The Cubs challenged themselves to open up the second half strong. Two games in, they look up to the task.

The Cubs challenged themselves to open up the second half strong. Two games in, they look up to the task.

Through the first five innings of Saturday’s game, Jon Lester was beating the Pirates entirely by himself. 

The lefty had arguably the best game of his career at the plate, going 2-3 with a home run and an RBI double. His 3 RBIs on the day ties his career, set against the Twins in July of last year. The offensive performance actually overshadowed a stellar day on the mound - somewhat understandable given the fact that a guy who had zero major league hits through the first decade of his career is hitting .227 this season. 

“Jonny Lester can swing the bat,” Joe Maddon said after the game. “It’s not a surprise. He hit his home run, but we worked better at-bats, for the most part, all day. We accepted our walks, moved it along to the next guy.”

“Like I’ve said before, I take a little bit more pride in that since I’ve been over here,” Lester said. “Just trying to get quality at-bats, and I was able to square up two of them today.”

Aside from that, the Cubs got plenty of contributions from up and down their lineup in their 10-4 win. They put seven on the board in the first inning, courtesy of a 3-run homer from Willson Contreras, run-scoring doubles from Lester and Javy Baez, and an RBI single from Anthony Rizzo; Pirates starter Jordan Lyles didn’t even make it out of the inning. Addison Russell would go on to make it an even 10 with a 2 RBI single in the 5th. 

“It’s great to be able to do that for your pitcher so they can go out there and not overthink stuff,” said Jason Heyward, who now has a 111 wRC+ after going 3-5 with two doubles and a couple runs scored. “He can feel like he has some room for error and really stay focused on his game plan. It’s nice to have a day like that.”

On the mound, Lester again put together six strong innings of work. He went 6.2, giving up two earned runs via a pair of solo homers from Jung Ho Kang in the 5th inning and Starling Marte in the sixth. He struck out six and didn’t issue a walk - only the third time this season he didn’t walk anyone. 

“That lineup, like we saw, can do some things,” he said. “You start walking guys, and get guys on base, with the wind blowing out - that’s your three-run homer or grand slam. On days like this you just have to continue to pitch like it’s a 0-0, 2-0 game. That’s kinda the mindset you just have to continue. The 7 runs relaxes you a little bit, but with conditions like today you still have to focus on executing pitches.” 

“I thought Jonny had some really good stuff,” Maddon added. “From the side, I saw some 92’s, which is always advantageous when he’s doing that. And then the cutter was there - not many curveballs, but I thought that fastball velocity was where it needed to be, the cutter was pertinent to both sides of the plate.”

48 hours after Kris Bryant declared these weekend’s games the tone-setter for the rest of the second half, the Cubs went out and took the series from Pittsburgh with two stylistically different yet equally impressive victories - their first series win since June 7-9. They’ll send Jose Quintana to the mound on Sunday with a chance to sweep, and claim a multi-game lead in the NL Central. 

“We’re all rested, and we’re all ready to go,” Kyle Schwarber said. “We’re ready to take off on this second half and we can really separate ourselves in this division. I think we all know the challenges ahead of us - especially rolling into the second half with how close everything is right now. We’re all ready to go and really focused.” 

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more rehab starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half showed that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well.

“We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

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Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is one step closer to becoming the unquestioned face of Major League Baseball.

For the next year, El Mago will be the cover boy for video-game-playing baseball fans, as Baez announced on his Twitter Monday morning he is gracing the cover of MLB The Show 2020:

On the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, Playstation released a video depicting why they chose Baez as the new face of the game:

Last year's cover featured Bryce Harper, announced before he even signed with the Phillies. 

Baez also joins the likes of Aaron Judge, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz as cover athletes for the PS4 game.

The 26-year-old Baez has become one of the most recognizable figures in the game, playing with a flair and swag that includes mind-bending baserunning maneuvers and impossible defensive plays. 

Case in point:

Baez missed the final month of the 2019 season with a fractured thumb, but still put up 29 homers and 85 RBI while ranking second on the team in WAR. In 2018, he finished second in NL MVP voting while leading the league in RBI (111) and topping the Cubs in most offensive categories. 

Theo Epstein said he never deems any player as "untouchable," but Baez is about as close as it gets for this Cubs team right now. He made the switch to shortstop full time this year and wound up with elite defensive numbers to go along with his fearsome offense and an attitude and mindset the rest of the Cubs hope to emulate.

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