Cubs

Joe Maddon went into 'must-win' mode in Game 4, so how will he line up his pitchers for Game 5?

Joe Maddon went into 'must-win' mode in Game 4, so how will he line up his pitchers for Game 5?

“Jon Lester is warming up in the Cubs’ bullpen.”

Come again?

That was a surprising announcement to hear over the speaker in the middle of Game 4 of this NLDS, a game in which the Cubs’ season was not on the line, a game in which the score was a razor-thin 1-0 in the fifth inning.

Lester, of course, pitched in relief last postseason, when he relieved Kyle Hendricks in Game 7 of the World Series. This time, though, manager Joe Maddon wasn’t calling on Lester to save his team with a championship on the line. He called on him to take the baton from Jake Arrieta and prevent a return flight to Washington for a Game 5.

Of course, that’s not how it played out. Lester was mostly terrific in his 3.2 innings of work, going nine up, nine down through three frames before getting two outs — including a pickoff at first base that had Wrigley Field exploding — in the top of the eighth. But lifted before getting out of that inning, Lester was relieved by Carl Edwards Jr. and Wade Davis. Edwards issued back-to-back walks to load the bases, and Davis served up the grand slam to Michael Taylor that landed in the right-field basket and flipped this NLDS on its head.

Despite what came after he left, it was the kind of performance Maddon was looking for out of Lester, one of the best postseason pitchers ever.

“The fact that he was available,” Maddon said when asked why he turned to Lester as the first man out of the ‘pen to relief Arrieta. “We could have done him or (Jose) Quintana, but he pitched before Q, so we went with him first.

“We didn't know exactly where Jake was going to be tonight, so we talked about that in advance. Now, when that showed up, if this score was like we're losing 4-0, (Lester) would not have pitched tonight. It would have been (Mike) Montgomery and the rest of the bullpen. But that part of ballgame, I felt strongly about it. It was the fact we predetermined that he's going to back up Jake tonight, and then Q would back up Kyle (Hendricks) tomorrow night because we're able to do that. That was it.”

As Maddon alluded to, we could see a similar scene play out Thursday night in the do-or-die Game 5 in Washington. Hendricks will get the start, but Quintana, who started and pitched wonderfully in the Cubs’ Game 3 win on Monday, figures to be the first guy out of the chute.

“You've got obviously starting, Kyle, and then Quintana will play the role of Jon Lester tomorrow if it's necessary,” Maddon said. “We talked about that pregame. If, in fact, it was really close, which it was — that was a good spot for Lester tonight — and then tomorrow, just everybody's available tomorrow. So it will start with Kyle, and Q is ready tomorrow to back up like Jon did tonight and the entire bullpen.

“We'll be fine tomorrow.”

Earlier Wednesday, it was Nationals manager Dusty Baker talking about the “all hands on deck” approach to Game 4, his team a loss away from being eliminated from the 2017 postseason. Now, the Cubs are in the same boat. It seems they used the “all hands on deck” approach a night early, with Lester relieving Arrieta, whose performance coming in was a bit of a mystery given the long layoff while dealing with a hamstring injury.

But now that approach spins into Thursday, too. And while Quintana has been terrific for the Cubs, he’ll be the only piece of this postseason rotation available to help out Hendricks because Arrieta and Lester likely won’t be available.

And this is all without mentioning John Lackey, who’s yet to be used in this series. The aforementioned Montgomery has faced just four batters. And what becomes of Edwards, who has had two disastrous outings in this series?

The Cubs know Hendricks will pitch tomorrow. It sounds pretty likely that Quintana will, too.

While some folks might instantly start thinking what the heck this all means for the NLCS, pump the brakes. The Cubs need to get there first.

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."