The best way for the Cubs to weather Jon Lester’s absence?
Fortunately for the Cubs, that’s exactly what they’re doing of late.
Lester was placed on the disabled list ahead of Friday’s 7-4 win over the visiting Toronto Blue Jays, but the news was about as good as it could’ve been for the North Siders. Lester’s DL stint will effectively be just a stretch of time off to rest after pitching so deep into October in recent seasons. The official description of his injury is left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.
Of course the team will miss the ace of its starting staff while he’s on the shelf, but there’s a perfectly good way to make up for his absence: the rest of the pitchers pitch in a Lester-like fashion.
Jake Arrieta did just that Friday, turning in another stellar start with 6.1 innings of one-run ball.
“Jake was outstanding,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You could see it, fastball command, man. When it’s there, this guy’s pitching deep into games and he’s giving up very few runs. He just had good stuff again.”
It’s been a trend of late for Arrieta, who after a shaky start to the season has been terrific since the start of July. In his last nine starts, Arrieta has a pencil-thin 2.03 ERA, giving up more than two earned runs in just one of those starts (and he gave up just three in that one).
He was at it again Friday, with minimal damage done by a Blue Jays lineup featuring the likes of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Justin Smoak.
“I’ve located the ball really well,” Arrieta said, describing what he’s done lately that’s made him so good. “I've established certain things early on in the ballgame that allow me to do certain things differently as the game progresses. I’ve shown the ability to spin multiple breaking balls for strikes and for put-away (pitches) late in the count. And then obviously, pitching to contact early in the game and having certain things that I can use for put-away pitches later on is really the way you pitch and the way you pitch successfully. I think the game plan is always to utilize strengths, point out and try to expose a weakness here and there with the opposing offense and try and pitch into the seventh inning.”
“I love the way he’s gone about his business this year,” Maddon said. “There was a moment there when he was struggling. A lot of people were asking him different questions. He did not alter, he continued along the same path. Right now, maybe he’s not as good as he was a couple years ago, but he’s pretty darn close.”
Arrieta isn’t the only Cubs starter to pick things up of late, either. Kyle Hendricks has been great since his return from the disabled list, boasting a 2.00 ERA in his last five starts even if longevity hasn’t necessarily been there. Even John Lackey, who has surrendered more homers than any other National League pitcher, has a 3.29 ERA in seven starts since the beginning of July.
A lack of consistency in the starting rotation was the No. 1 issue for the Cubs during their sub-.500 first half. Now consistency is starting to come for those who struggled to find it during the season’s first three months.
The continued strong performances from these starters is the best way to make sure the Cubs stay on top of the NL Central standings — with and without Lester.
“It balances the whole thing out. We definitely need that,” Maddon said. “We got on a nice roll post-break because we pitched so well. And the next roll is going to be because we pitch so well. We’ve got to pitch well and catch it, give them their minimum number of outs per game. And when we start doing that consistently, you’re going to see us start piling up five out of six, eight out of 10, et cetera. But you need to pitch and play defense well to do that.”
See, even with Lester making his starts in recent weeks, the rest of the rotation has been shouldering the load. That’s the reason Lester went on the DL in the first place. After that nightmarish final start before the All-Star break in which he allowed 10 runs in less than an inning to the Pittsburgh Pirates, he had three tremendous outings after the break. But in four August starts, Lester turned in a grotesque 7.85 ERA. Thursday’s start was the straw that broke the camel’s back, Lester allowing eight runs and recording just five outs against the Cincinnati Reds.
“I think the big thing is obviously the overall performance wasn’t there,” Lester said. “That’s just something that we’ve tried to manage for a while and get through. And it just got to a point where you’re doing a disservice to your team by going out there and not being able to perform. It sucks going on the DL, feel like you can’t help. But at the same time, I wasn’t helping out there, so let’s get this thing right and get back to being myself.”
Much pregame attention was devoted to Mike Montgomery, who will start in Lester’s place during the DL stay. Maddon, team president Theo Epstein and other Cubs pitchers have plenty of faith in Montgomery, who has been very good out of the bullpen for the Cubs this season, posting a 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances. As a starter, though, Montgomery’s numbers are much worse: a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.
While Arrieta, Hendricks, Lackey and the heretofore unmentioned Jose Quintana up their games in their starts to help make up for Lester’s absence, Montgomery will have to do the same.
The Cubs have been hit with a lot of problems in this follow-up season to that curse-smashing World Series win. Underwhelming play told the story of the first half, while critical injuries seem to be telling the story of the second. Lester joins everyday players Addison Russell and Willson Contreras on the DL. All this while the NL Central race is as tight as can be, with both the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals within two games of the Cubs heading into their games on Friday night.
But even with all that, the Cubs are still in first place. There’s a lot of baseball left, and the team expects Lester to be there for much of it. While he isn’t, though, it’s on the rest of the starting staff to pick things up.
They have. Now they have to continue to.
“I still feel that way,” Arrieta said, reminded of his own declaration that his best pitching is still to come. “I think a lot of guys in the clubhouse feel that way about themselves. That’s the way we need to do moving forward.”