."