Cubs

Jon Lester is convinced MLB ball is juiced, but he's pitching better than ever

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USA TODAY

Jon Lester is convinced MLB ball is juiced, but he's pitching better than ever

Let's set the scene: Less than a half hour after the Cubs doused Kris Bryant with Gatorade after his walk-off heroics, Jon Lester sat at the podium in the warm and cozy press room deep inside Wrigley Field after he battled the Marlins on a May 7 evening that felt more like Feb. 7 with a 31-degree windchill.

Lester had just battled the wintry conditions and won and the Cubs had just celebrated a clutch hit from their slow-starting former MVP, yet the third question posed to the veteran pitcher was about the state of the baseball MLB continues to run out and if he thinks they're different than normal.

There's a lot of talk about how the baseball is "juiced" this year and the evidence supports it. The weather has yet to turn favorable for hitters, but that isn't stopping MLB sluggers from mashing the most homers per game ever.

In 2019, MLB teams are averaging 1.30 homers per game, up from 1.26 in 2017 and the 1.17 average in 2000.

Given the other storylines Tuesday night, it was an unconventional time to bring up such a topic, but Lester is always thoughtful in press conferences and gave his honest take on the matter:

"Yeah," Lester said. "I know they're not rubbed up like they used to be. You get balls back and they're basically white. It seems like they're right out of the box. I had a piece of the ball in my finger at one point tonight. 

"I think I read something that David Price said — 'We don't care; just tell us.' It'd be nice to know. Obviously you see it across the board in Triple-A — that's kinda the telltale sign. These guys are way ahead of their home run total that they've ever been going to the big-league ball. 

"It is what it is. There's no excuse. There's no nothing. Obviously we gotta make good pitches. If we make good pitches, we can still get outs. I think I agree with what David said. If it is, just tell us. We don't really care — there's nothing we can do about it but continue to pitch."

Lester has a point about the Triple-A level: The home run rate per game is 2.56, which is way up from last season (1.74 HR/game).

But the league insists the baseballs haven't changed at all. 

Even with all that, Lester is off to one of his best starts ever.

The ball might be juiced and he might be 35 years old now with nearly 2,400 innings on his arm, but he's making PECOTA look more and more silly by the day.

He did not allow an earned run in 6 innings Tuesday night, so his season ERA dropped all the way to 1.41. He's allowed only 3 homers all year and has a quality start in 4 of his 6 starts. The only two games in which he didn't earn a quality start was the outing he left prematurely with a hamstring injury (April 8) and his first start off the injured list (April 25).

Since he's returned from injury, Lester has given up just 1 earned run on 13 hits and walked only 1 batter in 18 innings.

He continues to prove he was worth every damn penny of the $155 million the Cubs gave him as part of a free-agent megadeal before the 2015 season.

"He's Jon Lester," Kris Bryant said. "He's just a competitor. It doesn't matter if he has his best or worst stuff, you're probably going to get a quality start from him. 

"...I expect to win every time he's on the mound. That's such a good feeling when you're out there playing behind him."

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's so good to be with the Director of Morale

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: It's so good to be with the Director of Morale

Luke Stuckmeyer and producer Eric Strobel welcome Frederic, aka the Cubs' unofficial Director of Morale. Fred takes us through the origins and growth of his fandom and social media persona (1:30), before discussing how Jake Arrieta's dominance announced the Cubs as contenders (7:30) and the now-ubiquitous hard hats in the bleachers (16:00). Finally, Fred and the guys talk about this year's team, including the lack of strikeout stuff on the pitching staff (22:30) and the unicorn that is Javy Baez (30:00). 

You can listen to the entire thing right here or in the embedded player below:

Cubs map out next steps for closer Craig Kimbrel

Cubs map out next steps for closer Craig Kimbrel

Craig Kimbrel is one step closer to joining the Cubs bullpen.

According to Patrick Mooney of The Athletic, Kimbrel will join Triple-A Iowa and make his first appearance on Tuesday, against the Sacramento River Cats.

While the Cubs officially signed him on June 7, Kimbrel has yet to pitch in actual games. The 31-year-old has been in a condensed spring training program at the Cubs' Arizona complex, throwing live batting practice on both Thursday and Saturday.

The Cubs haven't revealed an official timeline for Kimbrel to join the 25-man roster, as they are basing things off of how he feels. The expectation is he will pitch in about five games with Iowa before joining the Cubs. However, both Theo Epstein and Kimbrel acknowledged how the goal isn't to rush the closer back into MLB action.

"We're not gonna rush it," Epstein said. "It's gonna be tempting to get him here as soon as possible, but we're trying to plan this thing the right way so that he could be in a position to succeed not just immediately but in October. That's gonna be our guiding principle as we go."

"We sat down and put a gameplan together — something to work off of," Kimbrel said. "But at the end of the day, it's based off how I recover, how I get ready. This isn't about getting back on the field as fast as I can. This is about being the best that I can be in October and down the stretch and doing what I came here to do for this team."

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