Cubs

The Cubs' huge turnaround can be traced back to their pitching staff

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USA Today

The Cubs' huge turnaround can be traced back to their pitching staff

The Cubs started the season 2-7. They have been 23-7 since. The offense has done the job, but the biggest difference has been the pitching. When they started 2-7 on a nine-game road trip, the team ERA was a league-worst 7.51. Then they arrived at Wrigley Field for their home opener. And everything changed.

From April 8 (the home opener) on, the Cubs have a team ERA of 2.29. Best in the Majors by nearly a full run (the Rays are next with 3.22). The starting pitching has a 2.32 ERA – best in the Majors; the next best is the Rays at 2.74. The relief pitching has a 2.24 ERA – also best in the Majors; the next best is the Astros at 2.96. Best in baseball across the board.

 

More details of their dominance over the last 30 games:

  • .200 opponent batting average is tops in the Majors (Astros are second at .206)
  • 21 home runs allowed are seven fewer than the next lowest total (Rays – 28)
  • Six shutout wins are the most in the Majors.
  • The Cubs bullpen has allowed 19.1% (9 of 47) of inherited runners to score, second only to the Diamondbacks (an incredible 7.1%).

 

Their 2.29 ERA over their past 30 games is better than the 2.48 ERA the 2016 Cubs posted during their 24-6 start to the 2016 season.  In fact, the 2.29 ERA over the past 30 games is better than any 30-game span by the 2016 Cubs (their best was a 2.38 ERA in the 30 games after the All-Star break).

As I mentioned earlier, the Cubs arrived at Wrigley Field on April 8 for the home opener with a miserable league-worst 7.51 ERA. But it wasn’t because of Jon Lester. He had consecutive quality starts of 6 innings and 2 earned runs during the season-opening 9-game road trip. If you subtracted Lester’s numbers over that road trip, the Cubs team ERA goes from 7.51 to  8.37. So Lester was one of few bright spots. And he looked like it, tossing two scoreless innings… until a hamstring injury knocked him out of the game. He ended up missing two starts. So, with your best pitcher out, now what?

What happened was Brad Brach, Brandon Kintzler, Randy Rosario & Pedro Strop combined for an improbable 7 scoreless innings. And they were off to the races.

Jon Lester returned on April 25. Adding on the two scoreless innings from the home opener, Lester has posted a 0.34 ERA in 26.2 innings since the disastrous 2-7 start to the season. His season ERA is 1.16 – easily the lowest of any pitcher with 30+ innings this season.

For the season, Kyle Hendricks isn’t far behind with 2.86. And keep in mind that includes a 7-earned run clunker on April 26 in Arizona. In May, he has been unreal. He has a 0.36 ERA and a 0.520 WHIP in 25 innings over three starts. With that level of dominance, I can’t help but point out that he threw 274 pitches in those three starts, and none of those 274 topped 90 miles an hour. In fact, only two of those pitches touched even 89 miles an hour – a pair of deliveries on May 8th which registered 89.0 and 89.3 MPH. He’s an artist.

Combined in May, the Cubs are 6-0 in games started by either Lester or Hendricks. Lester & Hendricks have posted a combined 0.20 ERA in 44.2 innings over that span.

José Quintana has chipped in with a 2.29 ERA in 6 starts over the 30-game stretch of dominance, and you barely heard about it because Lester & Hendricks have been so good. Same with Cole Hamels and his 2.33 ERA in 6 starts of his own.

Meanwhile Yu Darvish has continued to struggle, pitching to a 4.80 ERA over the Cubs 23-7 run, but due to solid damage control by Joe Maddon, the Cubs have won 4 of his 6 starts, and the two losses could just as well be chalked up to poor run support (they scored 2 and 0 runs). There has been flashes of brilliance (He has 44 strikeouts in 36.2 innings overall this season), but the walks have limited his effectiveness.

Cubs detractors & pessimists alike have been pointing to the fact that over the 23-7 span they went 6-1 with a 1.38 ERA against the 10-30 Miami Marlins. Sure. They’re 10-2 with a 1.64 ERA over that span against teams currently under .500. Fine.

But against teams that are currently over .500, they have been 13-5 with a 2.71 ERA. To repeat, that’s 13-5 with a 2.71 ERA against teams over .500 over the last 30 games. It’s not just beating up against the teams in the basement.

Obviously, this run of excellence won’t last forever. It didn’t last all season in 2016. But a run like this allows the bullpen a little extra rest, takes a little pressure off the offense and has pushed the Cubs to a 2.5 game cushion in the NL Central.

Cubs bullpen gets another reinforcement with Craig Kimbrel activated

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USA TODAY

Cubs bullpen gets another reinforcement with Craig Kimbrel activated

The Cubs bullpen has had its share of struggles in recent days, but the team’s new closer is coming back from the injured list.

 

Craig Kimbrel was activated off the IL ahead of Sunday’s game against the Pirates. The game will be played in Williamsport, Pa., as the Little League Classic.

Kimbrel took the spot of Duane Underwood Jr., who heads back to Triple-A Iowa. Outfielder Mark Zagunis also joined the Cubs roster as the 26th man for Sunday’s game.

Kimbrel joined the Cubs as a free agent in the middle of the season and debuted on June 27. He made 14 appearances before going to the IL with right knee inflammation. He last pitched on Aug. 3.

In 12 2/3 innings, Kimbrel has 17 strikeouts, eight walks and 13 hits for a 5.68 ERA. He has nine saves.

The Cubs suffered back-to-back walk-off losses on Thursday and Friday with the bullpen blowing late leads. Three of the team’s most experienced relievers, Kimbrel, Brandon Kintzler and Steve Cishek were all on the IL at the same time. Kintzler was activated Friday, but promptly blew a lead in Pittsburgh on Friday in his first game back.

Kimbrel’s return gives Joe Maddon another option in the bullpen after going through a rough stretch with relievers.

With Cubs reeling, Jon Lester comes up big and plays stopper

With Cubs reeling, Jon Lester comes up big and plays stopper

The last three games have been more than forgettable for the Cubs.

From Wednesday’s 11-1 drubbing at the hands of the Phillies to back-to-back walk-off losses on Thursday and Friday, the Cubs’ current road trip has looked much like those that preceded it. At various times, the offense has scuffled, the rotation has pitched a clunker and the bullpen has cracked.

The solution to the latest road trip woes? Give the ball to Jon Lester and get the hell out of the way.

Lester —  who pitched a clunker himself Aug. 6 against the A’s — did what the Cubs have become so accustomed to see him do over the past four seasons. The 35-year-old tossed 6+ shutout innings, allowing just four hits, leading the Cubs to a 2-0 win.

Lester had no room for error on Saturday, as the Cubs offense went hitless for the first 4 1/3 innings. While the Cubs bats were asleep, the Pirates threatened to break the game on open multiple times, loading the bases with one out (first inning), no outs (fifth) and getting runners on first and second with no outs in the sixth.

The latter two of those instances were assisted by errors by third baseman Kris Bryant, but that’s neither here nor there. Point being, with how the Cubs looked offensively, any Pirates runs could have proved critical on Saturday. Instead, Lester worked out of every jam, stymying the Pirates bats to an 0-for-12 line with RISP.

Winning Saturday’s game was obviously important for the Cubs, as it puts them a game ahead of the Cardinals in the win column (pending the outcome of St. Louis' game against the Reds later Saturday). But it was equally important for Lester, who called himself the “weakest link” in the Cubs starting rotation after that tough outing against the A’s.

The beautiful thing about baseball is that the regular season is 162 games long. Each day presents teams with a new slate, a chance to forget about what happened in the previous game and move forward.  If Saturday’s start shows anything, it’s that Lester and the Cubs are more than capable of putting a tough game in the rearview mirror and keep moving forward.

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