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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Kris Bryant is ready for fatherhood '[I was] put on this earth to be a dad'

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USA TODAY

Kris Bryant is ready for fatherhood '[I was] put on this earth to be a dad'

Suffice to say Kris Bryant is budding with anticipation for becoming a father.

Bryant and his wife, Jessica, are expecting their first child — a baby boy due in April. During Friday night’s Cubs-Padres broadcast, the third baseman shared his excitement for fatherhood with reporter Taylor McGregor

“I think this is really what I’ve been put on this Earth to do, is be a dad,” Bryant said, laughing. “Obviously I play baseball pretty good, but I’m just so excited [for] this new journey with my wife and my family. Honestly, I think this is going to be one of the best years of my life.”

Bryant’s son is due shortly after Opening Day, but the Cubs will play two spring training games in Las Vegas — Bryant’s hometown — on March 7-8. He told McGregor one of Jessica’s last doctor’s appointments is around the same time, so Bryant will get one last visit in before Baby Bryant is born.

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How Dusty Baker inspired former Cub Adam Greenberg after scary head injury

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AP

How Dusty Baker inspired former Cub Adam Greenberg after scary head injury

Adam Greenberg’s baseball career was cut short by a scary head injury 15 years ago. But with the help of Dusty Baker, he found the motivation to transition to his post-baseball life.

Greenberg made his MLB debut with the Cubs on July 9, 2005, and Baker called upon the then 24-year-old to pinch-hit in the ninth inning against the Marlins. On the first pitch Greenberg saw in the big leagues, Marlins reliever Valerio De Los Santos hit him in the back of the head with a 92-mph fastball.

Greenberg was concussed from the incident, suffered from vertigo and vision problems, and battled depression. The Cubs released him in 2006 and he caught on in the minor leagues with the Royals and later the Dodgers in 2007 — which is when Baker reappears in the story. From MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart:

A couple of years following the incident, in 2007, Baker got a letter from a fan requesting a baseball card be signed. In the letter, the person told Baker that Greenberg had been released by the Royals and his baseball career was in jeopardy. Baker tracked down Greenberg and left him the voice mail that served as his motivation for a post-baseball life.

“It was so genuine and from the heart,” Greenberg said. “It put me in tears the first time, but it was the motivation and inspiration I needed to get up and keep going. And since then, he’s been somebody that’s been near and dear to me."

It's unfortunate Greenberg couldn’t experience a long big-league career, but Baker inspired him and helped him move forward post-baseball. According to McTaggart, Greenberg started a nutrition company and sold it 10 years later. He also ran for state senate in Connecticut in 2019 and is currently a baseball analyst for the ACC Network.

Greenberg’s career effectively ended moments after it began, but 2005 wasn’t the last time he stepped in a big-league batters’ box. In 2012, fans started an online petition to get him one last at-bat — and his career came full circle. The Marlins signed him to a one-day contract on Oct. 2, 2012, and he pinch-hit that same day against the Mets.

Greenberg struck out on three pitches, but Baker’s voicemail left a mark on his life. Seeing him enjoy success outside of baseball is as heartwarming as it gets.