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."

Cubs laugh off concern over offensive woes

Cubs laugh off concern over offensive woes

ST. LOUIS — What is wrong with the Cubs offense? Is Kris Bryant broken? Is it time to start getting concerned about the Cubs' lack of power?

Those questions have been bouncing around Cubdom the last 72 hours, including here in this space.

The Cubs laughed those issues off before Friday's 13-5 win and then went out and smacked the Cardinals to the tune of 13 runs and 14 hits.

After going a month without a homer, Bryant deposited one into the left-centerfield bleachers in the third inning.

This came after Bryant received a "spa day" Wednesday in Milwaukee, where he was kept out of the starting lineup and didn't even pinch-hit late in a game the Cubs lost just 1-0. Couple that with Thursday's regularly schedule off-day and the Cubs' top hitter had two full days to recharge.

"Yeah, I always like it when he gives us a day off leading into an off-day," Bryant said. "But, sometimes, it's just a mental break that gets you going and gets you back on the right track. Because this season is so long. Coming to the field every day can get monotonous, so anytime you can get a little break, it's huge."

Bryant's big day at the plate (2 hits, 4 RBI) also proved Jed Hoyer right.

The Cubs GM met with the media about three hours before Bryant's blast, giving the Cubs superstar a big vote of confidence.

"He's sort of the least of our concerns," Hoyer said. "He's so steady. I think when he does go through a slump, we all react because we're not used to it.

"But I think mentally, he's pretty even keel. I'm sure he has his moments of frustration but we have no doubt he'll get back to where he normally is. To me, that's a great thing.

"We know that we're kinda due some pretty big hot streaks from some guys and the offense will trend up as that happens."

That last part came true beyond just Bryant. 

Kyle Schwarber hadn't homered since June 1 and only had 4 blasts since April 26 but he followed Bryant's lead and drilled a 465-foot shot into the batter's eye in center field for a three-run shot.

This thing was flat-out murdered:

Ian Happ got the offense going in the second inning with a solo shot. The Cubs managed just 1 homer over the last week of action entering Friday but wound up with 2 in the third inning alone.

The Cubs entered the game without a run scored since Monday and saw only Jason Heyward, Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist really performing even or above offensive expectations presently.

Bryant and Schwarber were struggling while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ had cooled off a bit of late. Addison Russell and Willson Contreras continued to find their way on base over the last couple of weeks but still boast underwhelming power numbers overall.

The Cubs didn't solve all of their offensive woes Friday at Busch Stadium and it's just one game. But 14 hits, 5 walks, 13 runs and 3 homers can do an awful lot to ease the pressure off guys individually and the lineup as a whole.

"I think we just played a pretty complete game offensively tonight," Joe Maddon said. "That's what we're striving to do. I want homers, I want singles, I want moving the runners, I want good bunts, I want playing offense. We did it tonight."

Almost every starter can go to bed Friday night feeling good about their performance. Bryant homered and drove in 4 runs. Happ and Schwarber each homered. Rizzo had 3 hits and a walk. Almora had 3 hits. Russell had 3 hits, a walk and a lineout to right field. 

And the best example it was a good night for the Cubs offensively: Baez walked. TWICE. Both unintentional.

"Magnificent," Maddon said. "I was calling for the ball after the first one. After the second ball, that one's going right to Cooperstown." 

Podcast: Is it time to start worrying about the Cubs' lack of power?

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Is it time to start worrying about the Cubs' lack of power?

The Cubs head to St. Louis this weekend firmly in second place in the National League Central after dropping 2 of 3 to the Brewers in Milwaukee where they didn’t score a run for the final 18 innings. What’s going on with the offense? Is it time to start panicking about the lack of power? What more does Mike Montgomery need to do to stick in the rotation?

Kelly Crull, Jon Graff and Tony Andracki discuss these topics on the latest CubsTalk Podcast plus a couple under-the-radar reasons why the series may have turned after the Cubs’ big win Monday night.

Listen to the entire CubsTalk Podcast here and check out more on the lack of longballs below:

The lack of power has been particularly troubling. 

After hitting 1 homer less than the National League leaders (Mets, Brewers) last year, the Cubs currently rank 10th in the league in longballs. They're on pace for only 169 homers after hitting 223 in 2017. Every player on the team besides Javy Baez is on pace for a surprisingly low homer total based on track record and potential. 

Kris Bryant hasn't homered in a month and is on pace for only 20 longballs, which would be well under his career norm. Anthony Rizzo is on track for 27 dingers and he hasn't hit fewer than 31 in a season since 2013 (though, he did get off to a slow start for the first 5 weeks of the season). Jason Heyward has turned things around at the plate this year, but is still on pace for 7 homers, which would tie his career low of 2016.

Addison Russell and Willson Contreras have both flashed their 20-homer power in the past yet are on pace to combine for only 15 dingers in 2018 (5 for Russell, 10 for Contreras). 

Even Kyle Schwarber is on track for only 27 bombs after hitting 30 last year in a season where he struggled to hit over .200 for much of the year and spent three weeks in the minor leagues. Ian Happ clubbed 24 homers as a rookie in 364 at-bats but is on track for only 20 in 384 at-bats this year.

Only Baez (on pace for 35 homers) has lived up to his power potential so far this year, but he also has only 4 longballs in the last 5 weeks of action (dating back to May 7).

The Cubs altered their offensive approach under new hitting coach Chili Davis, looking for more contact and aiming to use the whole field rather than pulling the ball with power and striking out a bunch.

Has that mindset messed with the Cubs' power? Is it just randomness of the early going this year? 

Weather has been a factor, but the cold, wintry weather is gone (probably). It's mid-June now and the halfway point in the season is coming up. Yes, there are still more than 90 games remaining on the Cubs' schedule and homers do tend to come in bunches, but the "small sample size" excuse can't be used anymore.

The Cubs insist they haven't sacrificed any power for contact, so maybe it just is a bad stretch in the power department. Before being shut out on back-to-back days, the Cubs had won 13 of 17, so however they approached their at-bats was working to some extent.

Last season, their offense got too reliant on homers for stretches and wasn't able to manufacture runs against tougher pitching. They worked to rectify that for this year and while it's largely worked out (the Cubs are near the top of the NL in runs/game, on-base percentage and OPS even after these last two losses), the offensive woes are not fully in the rearview mirror.