Jon Lester continues to show how valuable he is to Cubs

Jon Lester continues to show how valuable he is to Cubs

ST. LOUIS — Only Jon Lester could get away with this.

Lester had just delivered pitch No. 99 on a 93-degree night in St. Louis with sweltering humidity.

As Cardinals outfielder Marcell Ozuna rounded first base and headed back to the bag after a base hit, Joe Maddon and Cubs trainer P.J. Mainville were headed out of the dugout to go talk to Lester.

But the Cubs ace and three-time World Series champ waved them off with his glove. 

With that, Maddon and Mainville spun around and headed right back to their posts in the third-base dugout.

Three pitches later, Lester had gotten through the sixth inning and had his quality start.

A moment like that signified the clout Lester carries within the Cubs clubhouse, but it also shows just how different this season has been for the 34-year-old after a rough 2017 campaign.

Lester still finished 13-8 last year and made 32 starts, but he posted his highest ERA (4.33) and WHIP (1.32) since 2012 and his lowest inning total (180.2) since he became a full-time member of a big-league rotation in 2008.

Now, Lester is making one hell of a case for the National League All-Star team, going 8-2 with a 2.38 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and a stabilizing factor in what has been a tumultuous year for the Cubs rotation.

"Yeah, [I feel] completely different," Lester said. "I don't know why, but just wasn't able to recover as well last year as I have in the past. This year, for whatever reason, able to throw my bullpens and take it into my starts.

"Just feel better physically, able to repeat my mechanics and feel strong out there. Just keep doing what I'm doing and hopefully ride it out."

Maddon believed Friday's outing was the best stuff Lester has displayed all year.

Lester didn't necessarily agree, but did concede that it was probably his best outing for his cutter and he loved the late movement he had on that pitch diving in on right-handed hitters.

Maddon also loved how Lester pitched around a couple of Cubs defensive miscues — Kris Bryant committed an error in the second inning and Addison Russell took too much time on a ground ball in the third inning, allowing Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha to reach on an infield single.

Both times, Lester worked through it without any issues and even came into the dugout to tell Bryant he was impressed with the Cubs third baseman keeping the hot-shot grounder in front of him, even if it was an error. If that ball gets by Bryant, the Cardinals have runners on second and third with two outs and it completely changes what Lester can do on the mound, worried about a basehit scoring two runs instead of one or a wild pitch gifting the opposition a free tally.

Maybe that interaction in the dugout helped give Bryant a little boost, as he ended his month-long homerless drought in his next at-bat the following half inning.

This is Year 4 of Lester's six-year, $155 million deal and he's been everything the Cubs have hoped for and more, from his performance on the mound to his impact in the clubhouse.

Where would they be without him this year?

While Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood have put pressure on the bullpen with short outings this season, Lester has pitched at least 6 innings in 6 straight games and has not had an outing shorter than 5 innings since Opening Day (3.1 innings).

"He just continues to trend in the right direction," Maddon said."

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

If the season ended today, Javy Baez may be your National League MVP.

Of course, the season isn't ending today, only the first half of the 2018 campaign is.

He flashed his skills again over the weekend — scoring the game-winning run Friday, posting a 5-RBI game Saturday and then drove in the Cubs' first run in their 7-4 victory Sunday to close out a sweep of the Padres.

Entering the All-Star Break, Baez should be the frontrunner for Most Valuable Player.

For starters, he's the best player on the best team in the league.

Thanks to a recent hot surge by the Cubs and an ugly weekend for the Brewers (who have lost 6 straight), Baez and Co. will go into the break with the best record in the NL. 

Baez, meanwhile, leads the Cubs in WAR and nearly every offensive category — OPS, slugging percentage, homers, RBI, runs scored, doubles, triples, total bases, stolen bases and hits.

And that's not even saying anything about his glovework at any position on the infield or dynamic baserunning.

He's on pace to become the first Cubs player to drive in 125 runs since Sammy Sosa in 2001.

Baez also is on track for a 30-30 season — something only Sosa accomplished in a Cubs uniform in 1993 and 1995. 

El Mago will enjoy his week in the Home Run Derby and as the NL's starting second baseman in the All-Star Game, but those shouldn't be the end of his accolades this year if he can find a way to keep this pace up in the second half.

What other NL candidate would be a better choice for the MVP right now?

Baez is tied for the league lead in RBI. Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar is just behind Baez with 70 RBI, but he also has 70 fewer at-bats than the Cubs star due to a platoon to begin the year. 

Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett are also having great years, but the Reds are nowhere close to a playoff spot. 

Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt are also having very good seasons on teams that are currently in the playoff hunt, but how do you deny the best player on the league's best team?

After all, where would the Cubs be without Baez this season? 

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have battled through injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness, the pitching staff has had all kinds of consistency/health woes and Willson Contreras has yet to find his power stroke at the plate.

At the very least, "El Mago" has been the most important player on the North Side of Chicago during the first 3.5 months of 2018.

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Cubs first-round pick Nico Hoerner made his debut with the Class-A South Bend Cubs, and he did not disappoint.

The 23-year old shortstop showed off impressive hops during an acrobatic grab in the topf of the second inning in his first game with the South Bend Cubs. Hoerner will surely be an exciting defensive prospect with ability like this.

As far as offense goes, through four at-bats at South Bend, Hoerner is batting .500, and this comes after he hit .318 with a home run and two RBI through seven games with the Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs Class A short-season affiliate.

Here is to hoping we continue to see big-time plays from Hoerner.