Cubs

What’s wrong with Jon Lester? And is there enough time for Cubs to fix it?

What’s wrong with Jon Lester? And is there enough time for Cubs to fix it?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Even in the good times, Jon Lester doesn’t really have great body language, trying to channel his emotions, use that competitive anger and stay focused on the next pitch, so there was no way for him to hide his frustrations this time.

Lester handed the ball to manager Joe Maddon on Wednesday night at Tropicana Field and trudged back toward the visiting dugout with his head down and his team down six runs in the fifth inning of an 8-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays that left the Cubs searching for answers.

What’s wrong with Lester? That question snapped the Cubs out of a seven-game winning streak, the talk about playoff rotations and the computer simulations that project the defending World Series champs as a 90-something percent lock to make the postseason again.

The good news for the Cubs is the Milwaukee Brewers failed to gain ground heading into the four-game showdown that begins Thursday night at Miller Park. The magic number to clinch the National League Central is eight after Milwaukee’s 6-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But it’s difficult to see the Cubs going on a long October run when Lester – a three-time World Series champion and the Game 1 starter in all three playoff rounds last year – looks this lost. Since coming off the disabled list – the Cubs termed it left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue – Lester has made four September starts vs. non-contenders and given up 27 hits and 12 walks in 21.1 innings.

“We’re not going to go make excuses and say that’s why I didn’t throw the ball well,” Lester said. “Physically, it’s September. You’re going to have ups and downs. I feel fine. There’s no lingering effects from anything. No, there’s nothing physically wrong.”

Are you convinced Lester is 100 percent healthy?

“He’s not saying anything,” Maddon said. “I don’t see any grimace and I don’t see any like hitch in the giddy-up. I don’t see anything. Since he’s come back, he’s had some wins, but none of them have been necessarily Jon Lester sharp.”

At a time when the $155 million ace is supposed to be building toward October, Lester didn’t have any rhythm – Steven Souza Jr. launched a 92-mph fastball over the fence in left-center field in the first inning – or the stuff to finish off the Rays (zero strikeouts, 23 batters faced).

Lester did his John Lackey impression in the second inning, screaming, stomping and staring when Brad Miller chopped a ball that bounced past first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s glove and into right field for a 2-0 lead.

The Rays have enough history with Lester after their battles against the Boston Red Sox in the American League East and appeared to try to get in his head. Peter Bourjos dropped a perfect bunt, Kevin Kiermaier knocked another RBI single up the middle and Lester escaped only when second baseman Javier Baez started an inning-ending double play on the other side of the bag.

By the fifth inning, Lester was hesitating and making two wobbly throws while Souza stole second and third base. Lester then drilled Evan Longoria’s left foot with a pitch and walked Logan Morrison to load the bases. Wilson Ramos finally knocked out Lester after 86 pitches with a two-run single into right field.

“Obviously, there is some concern,” Maddon said. “I don’t have any reason to give you – other than he had a tough night – and I don’t know why. It just looked different from the side, because we’re normally used to seeing sharp-cornered pitches and a little bit better velocity with everything. It just wasn’t there.”

Lester now has only two regular-season starts left to find it and fix this.

“I’m not worried about it,” Lester said. “When you pitch a long time, and you play this game a long time, you’re going to have the ups and downs. Anybody can have one good year. It’s a matter of going out there and consistently doing it.

“You got to take the good with the bad. We’ll make an adjustment and figure it out. The good thing is it’s not physical. It’s just a matter of getting back to what has been working for me in the past and making those adjustments.”

Cubs' 'super frightening' close call in St. Louis shows how fragile season is

Cubs' 'super frightening' close call in St. Louis shows how fragile season is

All the Cubs wanted before leaving for the ballpark in St. Louis on Friday was “just reassurance” before playing one of the two teams in the majors that had endured a major COVID-19 outbreak.

“And they assured us they were going to communicate every detail of why we should be on the field,” Cubs manager David Ross said.

Ross spoke Saturday morning via Zoom from Chicago — that fact itself a reminder of the details that started pin-balling from all the wrong directions Friday morning.

“It’s just another one of those reminders of how quick things can get out of control right now in this environment,” said Ross, whose team learned early enough to avoid even showing up at Busch Stadium and to reschedule its charter to land at O’Hare before 8 p.m. Friday.

Ross called the communication from Major League Baseball and the Cardinals “outstanding.”

But he paused when asked about just how close their near-miss with the coronavirus was this weekend.

As in: What if the three Cardinals who tested positive Friday (after reportedly being exposed Wednesday) hadn’t gotten their positive results until Saturday instead — after spending Friday night in the same building and on the field with the Cubs?

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“I hadn’t looked at it like that,” Ross said. “It shows how fast it can get out of control. That part of the virus is super frightening.”

At least two of the 16 Cardinals players and staff known to have tested positive in the last 10 days are said to have symptoms, the severity of which are unclear.

But even beyond that reminder of the health-risk roll of the dice for each individual (and his family), Friday’s close call for the Cubs underscores just how fragile baseball’s attempt at a two-month season is.

“We send our best to the Cardinals and those players. It’s a scary time,” Ross said, “and we all want baseball to move forward and guys to be healthy.”

The Cubs are the only team in the league, through at least Friday, who have not had a player test positive.

Two teams, including the Marlins, already have had major outbreaks, with the Cardinals into their second week of postponed series and sleepless nights for their president of baseball operations.

“I don’t know what really our future looks like at this point,” Cards president John Mozeliak said, according to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Experts who we consulted with gave us advice that we could take that next step forward. I don’t know what the right answer is. Is it two days? Is it five days? Is it 10 days? Or is it two weeks?

“The whole country, the whole world, is facing these same questions. We’re just caught in the middle of it.”

Along with everybody else in baseball.

The Cardinals have played only five games, and their next series, against Pittsburgh, reportedly is on the verge of being postponed as well.

The Cubs’ next opponent, Cleveland, has 16 games in the books with Saturday’s game against the White Sox.

Fifty days remain in the scheduled 60-game season after Saturday.

The 10-3 Cubs have it better than most, even with the lost series against the Cardinals — a postponement that for now looks more like a cause to celebrate than for disappointment.

But what does the league do if the virus doesn’t allow the Cardinals to play by the end of the week? And what if a third team — or a fourth — experiences an outbreak.

And just how close did the Cubs come to becoming that third team if they had played a game or two of that series with asymptomatic, infected Cardinals unwittingly on the same field.

When the Cardinals’ outbreak initially unfolded while the team was in Milwaukee last weekend, one result was Brewers star center fielder Lorenzo Cain becoming one of four players in a two-day span to opt out of playing the rest of the season.

RELATED: Tracking MLB players who have opted out or declined to play

“It’s 2020, where we know we’ve got to take it one day at a time,” Ross said. “We’ve talked about that from the start.”

The Cubs and almost everybody in the league — including Mozeliak’s Cardinals — seem to have taken the health risk and hyper-contagious nature of COVID-19 seriously enough for most of the schedule to be played so far.

The Cardinals, in fact, invested in equipment years ago they have used since to sanitize visiting clubhouses on the road ahead of players occupying them.

The Cubs have exceeded MLB standard safety protocols with impressive enough results that other teams have reached out to discuss their methods.

And yet the Cardinals’ season hangs by a thread. And the Cubs, for all their precautions, might have sidestepped direct exposure by a matter of a few hours, a few reliable tests, and luck.

By extension, if not by definition, the league’s season also hangs by a thread.

“I think we all know that this season is just really a year of who can adjust to a little bit of adversity and some change,” Ross said. “And that’s going to be throughout the season. We know that. And we’ll continue to push forward.”

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How David Ross plans to keep Cubs 'sharp' after Cardinals series postponed

How David Ross plans to keep Cubs 'sharp' after Cardinals series postponed

One phone call Friday morning set in motion a reversal of the Cubs’ weekend plans. Instead of battling the Cardinals in a three-game series at Busch Stadium, they were heading home to Chicago and had four off days to fill before their next game.

“I think it's a little bit of a reset for us,” Cubs manager David Ross said Saturday, “ … and we’ve got continue to try to stay as sharp as we possibly can, get back to maybe work on a few things we might want to clean up in this downtime, and use it to our advantage as best we can.”

With the Cubs’ weekend series against the Cardinals postponed, due to three more members of the Cardinals organization testing positive for COVID-19, Ross said he gave the Cubs position players the option to take Saturday off. For the pitchers, it was a light workout day, a chance to throw a bullpen.

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The Cubs plan to play a simulated game Sunday and have a “fun” competition on Monday, Ross said.

Other aspects of the Cubs’ path forward remain unclear, like when will they make up the postponed series. And even more pressing, which pitcher will start on Tuesday at Cleveland?

Ross said he and his coaches have talked about how the schedule adjustment will affect the starting rotation, but there are still discussions to be had with the pitching staff.

Left-hander Jon Lester, who was supposed to start on Friday, was among those scheduled to throw a bullpen session Saturday.

“Jon especially, a veteran guy, knows how to take care of himself and knows how to back off or give a little more,” Ross said. “…There's no substitute for competition. I think we all know that. And getting out there against another jersey is important. It is important to stay sharp, physically and mentally, and staying ready. But we have a ton of professionals.”

He pointed to the almost four months of off time between the cancellation of Spring Training and the start of the regular season.

 Kyle Hendricks, for example, prepared for the accelerated summer camp so well that he threw a complete game on Opening Day. Any reshuffling of the rotation’s schedule couldn’t be nearly as much of a challenge.

“It's 2020, where we know we've got to take it one day at a time,” Ross said. “… We were planning to play St. Louis, they told us we weren't, so we came home and we adjusted. And we'll do that as best we can to continue this season.”

Ross had been hoping for a different kind of phone call on Friday morning. The Cardinals traveling party produced no new positive COVID-19 tests for consecutive days before MLB cleared the team to return to St. Louis and resume their schedule. The week prior, 13 players and staff members had tested positive.

“Going into it, with all that was going on, we were hoping to hear some news that morning, or just a reassurance,” Ross said, “and they had assured us that they were going to communicate every detail of why they thought we should be on the field.”

Instead, the Cubs received word that Friday’s game had been postponed. Ross described Major League Baseball’s communication as “outstanding.”

The Cubs support staff adjusted on the fly. Director of Major League travel and clubhouse operations Vijay Tekchandani contacted United Airlines to set up a return flight. Team dietitian Jordan Brown arranged for meals at the hotel that weren’t originally on the schedule.

“A lot of adjustments on their part,” Ross said, “and making sure everybody was comfortable and had some downtime but had some space to just get out of their room.”

Tekchandani had chosen a hotel with an outdoor patio that the players could use without running into other hotel guests and while practicing social distancing.

Around 5 p.m., the team learned that the rest of the series had been canceled. Less than an hour later, a bus was at the hotel to take the Cubs to the airport. They were back in Chicago before 8 p.m..

“Everybody was good yesterday,” Ross said of the players. “If I go back to my playing days, no matter what, you kind of welcome an off day in the middle of a long stretch. So, the first off day is always nice, nice and relaxing.”

The Cubs were off to a 10-3 start, in what was originally scheduled to be 17 straight games without an off day. Between a rainout in Cincinnati and the COVID-19 related postponement this weekend, that hasn’t been the case.

Now, the Cubs face a different kind of challenge: carrying momentum through a weekend off.

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