Cubs

Reinforcements coming for Cubs pitching staff

Reinforcements coming for Cubs pitching staff

The Cubs pitching staff is about to get some reinforcements.

Not that they really need it right now — Cubs pitchers entered Sunday with a 1.80 ERA in the last 10 games, the best mark in the league in that span by a wide margin (the Pirates were next-closest with a 2.30 ERA).

But they're about to add two of their most important arms to that group, as a pair of veteran southpaws could return from injury as soon as this week.

Jon Lester threw a simulated game Saturday at Wrigley Field and Mike Montgomery is set to make his second rehab start Monday with Double-A Tennessee.

Lester (hamstring) threw 45 pitches Saturday and reports were all positive as he showed up to the ballpark Sunday. He will throw a bullpen either Monday or Tuesday and then the Cubs will reevaluate from there.

There's no specific timetable, but the Cubs have not yet announced a starter for Thursday's game against the Dodgers and acknowledged Lester could slide into that spot.

"He's looking good," pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said Sunday morning. "We're just still taking it day-to-day to make sure there's no setbacks, he's recovering the way he wants to recover and that everything's on track. He's such a tough guy and competitor — he wants to be out there as soon as he can.

"We got a couple more days to make sure he gets through the bullpen, gets through all the things he wants to get through the next few days, but hopefully we'll be seeing him here pretty soon."

Lester last pitched on April 8 during the Cubs' home opener. If all goes well with his bullpen in the coming days, he wouldn't need a rehab stint to get back up to speed.

Meanwhile, Montgomery (lat) threw 27 pitches with Class-A South Bend last Wednesday and has been working out with the team in Chicago over the weekend. He is expected to throw about 3 innings with Tennessee Monday.

"I felt really good after my last outing," he said. "Even better the last couple days. It's a change and adjusting some of the things I do to prepare — throw/workout-wise to get me feeling right.

"...It's really fun just to go out there and compete. When you're away from it, you kinda miss it and you get that itch to be, 'OK, I gotta do whatever I can do to get back healthy and be effective.' That's where I'm at."

Montgomery knows he's facing minor-league hitters, but he's treating it like a big-league appearance, trying to get himself on track mentally as well as physically. 

He dealt with some shoulder inflammation at the beginning of spring training and he felt like that set him back in terms of getting up to speed and building up strength before the season. 

Montgomery only made 4 appearances before hitting the disabled list, allowing 5 runs on 8 hits in 2.2 innings.

"I feel like I've been playing catch-up so far this year and I haven't been able to get out there and really work on certain pitches in certain zones — working on my cutter/slider and getting that a little sharper, working on curveball command where I can throw it early in counts or bounce it," he said. "That's been missing and so the last week or so, I've gotten back to that.

"...If you're dealing with things physically, it's really hard to work on stuff and perfect the mechanical side of the game. I know with all the tech nowadays, you can shape your pitches the way you want and work on pitches to one side of the plate and the other. 

"When you're really not feeling good, it's more of 'how can I just get through this?' as opposed to really working on stuff. I think I'm at a point where I can really work on stuff and that's a good place to be."

Only Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana have thrown more innings for the Cubs than Montgomery over the last three seasons, as he's made 33 starts and 53 relief appearances. 

Montgomery said he hasn't had any conversations with Joe Maddon or the Cubs about a change in role when he returns, but assuming he slides back into that swingman role, this time off will allow him to build up strength and get stretched out.

He also has a new perspective on life as he and his wife, Stephanie, welcomed their first child early Tuesday morning — a boy named Max. Both sets of grandparents have been in town to help take care of and celebrate the newborn, so Montgomery has also been able to enjoy time with his family and work his rehab activities around that.

"It's been a whirlwind, to say the least," Montgomery said. "But I love it that way. My wife's awesome — she's able to handle the stress of baseball and having a baby. We're still in good spirits; the family's out here helping her out.

"Going home the last couple nights makes you get a little emotional, but at the same time, it makes you really understand what is important. For me, I think that's just me being good at my job of pitching and taking care of the family. 

"That's where I'm at, so it's a good experience to have and we're gonna take it from here."

The Cubs will also have options for the bullpen beyond Montgomery, as both veterans Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette are on the recovery path from their respective injuries. Cedeno made his second rehab appearance with Double-A Tennessee Saturday and Barnette will throw his first outing with Triple-A Iowa Sunday.

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Sports Talk Live Podcast: What's up with Jon Lester?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: What's up with Jon Lester?

David Haugh, Hub Arkush and Ben Finfer join Kap on the panel.

0:00 - The Cubs had chances but fall to the Phillies after Jon Lester gets roughed up again. Is anybody worried?

4:00 - It's Kap's daily call for the Cubs management to sign Craig Kimbrel.

8:00 - The White Sox look for a split. Do they need to try to compete in the division or just focus on developing their future stars?

13:00 - The Bears' Top 100 players list is out. The guys debate if Brian Urlacher is too low and if "The Fridge" should have cracked the list.

20:00 - Drake's shoulder rub is dominating the Eastern Conference Finals. The guys weigh in on the touchy subject.

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below:

How close is Ian Happ to rejoining the Cubs?

How close is Ian Happ to rejoining the Cubs?

Is Ian Happ nearing a return to Chicago?

In a surprise move at the end of spring training, the Cubs sent the 24-year-old switch-hitter down to the minor leagues to work on his swing and try to cut down on strikeouts.

Happ's numbers in Iowa don't jump off the page at you (.240/.362/.422), but it looks like he may be turning a corner of late. He homered Monday night then went 4-for-4 with another homer, 2 doubles and 5 RBI in the second game of a doubleheader Wednesday.

That's obviously a very small sample size, however, and even including that, Happ is still struggling to make consistent contact. He has struck out 14 times in 25 at-bats over his last 8 games. 

His overall strikeout percentage on the season is 25.9 percent — a major improvement on the 36.1 percent mark he struggled through in the big leagues last year. But Happ had never struck out more than 23.6 percent of the time in a season coming up through the minor leagues, so that number is still higher than the Cubs would like to see.

"If [the mini hot streak] were sustained, you'd have to really start listening," Joe Maddon said. "I'm following him via video, watching the at-bats. I'm doing that almost daily with him. I know prior to that, he had still had some problems with strikeouts. 

"And then hit a home run the other day and that seems like that's led to this other home run. That would be primarily a call on the front office and the minor-league part [on when to call him up], but I will watch the video. The home run I saw, I liked. I thought he had much better balance on the entire swing."

Obviously the Cubs aren't going to overreact to a couple games and deem Happ ready to return to the big leagues based off a handful of at-bats.

But there's also a solid case to be made that he could help the club in Chicago right now.

Despite a hot start to the season, the Cubs' role players have really fallen off the last few weeks and much of the offensive damage has come from the big boppers (Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Willson Contreras) recently.

There's no indication Ben Zobrist is coming back anytime soon, as Maddon said Thursday morning he hasn't spoken to the veteran in a couple days. 

David Bote and Jason Heyward have looked better this week, but they were struggling for the first couple weeks of May. 

Daniel Descalso has really been scuffling, hitting .097 with only 1 extra-base hit in May and his defense at second base has been below average.

Then there's Mark Zagunis, who isn't doing much of anything for the Cubs — literally. He hasn't started a game since April 26 and hasn't seen even one inning in the outfield since then, either, serving exclusively as a pinch-hitter for the last month.

So if the Cubs decide soon that Happ is ready to return to the big leagues, they have a simple decision on the roster spot and right now, there might be an avenue to a decent amount of playing time either at second base or the outfield.

Happ may not be the best or most experienced defender at second base, but he's seen some time there in the minors this season (59.2 innings) and he can also play either of the corner infield spots and all three outfield positions.

But would it be prudent for the Cubs to call up Happ if they don't even have room for him to play every day? That could throw a wrench in his development, which is clearly something the organization has been committed to.

Albert Almora Jr. is still easily the best centerfielder on the roster and has been great offensively for the last month, so it's not like he's done anything to deserve falling back into a platoon with Happ in center like they shared for much of 2018.

"It's hard. You would want to [call him up only if there's ample time to play him]," Maddon said. "But if you could morph him in and there's a platoon that's worthwhile, you could do that, also.

"But part of him being [in the minors] right now on a consistent basis is to get these kind of at-bats to get this all worked out and you would not want to lose that, either. But when he were to come back, being that he could hit left-handed obviously permits us to do other things."

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