Jon Lester

Cubs shrugging off the pressure as October baseball looms

Cubs shrugging off the pressure as October baseball looms

Don't start making plans for Oct. 2, assuming the Cubs are a lock to avoid that NL Wild-Card game and have a trio of days off between the final regular season contest (next Sunday) and Game 1 of the NLDS on Oct. 4.

Baseball is a crazy sport and a lot can change in the next eight days, but FanGraphs lists the Cubs' chance of winning the NL Central at 91.3 percent.

Just, you know, don't tell them that.

"Whoa, let's not get that far ahead of ourselves," Jon Lester said Saturday night in the visiting dugout at Guaranteed Rate Field after picking up his 17th win of the season. "We got, what, [8] more games? We're 2.5 ahead. We got a long ways to go. I don't ever wanna jump too far ahead on that one.

"If we had a little bit of a different lead or whatnot, I could probably comment on that. But those are two good teams chasing us. We just gotta keep playing good baseball. We get to go home (even though really these last three days are kinda home), but we get to go home for the remaining week of the season and enjoy that. 

"I think once we start having some champagne and doing that, then you can ask me that question and we'll talk about it then."

Which means we need to wait a bit longer before we get to see Mr. Lester like this again:

But then again, Saturday's game was probably the most important of the season in terms of seeing how the Cubs responded to back-to-back toughlosses where they looked listless and punchless.

Javy Baez led the way, doing his MVP El Mago thing, but White Sox outfielder Ryan LaMarre misjudging Daniel Murphy's line drive in the fifth inning was the break the Cubs needed to wake up fully, eventually coasting to an 8-3 victory.

With the Brewers' loss in Pittsburgh, the Cubs' magic number is now 6 and they were feeling themselves after the game, looking like the team that is on their way to their third straight division title.

"Yeah, we know what we got," Baez said. "We just gotta stay away from every other team. They gotta pay attention to us, not us to them. If we do that, we should be good."

The Cubs have had to endure so much adversity this season to even get to the point Saturday where they were bumping their victory music and quite literally bouncing around a cramped clubhouse with a slew of Chicago media and almost an entire 40-man roster crammed into one small room.

Joe Maddon had to go back to his "A" bullpen for the first time in over a week, piecing it together with Carl Edwards Jr., Jesse Chavez, Justin Wilson and Steve Cishek after Lester. With over a week left, the Cubs' skipper still doesn't have Pedro Strop back and there is now no hope of Brandon Morrow making a miraculous comeback to provide assistance to this bullpen.

Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood were signed over the winter to supplement this Cubs rotation yet ineffectiveness and/or injury has made both right-handers a non-factor on this team for the last two months.

Kris Bryant still isn't back to his 2016 MVP form.

Kyle Schwarber just returned from a back injury and got his timing back Saturday with a pair of hits, as he promised after Friday's game.

Willson Contreras had thought he had made some offensive strides recently to rediscover his lost power stroke, yet wound up grounding out four times Saturday night.

Addison Russell is on administrative leave.

Ian Happ has started one game in the last week. 

Albert Almora Jr. is hitting .219 with a .528 OPS in the second half, enduring a slump that has lasted over two months and counting.

Jason Heyward was in the midst of a resurgent season at the plate, yet has played in only 118 games this season due to a concussion in May and then a hamstring issue three weeks ago that is still keeping him from playing at 100 percent.

Yet, here the Cubs are, ready to enter the final week of the season in the driver's seat of the entire National League.

"I mean, I don't care what place we're in. The most important thing is that you have a chance," Heyward said. "To not have a chance, it's kind of a shitty time to be playing baseball last week of the season if you don't have a chance. It's great to have a chance.

"I've been fortunate enough to not have too many games where I'm playing throughout my career that don't mean anything. We're playing meaningful baseball right now and everything else will speak for itself as far as what place we finish in, all that stuff. But we got an opportunity to get where we want to be. We gotta find different ways to do it and I feel like it's a testament to our team — we've found different ways to get it done."

Sure, the Cubs will take where they're at right now, even if it means they have to wait until the last possible moment to clinch the division.

But make no mistake, they have no thoughts of the wild card. They haven't gone through everything they've had to endure this season — and especially the last five weeks with the 30-day stretch — just to leave the entire season on the chance of a one-game crapshoot.

They know how important it is to clinch as early as they can and try to rest up and get ready for the rest of the postseason, treating the last few games of the season more like spring training where the starters only play half the time and Maddon doesn't have to press the pitchers.

The earliest the Cubs could clinch would be Tuesday night. Last year, they clinched on the Wednesday of the final week of the regular season.

"Of course you'd rather be clinched then just going through another spring training," Maddon said. "Of course you would. But who knows. Sometimes when you get pressed a little bit like this, it can make you even better. 

"The big thing when you get pressed sometimes, I just don't want us to get fatigued while you're going through this. I've been in that situation also. There's not a manager or a team alive that's gonna tell you that they would not prefer clinching well in advance to set it up. 

"That's what we did in '16 and when we did, I talked about running a spring training method for the rest of the season and I thought it played out pretty well. But in the mean time, we do show up, we've been on a tough stretch. I'm really proud of our players."

Home run ball continues to sting Cubs' starting pitching

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AP

Home run ball continues to sting Cubs' starting pitching

Cubs' starting pitchers have been on a roll recently, anchoring the team during its 30-day stretch without a day off. Over each of their last six starts (entering Wednesday), Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and José Quintana have been flat-out dominant.

Mike Montgomery has been stellar lately as well, allowing two runs or less in five of his last six starts. One common trend, though, is that Cubs' starting pitchers have been susceptible to the long ball as of late.

Hamels has allowed five home runs total in his last three starts, including two Wednesday night. The veteran left-hander surrendered a three-run blast in the first inning as well as a two-run shot in the sixth inning.

Lester has not allowed a home run since Aug. 27 against the Mets, but Hendricks has allowed one in two of his last three starts. Quintana allowed two solo homers in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Reds, while Montgomery has given up one in each of his last two starts.

Home runs by the oppposition haven't hurt the Cubs much recently, as they are 18-11 in their last 29 games. The pitching staff has been excellent down the stretch, outside of Wednesday's 9-0 loss.

Even then, though, the offense scored zero runs on one hit, so the three home runs that the pitching staff allowed ultimately did not matter.

Come October, though, it could be something to look out for, when one swing of the bat could change a game or series instantly.

Projecting Cubs playoff roster: Questions mounting as final two weeks loom large

Projecting Cubs playoff roster: Questions mounting as final two weeks loom large

The Cubs are a week closer to playoffs but they now have more questions about their potential postseason roster than they had seven days ago.

The Pedro Strop injury looms large over this team, as the Cubs' dynamic reliever and de facto closer will possibly miss the rest of the regular season with a hamstring strain, which leaves his postseason status in doubt.

He was initially ruled out until playoffs, but good news filtered out of the desert Monday evening:

Even if Strop is healthy enough to pitch in the regular season and/or October, how effective will he be? If he can't get back for that series with the Cardinals to end the regular season, he'll have gone nearly three weeks between facing live hitters. Rolling him out in the intensity of a high-leverage playoff situation doesn't leave much room for error.

For reference, remember 2016? Of course you do, but more specifically — remember how Strop was a nonfactor that postseason? That wasn't because he was suddenly bad (he gave up 2 runs in 5.2 innings) but he was still rusty after coming back from an injury.

Strop injured his knee Aug. 10 and missed more than a month, returning to pitch in four games in the final week-plus of the season before October. While those outings went off without a hitch, he still hadn't shown enough to work his way into Joe Maddon's circle of trust.

Sure, Strop's 2018 injury is far different (hamstring vs. knee), but it also came more than a month later than the 2016 issue.

There's a very real possibility Strop is not a huge part of the Cubs' postseason bullpen...if he's even healty and on the active roster in October.

So it begs the question: Who would take his spot in the bullpen?

Jorge De La Rosa has been surprisingly good since joining the Cubs and even picked up a save last week. He certainly has emerged as a serious candidate for October, but would the Cubs want to carry three left-handers in their bullpen assuming Justin Wilson and Mike Montgomery are both already in? That's possible, especially if they play the Milwaukee Brewers who have a host of left-handed hitters that struggle against southpaws.

But keep an eye on Dillon Maples for that last bullpen spot. 

The rookie has been an enticing option for the last two seasons with a fastball that can touch triple digits and a wicked, knee-buckling slider. Case in point:

The day after Strop was injured, Maples was called on to get a big out in the Cubs' win over the Reds and he responded. He then threw a perfect inning of relief Sunday.

But those two appearances were his first in 10 days after showing an alarming lack of command in Milwaukee on Sept. 4, allowing all three batters he faced to reach base via two walks and a hit-by-pitch.

It'd be bold to see the Cubs activate Maples for the playoffs after clearly displaying a lack of trust in the rookie in his first two weeks back in The Show following roster expansion on Sept. 1. 

But then again, when Maples struggled in Milwaukee, Maddon spent time the next day explaining why he went to the young right-hander and even brought his name up in the same light as Francisco Rodriguez and David Price:

"It was a perfect chance to give Maples an opportunity to see if he can come up and strike somebody out," Maddon said then. "This time of the year, when guys come up, the call-ups, the Frankie Rodriguezes, the David Prices — the guy that comes up with the big arm stuff and see if all the sudden you can grab something. So I definitely wanted to give him a chance right there."

Maddon isn't necessarily saying Maples could be the next Rodriguez or Price, but it was certainly worth a shot to see if the Cubs could strike the same kind of magic as the Angels in 2002 or the Rays in 2008.

Maddon was on the coaching staff for both instances. He watched as Rodriguez came up late in September in '02, flashing dominant stuff (13 Ks) in his first 5.2 MLB innings to earn a roster spot in October — where he made 11 appearances for the World Champion Angels, striking out 28 batters in 18.2 innings with a 1.93 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 3 holds and a whopping 5 wins.

In '08, Price came up to the big leagues for the first time and was utilized out of the Rays bullpen as they marched to the World Series (where they lost to Cole Hamels' Phillies). 

If it ever actually clicks for Maples and he can harness command of his elite stuff, he possesses that kind of potential, too. But that is one big "if." In Triple-A this season, Maples walked 39 batters in 38.2 innings and threw 12 wild pitches. Then again, he also struck out 75 guys, good for a Josh Hader-esque 17.5 K/9 ratio.

It'll be worth watching Maples and how he's utilized over the final two weeks of the regular season and see if lightning can strike for Maddon and the Cubs.

For right now, we're gonna go bold and put Maples on the postseason roster, but that's only because it's still unknown how the Strop situation will play out. 

Here is the rest of the roster and as we do in this series, we'll project the Game 1 lineup (which in this case would be the NLDS against the Brewers, who we're betting will win the wild-card game):

1. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
2. Kris Bryant - LF
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Javy Baez - 3B
5. Ben Zobrist - RF
6. Daniel Murphy - 2B
7. Willson Contreras - C
8. Jon Lester - P
9. Addison Russell - SS

Almora in the leadoff spot for the first game of the postseason may seem nuts given he's posted just a .265 on-base percentage and .543 OPS since July 1, but he still hits lefties well (.311 AVG, .359 OBP) and we're projecting the Brewers to throw Wade Miley in this instance if they use ace Jhoulys Chacin in the wild-card game.

Murphy has spent the most time leading off for the Cubs over the last month but he's also currently mired in a 2-for-23 stretch and has found himself on the bench the last two times the Cubs have faced a lefty (Saturday, Monday). The Cubs got Murphy to help in October, so assuming he's out of his funk by then, he'll still be in the lineup even against lefties — but will he be leading off? 

The rest of the lineup is pretty cut and dry, with the idea that Russell will probably start at shortstop against left-handed pitchers in October and possibly take a seat against right-handers (moving Baez to short, Bryant to third and Jason Heyward into the starting lineup in the outfield). 

Against lefties, Russell has a .271 AVG and .741 OPS this year — serviceable numbers despite his seasonlong offensive woes.

That leaves the Cubs' bench looking like this:

Victor Caratini
Kyle Schwarber
Jason Heyward
David Bote
Terrance Gore
Tommy La Stella

Yes, Ian Happ is inactive in this case. 

With Heyward returning to health (he was activated from the disabled list Sunday, but did not start or play), his October status is no longer in doubt. 

Assuming their current back injuries have dissipated by October, Schwarber and La Stella are no-brainers. Schwarber will still start vs. righties and La Stella has taken the crown as the No. 1 pinch-hitter in the game this season.

Happ, meanwhile, has been one of the small army of young Cubs hitters who have been in a prolonged slump in the season's second half. But while he has the advantage of being a switch-hitter and possesses the versatility to play multiple positions, he may wind up on the outside looking in this October given the glovework by the other guys.

However, despite his stellar defense at multiple positions on the infield, Bote may eventually hit his way into the odd man out in the group of Cubs position players. Since that "ultimate grand slam" on Aug. 12, Bote is hitting just .136 with a .193 on-base percentage and .296 slugging percentage (.489 OPS) and is striking out in more than 35 percent of his plate appearances.

With Gore's gamechanging speed, he's looking more and more like a lock for the October roster.

Starting rotation

Jon Lester
Cole Hamels
Kyle Hendricks
Jose Quintana

The first few instances of this column featured Hamels getting the nod in Game 1 of the postseason. But Lester has been the staff stud on the North Side of Chicago since Hamels was pitching in Philadelphia and after a hiccup, Lester is on fire once again.

Since giving up 8 earned runs to the Nationals in 3.2 innings on Aug. 11, Lester is 4-1 with a 1.73 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 37 Ks in 36.1 innings.

The rotation looked like a potential weakness for this team for most of the season but it's now morphed into a serious strength and there's an easy case to be made for either Lester, Hamels or Hendricks to be the team's Game 1 starter. 

However they line up Hamels and Hendricks after Lester will still put the Cubs in a good spot for Games 2 and 3 of an NLDS and even Jose Quintana has found his form once again (2.10 ERA, 1.14 WHIP over his last 6 starts).

Bullpen

Brandon Morrow
Jesse Chavez
Justin Wilson
Steve Cishek
Carl Edwards Jr.
Mike Montgomery
Dillon Maples

With the encouraging news out in Arizona, Strop very well could be active for the postseason, which could actually give the Cubs a dynamic postseason bullpen despite all the recent concerns about the group of relievers. But for now, we'll put Maples in there as a darkhorse candidate for that final spot until Strop's return is confirmed on that final weekend of the regular season.

Chavez has emerged as arguably the most imporant pitcher in the bullpen while Wilson has regained his elite form and Edwards may even be showing signs of a turnaround after a perfect inning in relief Sunday.

Meanwhile, Morrow may make his return this week in Arizona and should be able to get a few appearances in games before October hits.

This is still the most important position group on the roster and will warrant a close watch over the final two weeks, but what was once a "sky is falling" thought about the bullpen has been upgraded to "hey, maybe it's not so bad..."