Chicago Cubs

Best way for Cubs to weather Jon Lester's absence is to pitch well, and that's just what they're doing

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USA TODAY

Best way for Cubs to weather Jon Lester's absence is to pitch well, and that's just what they're doing

The best way for the Cubs to weather Jon Lester’s absence?

Pitch well.

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.”

Joe Maddon should have the last laugh on this Cubs season

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon should have the last laugh on this Cubs season

“There’s nothing I can really say to them that would make a difference right now,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said inside Wrigley Field’s underground interview room on Sept. 10, answering a broad postgame question about team meetings at the end of a lost weekend where the Milwaukee Brewers outscored the defending World Series champs 20-3.

“They just need to see consistency from me,” Maddon said after the division lead had shrunk to two games over the Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. “They just need to see me do what I always do. I’m having conversations with all of them daily. It’s more one-on-one for me, as opposed to group. One-on-one therapy as opposed to group therapy.”

Maddon chuckled at that one-liner – and he should have the last laugh on this Cubs season. Within one week – basically the time it took for the entire Bears season/Mike Glennon experiment to crater – the Cubs went from being on the ropes to landing a knockout punch against the Cardinals and doubling their lead over the Brewers in the National League Central.

What appeared to be weaknesses while this team couldn’t get rid of a World Series hangover – a laissez-faire attitude in the clubhouse, no real sense of urgency, the short attention span, too many off-the-field distractions – can be seen as strengths now that the Cubs are a season-high 17 games over .500 after sweeping the Cardinals out of Wrigleyville.

It’s too early to take a victory lap when Maddon returns to Tropicana Field on Tuesday and faces the Tampa Bay Rays. But by not overreacting and completely losing his players, and staying relentlessly positive and patient, and remembering there is life outside the stadium, and allowing all of this natural talent to finally take over, Maddon has the Cubs in position to make the playoffs for the third straight season, something that hasn’t happened for this franchise since player/manager Frank Chance won three NL pennants in a row and back-to-back World Series titles in 1907 and 1908.

“There’s only one time to really call a team meeting – if your best pitcher is pitching the next day against a really bad team,” Maddon said. “That’s when you could look good. Otherwise, try to refrain from that. Don’t pick the wrong day. In our game, sitting there, trying to rehash the obvious, there’s no motivational component to that whatsoever.

“When things tighten up like this, they need to see you be consistent, not inconsistent. If I were to do something like that – that’s something I never do – so that would send out all the wrong signals.

“I’ve been around managers that have done that in the past. I’ve been one in the minor leagues – and I hated me for it afterwards.

“For the group that’s always looking for the inspirational speech, I promise you, if in fact it had any impact at all, it might last 10 minutes by the time they got out to the field. And if the other team’s pitcher that night is better than yours, it’s not going to work.”

The Cubs have created huge advantages in terms of talent, payroll and experience. But Maddon has held it together while every member of the Opening Day rotation got injured at different points this season and an everyday catcher (Willson Contreras), a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist), an All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell) and a Gold Glove outfielder (Jason Heyward) spent time on the disabled list.

“Honestly, it’s minor-league training, man,” Maddon said. “It happens all the time. You immediately start thinking about: ‘OK, what do I do now? What’s next? Who’s the replacement? How do we fix this? How do we plug the dike?’ That’s it. I don’t take a doomsday approach mentally ever.

“I reference it often – the minor-league training really matters a lot in these situations. You have to be creative sometimes. You have to utilize different people, different methods, possibly. But ‘How do you fix this?’ is your first thought.

“That’s the beauty of this game, man. It is an endurance test. And it is a test of depth a lot of times also. You have to have it. That’s where I go. I remember playing in the Texas League with eight position players and one of my pitchers had to be the DH. You just do it.”

[MORE CUBS: 10 reasons for optimism as the Cubs enter the final two weeks of the 2017 season]

Maddon is old enough to collect Social Security checks, but he remains an ideal modern manager. Not because he dyes his hair “Blue Steel” and organizes themed road trips that feel more about building his personal brand than any team-bonding concept.

It’s the way Maddon tames the media before and after every game, pumps The Geek Department for information, casually namedrops the assistant director of research and development (Jeremy Greenhouse) during his press briefings and sees the Cubs from 30,000 feet.

“This is an organization working as one,” Maddon said. “For years, I was a part of the other side where I thought nobody was listening and it’s really a tremendous disconnect. If I ever got a chance to be doing what I’m doing right now, I would absolutely listen to these folks, because I think it’s important.”

So when Theo Epstein’s front office pushes Jen-Ho Tseng to make his big-league debut in the middle of a pennant race, Maddon sells the decision. Even though Tseng wasn’t one of the 40 pitchers the Cubs put on their spring training roster, and Maddon had only seen him on video and just met him for about five minutes.

“I trust the people making these decisions,” Maddon said. “Having spent so much time in the minor leagues, I listen to minor-league people. I listen to front offices. I listen to people that get to see people play that I don’t get to see.

“So if your evaluators really believe strongly in this, and your minor-league people do, too, you listen to them. You believe. You trust. That’s part of how this thing works.”

If Maddon had emerged from obscurity to become a borderline Hall of Famer during that small-market miracle in Tampa – five seasons with at least 90 wins in nine years – then winning the World Series with the Cubs guaranteed his Cooperstown plaque.

Of course, Maddon got slammed for his Game 7 decisions and had to keep answering questions about it months and months later. The manager didn’t really lash out or second-guess himself – and once again his team seems to be peaking at the right time.

Since 2015, the Cubs have played 162 regular-season games in August, September and early October – and gone 109-53 plus winning five playoff rounds so far.

“It’s a mental thing, man,” Maddon said. “It’s competition. It’s the competing component of it. It goes so far beyond just looking at statistical information and lineups and where do they rank right now sabermetrically. It has nothing to do with (sabermetrics). I talked about the heartbeat last year. It’s going to show up over the next couple weeks again.”

10 reasons for optimism as Cubs enter the final two weeks of 2017 season

10 reasons for optimism as Cubs enter the final two weeks of 2017 season

As the Cubs begin their final day off of the regular season, they ride into the last two weeks of 2017 on a serious high.

The Cubs played 20 games in 20 days before their off-day a week ago, but since then, they've won six straight and are a season-high 17 games over .500. They have a four-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central and a six-game jump over the St. Louis Cardinals.

That's quite a swing of events after all the panic skirting through the Cubs fanbase at this time last week following a sweep at the hands of the Brewers.

"We're definitely playing at the highest level of mental energy we've played with all year, period," Joe Maddon said Sunday following the Cubs' sweep of the Cardinals. "It's coming at the right time."

I'll say.

The Cubs entered the weekend series with the Cardinals needing a strong showing and turned in an absolutely dominating performance instead.

They're now 11-4 against the Cardinals in 2017, the best record since 2007 against their in-division rivals.

Here are 10 reasons Cubs fans have to count their blessings before the final road trip of the year:

1. Post All-Star Break stars

The Cubs have been on a roll since the All-Star Break, going 40-21 with a +106 run differential:

Which is the norm under Maddon in Chicago, as the Cubs have gone 140-69 in the season's second half over the last three years:

2. The Windy City

Wade Davis is still a perfect 31-for-31 in save chances, but Sunday may have been his closest call yet.

Dexter Fowler — who already homered earlier in the game to account for all three of St. Louis' runs — drove Davis' last pitch into deep center field, causing Davis and Cubs fans everywhere to react in anguish.

But the wind blew it back into play and into the waiting glove of Leonys Martin. 

"I thought it was going to the scoreboard," Davis joked after the game.

Instead of a go-ahead homer, it was the final out and the Cubs were owners of a three-game streak.

3. Starting staff

Jose Quintana made one mistake Sunday, a three-run shot to Fowler in the sixth inning. 

The Cubs' big summer acquisition was one out away from another quality start, but he was also the victim of some shoddy fielding behind him. Kris Bryant made an error and Kyle Schwarber failed to catch a flyball a few batters before Fowler's shot.

Quintana acknowledged he saw Kyle Hendricks' gem Saturday and wanted to go out and deliver his own strong outing.

The Cubs' starters are feeding off each other in a positive way at just the right time.

"We're competing at a pretty good level [as a team]," Davis said. "Our starters have really been carrying us the last 4-5 games. That's really been a big deal."

4. Solidfying the bullpen

The bullpen accounted for nine innings against the Cardinals and did not allow a run. 

Davis and Carl Edwards Jr. appeared in all three games, teaming with Pedro Strop (two appearances) to get 21 outs combined. 

Even Justin Wilson got into the mix, picking up a big strikeout in the only batter he faced Friday, helping swing the momentum in the Cubs' favor. 

This is the time of the year where the bullpen earns their money and the Cubs will need to rely on Davis and Co. heavily with eight games remaining still against the Brewers and Cardinals.

The day off Monday helps add another opportunity for rest for Hector Rondon (elbow) and Koji Uehara (knee, back). 

5. Regaining health

Even with Rondon and Uehara leaving the bullpen a little short, the Cubs have gotten great reports on frontline starter Jake Arrieta, who threw a 42-pitch bullpen Saturday and reportedly felt "grrreat." There is no word yet on when Arrieta will start, but it's possible the Cubs get him back early on this road trip.

Addison Russell, meanwhile, is back in a big way. He reached in all five plate appearances over the weekend, hitting a pinch-hit homer Saturday and collecting a single and three walks Sunday.

Willson Contreras is also showing no ill effects after missing about a month with a hamstring injury. He is hitting .444 with a 1.111 OPS in five games since returning from the DL and Contreras catcher served his one-game suspension Sunday, so he'll be ready to roll from Game 1 of the road trip.

6. Addison's back

Not only is Russell back, but he's already at the top of his game. 

With several slick defensive plays over the weekend, Russell also has not made an out at the plate since Aug. 2, the last game he played before landing on the disabled list with a foot injury. 

"Everything he's doing is looking good," Maddon said. "Great at-bats, no expanding of the zone. A lot like Contreras. Willy did the same thing coming back; he did not expand the strike zone. Addison played really well."

Russell's return also allows for a break for Javy Baez, who has had to play nearly every inning over the last six weeks. And when the two young infielders play at once, the Cubs have a pair of elite level defenders up the middle of the field.

The weekend served as a reminder to the baseball world how much the Cubs have missed Russell's presence this season and with two weeks left, his return to form couldn't have come at a better time.

7. Cardinals faltering

The Cardinals have had several moments over the course of the season where they looked down and out but they were simply overmatched in the three-game set at Wrigley Field. They threw their three best starting pitchers — Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha — and still couldn't pull out a victory in a crucial series.

The Cardinals are still within striking distance at six games back in the division and they host the Cubs for four games next week, but with just 13 games remaining on the schedule, time is fast running out for the Redbirds.

8. Their fate is in their own hands

The Cubs don't have to do too much scoreboard watching. They constantly talk about how their main focus is taking care of their own business and if they do so in the final two weeks, they'll have accomplished their first 2017 goal: Make the playoffs.

The Cubs don't have to rely on anybody else for their fate and can put away the Brewers next week with a strong showing (and then that four-game set in St. Louis immediately following). 

9. All hands on deck

The Cubs got 19 players in both Friday and Sunday's games and played 15 different guys Saturday as Maddon didn't hesitate to use his full complement of weapons with the expanded September rosters.

Maddon loves when a lot of guys get involved because it gives them all a feeling of "ownership" in the victories.

The Cubs have remarkable depth on their roster and there are still questions that have to be answered before any sort of postseason roster (assuming they make it) can be constructed. These last few weeks are giving Maddon and Co. a glimpse of what everybody can do.

10. State of the offense

The Cubs lineup has been relentless over the last week, scoring 55 runs in six games. None of the Cardinals' top three starters could make it out of the sixth inning, with Lynn managing to get just 12 outs Sunday.

The Cubs now lead the NL in runs scored and any questions doubters had about their ability to score runs off championship-caliber pitching have been put to rest for at least a little while.