Cubs

Scherzer out-duels Lester as Cubs fall to Nationals

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Scherzer out-duels Lester as Cubs fall to Nationals

The $355 million pitching matchup was exactly as advertised, but Max Scherzer walked away the winner, outdueling Jon Lester.

Scherzer struck out 13 Cubs in seven shutout innings as the Nationals (28-19) beat the Cubs 3-0 in front of 34,215 fans at Wrigley Field Wednesday night.

Lester was stellar in his own right, striking out 10 in seven innings, allowing only a Bryce Harper home run in the sixth and an unearned run in the fourth.

It was the first time the Cubs (25-21) had been involved in a game where both starting pitchers notched at least 10 strikeouts since April 2007.

"It was good. Obviously Max threw the ball just a little bit better than I did," Lester said. "It was fun, though. Obviously we lost and that's not the ultimate goal, but if you're a pitcher or a purist of the game and like watching pitching matchups, that was fun tonight.

"That was what it kinda lived up to be. I made one mistake. When you're going against a guy like him, you can't make any. Unfortunately, we weren't able to beat him down at all and get him out of that game early, but I feel like guys had some pretty good at-bats. He's just really good."

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Scherzer is out to a ridiculous start with his new team, allowing more than one earned run in just two of his 10 starts. His road ERA is a stunning 0.79 mark in five starts (34 innings) away from the nation's capital.

Lester has been on a hot streak in his own right.

After starting the season with a 6.23 ERA through his first four starts, Lester has become a different pitcher since the calendar flipped. In six May starts, the 31-year-old lefty allowed just eight earned runs in 41 innings, good for a 1.76 ERA. His season ERA now sits at 3.30.

Lester tossed another quality start - his sixth straight - Wednesday night, but still wound up with his first loss since April 19.

Lester said he was fully aware of the pitching matchup between last offseason's top two free agent arms, but also said he didn't spend much time worrying about his opponent on the mound.

"I don't. I just can't," he said. "I've gotta take a game against whoever the same as I take a game against Max. I can't do the roller coaster ride. That doesn't work for me.

"I have to prepare the same, I have to do everything the same and act like I'm pitching against him or whatever the top pitcher is. I can't let down.

"I have to take the same mindset over and over and over. That's just the way I think, the way I work. I can't let my guard down if I'm facing someone's No. 5 or whatever it is."

Lester has been trying to instill that mindset with a Cubs franchise that is coming off five straight fifth-place finishes.

The Cubs are young and still a work in progress, but they viewed this series against the Nationals as a measuring stick.

The offense struggled, collecting only one hit with runners in scoring position in the three games (in fact, it was the only hit with runners in scoring position from either team in the series) and the defense made three errors Wednesday after several spectacular plays Tuesday night.

The Cubs managed seven hits and one walk Wednesday night, but couldn't push across any runs.

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But the Cubs weren't the only team to struggle offensively. The Nationals hit six solo homers and scored the one unearned run to outscore the Cubs 7-4 in the three-game set.

Despite the series loss, the Cubs came away feeling they can stick with a team that many project to be the top contender from the National League.

Lester liked the way the Cubs battled and Joe Maddon took a big-picture look at what this series could mean for a team still trying to figure it all out.

"Overall, it was a hard-fought series and I did enjoy it from that perspective," Maddon said. "The takeaway is we can play with these guys.

"I feel very confident about that moving forward as we continue to get better. Some entertaining baseball at Wrigley Field for the last three days."

The Cubs are off Thursday and return to action Friday against the Kansas City Royals on CSN.

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. might be in the middle of a breakout season. The 24-year-old outfielder continues to show his impressive range in center field and is having his best year at the plate.

In Sunday's 8-3 win against the Giants, Almora had three hits and showed off his wheels in center to rob Evan Longoria of extra bases. The catch is visible in the video above.

"Defensively, right now he's playing as well as he possibly can," Maddon said.

On top of the defense he has become known for, he is hitting .326. That's good for fifth in the National League in batting.

"He's playing absolutely great," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He's working good at-bats. His at-bats have gotten better vs. righties.

"The thing about it, is there's power there. The home runs are gonna start showing up, too."

There's also this stat, which implies Almora is having a growing significance on the Cubs as a whole:

There may be some correlation, but not causality in that. However, with Almora's center field play and growing accolades at the plate, the argument is becoming easier and easier that he is one of the most important players on the Cubs. That also goes for Almora's regular spot in the lineup, which has been up in the air with Maddon continuing to juggle the lineup.

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Why can't a trade be looked at as a win-win? 

There doesn't always have to be a clear winner and loser.

Prior to Jose Quintana taking the ball for Saturday's game against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field, Joe Maddon was asked about the players (Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease) the Cubs gave up to acquire Quintana as well as the deal with the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman in July 2016.

Gleyber Torres is absolutely killing it in New York, hitting .323 with a 1.014 OPS, 9 homers and 24 RBI in only 29 games. Six of those homers have come in the last week alone. 

With the White Sox, both Jimenez and Cease have found success in Double-A and Advanced Class-A, respectively.

Jimenez is hitting .331 with a .992 OPS, 9 homers and 35 RBI in 35 games. Cease is 6-2 with a 2.83 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 57 strikeouts in 47.2 innings.

As the Cubs work to get their offense settled into a consistent groove, some Cubs fans have been looking at what might've been with guys like Torres and Jimenez.

"You can't have it both ways, man," Maddon said. "I'm happy for Gleyber. When he left, we talked about it. And we talked about the kids that went to the White Sox. It's good stuff. 

"I'm really disappointed if anybody's disappointed in the fact we won the World Series in 2016 and the fact that the guy we're talking about that we had to give up Gleyber for was so instrumental in that happening. That's bad process if you're gonna get stuck on something like that. Be happy for Gleyber. Be happy for him."

Maddon has been a fan of Torres' since he saw him in spring training in 2015, Maddon's first year in the Cubs organization.

"This kid's 21, with high, high baseball intellect," Maddon said. "He's very similar to Javy on the field. I've had some great conversations with him in the past. 

"The first time I saw him in spring training, I thought this guy's for real. It was like one at-bat, line drive to RF, I said who is this guy? And then you have a conversation with him. He's solid."

Maddon's point is a great one — would Cubs fans prefer to still have Torres and NOT have the 2016 World Series championship? Because that title doesn't happen without Chapman, regardless of how you feel about him as a person or what the Cubs had to give up to acquire him.

"Don't play that game," Maddon said. "Be happy for [Torres]. I'm gonna be happy when Eloy and Dylan make it up here. All these dudes, I want them to get here and be really good. And the guys that we get, I want them to be really good. 

"I don't understand why somebody's gotta lose all the time. This is an absolute classic example of what was good for both teams."