Jon Lester lends perspective to Cubs pitching woes

Jon Lester lends perspective to Cubs pitching woes

MILWAUKEE — Everybody is waiting for the Cubs' pitching struggles to turn around. 

The Cubs entered play Sunday with a team ERA (7.87) nearly a full run above the next-worst team (Red Sox — 6.97). Opposing players are hitting .316 off the Cubs this year.

Even PECOTA didn't project this.

Things have gotten so bad, cameras caught the ever-positive Joe Maddon expressing himself in a profane way in a moment of frustration Saturday night after Randy Rosario came out of the bullpen and gave up a 3-run shot:

Maddon laughed it off Sunday morning, admitting his emotional side is always there — "I think I hide it pretty well" — and explaining the frustration stemmed from the fact he'd have to bring in Steve Cishek in a blowout. 

"Ahh, so the word you used was 'Cishek?'" a reporter asked Maddon.

"By him pitching last night, now he's not available today," Maddon said. "That was the frustration. That's what the inner-connectedness of the bullpen — when guys all do their jobs and you rest other people, then they're more available the next day and the day after that. So that was the genesis of it."

The bullpen has obviously been a cause for concern, but the Cubs have a team-wide run prevention problem, from errors and poor defense to late-inning ineffectiveness to tough starts to games. 

Kyle Hendricks served up a 2-run homer to Christian Yelich in the first inning Sunday afternoon, immediately putting the Cubs in a hole for the third straight game. The Brewers scored 5 runs in the opening frame during the course of the three-game series.

The Cubs have a veteran-laden pitching staff, but the way things have gone here early, even these guys with a ton of big-league service time can feel like they have to be the hero every time they take the mound.

"Everybody's human," Jon Lester said. "I think everybody's trying to do well not only for themselves, but for the team. Sometimes that gets you further behind the eight ball than just going out there and focusing on a gameplan or one of your own cues that gets you locked in. 

"We've all seen it wigh guys at the plate, we've seen it with guys on the mound — it's natural to try too hard. Especially, too, now. Early in the year, you turn around and you see a 9.00 or a 12.00 or a 27.00 ERA up there and you want that to be back down to where your normals are.

"Early on, it's so hard to not get caught up in that kind of stuff. I can only speak personally, but for me, I try to rely on the report and my cues and try to execute one pitch and that's all I can control."

Lester has been the lone bright spot on the pitching staff, turning in a quality start each time out. 

The Cubs have asked the 14-year veteran to help step up more as a leader in the clubhouse this year, but how can Lester help his fellow pitchers through these early-season issues?

"Just stay out of the way," Lester said. "I can only speak for myself, but when I struggle, the last thing I want is somebody patting me on the back or the butt or whatever. Just leave me alone and let me figure it out. I try to do the same thing to other guys. If they come to me or they come to other people to try to figure things out, then that's good. 

"But for me, I kinda crawl into a bigger hole and avoid people even more than I do right now. That's how I try to figure things out. The big thing is, just like with hitting — everybody runs to the video, runs to mechanics, runs to this. Nine times out of 10, it's just confidence. 

"A lot of times when you're struggling, that 2-0 pitch gets hit out as opposed to right at somebody. A couple of those fall your way and then it's like 'OK, maybe I am halfway decent' and you start getting that confidence going, you start throwing that 2-0 pitch with conviction and usually you get good things. 

"But yeah, I try to stay out of guys' ways. I've always said — if they want to talk, and come to me, great, then we'll sit down and try to figure out whatever we can. But I think the biggest thing is to just keep running out there and pitching. Our guys are too good to keep doing this."

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What will Cubs do with Nico Hoerner once Addison Russell returns?

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What will Cubs do with Nico Hoerner once Addison Russell returns?

What will the Cubs do with Nico Hoerner once - or if - Addison Russell is able to return to the field?

Russell is still in concussion protocol and it's unknown when he will resume baseball activities. There are no clear timelines for head injuries and every person responds differently.

He was still showing symptoms this weekend after taking a 94 mph fastball to the face in Milwaukee last Sunday. Russell meets with team doctors each day, but will be relegated to the bench until he is given medical clearance to return.

Even if Russell is able to play again over these next couple days, how could the Cubs possibly take Hoerner out of the lineup right now?

The rookie collected 3 more hits Saturday, including a 3-run homer in the sixth inning:

That now gives him 11 RBI in his first six MLB games.

"Nico's performance cannot be overlooked," Joe Maddon said Saturday morning. "That [homer] was the first pitch he saw yesterday? I mean, c'mon. And beyond that, the thing I'm really focused on is the defense. He's really done a nice job on defense, which we really need that moment out there. The offense has been a plus.

"I have not given that thought until I know that Addison is ready to rock and roll. And once he does, I know one thing for sure - even if Nico were to start the game, we could upgrade the defense later with Addison in the game, too. So it's one of those things - I don't even permit myself to go there. I don't even know if [Russell is] gonna play or not. I don't know that.

"So in the meantime, Nico: just keep doing what you're doing. He's impressed probably the industry, but more importantly - the clubhouse. The guys have really been impressed by him."

It’s been a nightmare season for Russell. He missed the first month serving out the rest of his suspension for violating MLB's domestic violence policy. He was optioned to Triple-A Iowa initially after the suspension and then came up to the big leagues, where he struggled and was unable to carve out consistent playing time despite the Cubs' need for production at second base.

Russell was then demoted to the minors again in late-July after persistent baserunning/mental mistakes. When Javy Baez went down with injury on the last homestand, Russell stepped in to play shortstop (his natural position), but committed a throwing error in three straight games last weekend in Milwaukee.

Saturday marked only the 95th professional game in Hoerner's career, but he has drawn rave reviews from every corner of the Cubs clubhouse, including seasoned veteran Jon Lester tabbing him as a sparkplug.

Less than a week ago, Hoerner was sitting at home in Oakland with his family, thinking his regular season was done and getting ready to play in the Arizona Fall League soon.

Now, he and his family are at Wrigley Field, soaking it all in:

"[My first game at Wrigley] was amazing. It felt like I had always hoped it would," Hoerner said. "Something you think about for a long time and it definitely lived up to the hype. I had hyped it up to my family a lot just from seeing one game here last year. I said it was unlike anything I had ever seen before and they agreed."

After his debut week, it's natural for fans to wonder if Hoerner should be the Cubs' starting shortstop on a playoff roster even if Russell is able to come back healthy. Baez's exact timeline looms as an x-factor here, too.

Who knows how this will all play out over the next two weeks, but the Cubs have to get to October first and right now, Hoerner is clearly the answer to help them do so.

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How Cubs are viewing the Cardinals-Brewers series this weekend

How Cubs are viewing the Cardinals-Brewers series this weekend

While the Cubs are battling the last-place Pirates at Wrigley Field and trying to claw their way back into an enviable spot in the pennant race, their top two competitors are squaring off in St. Louis.

The Cardinals and Brewers are playing each other this weekend, and the Redbirds already took Game 1 Friday night. With that and the Cubs' big win, it moves the Brewers 1 game behind the Cubs in the fight for the final National League playoff spot. But it also kept the Cubs 4 games behind the Cardinals in the division with only 15 to play.

No matter what happens down in the shadow of the arch, the Cubs have to take care of business themselves this weekend. That much is a given.

The perfect scenario would include sweeping the Pirates and the fourth-place Reds before the Cardinals come into town for a four-game series beginning Thursday night.

But the series in St. Louis is prime fodder for scoreboard watchers, and it also brings about an interesting conundrum for Cubdom: Are fans and the team rooting for the Cardinals or Brewers?

The Cardinals already won the first game, but if they were to sweep and the Cubs also sweep, the Cubs would remain 4 games back of the division with only 13 to play. However, they would also hold a 3-game lead on the Brewers in the Wild-Card race, which is crucial given Milwaukee's schedule the rest of the way is cake (San Diego, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Colorado). 

If the Brewers storm back to win the next two games while the Cubs take care of their own business, it would diminish the NL Central lead to only 2 games with 13 to play — including 7 head-to-head matchups between the Cubs and Cardinals.

Which is the better scenario? 

"Our goal is to win the division, so you want any kind of help you could possibly get to win the division," Joe Maddon said Saturday morning. "So that would be that the Brewers would beat the Cardinals. It doesn't matter — just Cubs win, Cubs win. We just gotta take care of our own house and if you do that, this is all gonna work out properly. 

"Rooting interests or whatever — yes, I did look at the score before I went to bed last night, but I was much happier about the fact that we really swung the bats well [Friday] and the bullpen was great."

The Cubs have admitted over the last few weeks that they've been scoreboard-watching a bit and are cognizant of the incredible run the Cardinals have been on. They also have the advantage of playing in the afternoon both Friday and Saturday and seeing their games conclude before the Brewers and Cardinals even begin.

But that doesn't mean the players care one way or the other. 

"Earmuffs — we don't give a shit about what anybody else is doing," Jason Heyward said. "We have enough fun right here with what we can control and after that, we leave it up to whatever's going on. That's out of our hands.

"We've done a lot of winning [at Wrigley Field] fortunately and that's fun to be a part of. But along with that is not worrying about what everybody else is doing. And that's the fun part of this job and the fun part about being with a group of guys like this here."

Even if the players aren't super concerned with scoreboard watching, Cubs fans are going to have their eyes glued to the box scores early next week, too. Before the Cardinals come to Wrigley, they will host the Wild-Card-leading Washington Nationals for three games Monday through Wednesday.

That means if the Cubs continue to win, they will be guaranteed to gain ground on at least one of the teams they're chasing each day.

Of course, if the Cubs can't win at home — where they're 48-24 this season — this is all a moot point.