Chicago Cubs

Jon Lester hits disabled list as back-to-back Octobers start catching up to Cubs

Jon Lester hits disabled list as back-to-back Octobers start catching up to Cubs

Typically, you wouldn’t expect there to be anything wrong with playing deep into the month of October in back-to-back seasons.

Indeed only the back-to-back world-championship campaigns in 1907 and 1908 have produced a better two-season stretch of Cubs baseball than what the team has done the past couple of years. A run to the National League Championship Series in 2015 was followed up by last season’s curse-smashing World Series win, which still has much of Lakeview in a pretty euphoric state.

But not every effect is a positive one, as the 2017 edition of the Cubs are finding out.

The debate over a so-called “World Series hangover” aside, the Cubs were hit with a more tangible detriment from playing so many postseason games Friday, when Jon Lester was placed on the disabled list with what was described as left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

The news on Lester, of course, could’ve been far worse. In fact, many were expecting far worse, making Friday’s news qualify as a sigh of relief for a team that will need every one of its weapons to battle through an extremely tight division race. Lester, according to the Cubs, has no structural damage and is getting put on the shelf mostly to rest up after back-to-back seasons of deep playoff runs.

“His arm is tired, which is understandable,” team president Theo Epstein said. “If you look at the load that he’s carried, pitching seven months the last couple years, taking the ball every fifth day. There comes a time where all pitchers need a breather, and this is his time.

“He’s actually told us he’s been dealing with it for a good bit now, so this was probably inevitable. He’s getting the break before anything serious happens. He’ll be down for a little while, but he’ll come back to finish the year really solid note, pitch a lot of important games the rest of the way.

“It’s a grind. Especially when you pitch through October a couple years in a row, things tend to add up. This hasn’t been a year where we’ve been able to open up any kind of lead (in the division) and proactively give guys as much rest as we would like. Now Jon’s going to get that blow, which in the long run will serve him well.”

After back-to-back seasons of sensational starting pitching up and down the Cubs’ rotation — Jake Arrieta won the Cy Young Award in 2015, while Lester and Kyle Hendricks were finalists last year — this season has seen consistency among those same pitchers be a big issue. It was the team’s No. 1 issue, per Joe Maddon, during that sub-.500 first half.

And while things have picked up dramatically since the All-Star break, Lester’s disastrous outing Thursday wasn’t the first such performance of his season. Four times since late May, Lester has thrown four innings or fewer. Thursday’s nasty 1.2-inning, eight-run shellacking was like a replay of his final start prior to the All-Star break, when he was tagged for 10 runs and recorded just two outs against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In a season when breaking away from a mediocre pack of teams in the NL Central has yet to happen, fatigue is becoming a recurring theme.

“Jon has just pitched a lot,” Maddon said. “He’s pitched a lot over the last several years. And that’s what I keep talking about with a lot of our guys, when you take them out after 85, 90, 95 pitches, sometimes they don’t like it. But it’s a cumulative kind of effect that it’s going to have where all of a sudden it piles up and guys become tired or fatigued or they start doing something differently and all of a sudden they get some tightness.

“He probably was a little bit tired before the break. I think the break helped him a lot, he came out of the break well. Recently he’s felt a little bit of that tightness and just a general malaise. The fatigue is taking over. So we’re a little bit concerned about all of that. Give him a couple days off. I anticipate when he comes back you’re going to see a lot of what you saw post All-Star break.”

Lester’s trip to the disabled list coincides with a pair of other key performers spending time on the shelf. There seems to be no return in sight for injured shortstop Addison Russell, and the only update Maddon had on Willson Contreras was that the injured catcher “feels good.”

The good news for the Cubs is that they don’t expect to be without their ace long. Maybe just one or two missed starts. They’re mighty confident in their stopgap replacement plan, Mike Montgomery. So Lester’s injury doesn’t seem like it could have the same earth-shattering effect as losing the team’s hottest hitter, like they did when they lost Contreras.

Maddon, though, does see one of the team’s major injuries as an issue.

“The thing I’m concerned about is Javy (Baez)’s playing so much at shortstop right now. Among all the injuries, Addison impacts down the road more just because of what it’s doing,” Maddon said. “But Javy’s been playing with a lot of energy.

“I’ve been really watching him more than anybody because the outfielders are all getting breaks. (Kris Bryant) has not, (Anthony) Rizzo has not, but I get them out in a bad game or a good game, giving them some innings that way. So it’s been primarily Javy that I’m most concerned about, only because I’m worried about the latter part of the season. This guy’s played a lot. If and when we can get Addy back in there and get Javy on a more civil method regarding playing, I think that would be the one area that I’m most concerned about.”

Call it a World Series hangover. Call it just being tired. The Cubs’ rise over the past two seasons is having some ill effects as they look to repeat as World Series champs. They’re just hoping this banged-up month of August won’t prevent them from playing in three straight Octobers.

Get off my lawn: Jon Lester breaks down big Cubs win

Get off my lawn: Jon Lester breaks down big Cubs win

ST. LOUIS – Jon Lester went into get-off-my-lawn-mode, tired of math nerds and people being famous for no reason and the questions about whether or not he will be ready for the playoffs.   

Lester is actually a great talker when he gets going, introspective, self-deprecating and a voice of authority after winning three World Series rings with the Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

But Lester didn’t exactly sound ready to pop champagne bottles after Monday night’s 10-2 win at Busch Stadium eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals from the National League Central race and guaranteed at least a tie with the Milwaukee Brewers for the division title.  

Whether it was Lester’s brutal honesty, simmering frustration or high expectations for himself, he downplayed a quality start against a team still battling for a wild-card spot. He also took a subtle jab at the team’s sophisticated game-planning system and ripped the culture that brought us “Nacho Man.”

“I got to get back to being me,” said Lester, who had given up 27 hits and 12 walks in his previous four September starts since coming off the disabled list with what the Cubs termed left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue. “I got to get back to putting the hitters on a defensive mode, as opposed to trying to pitch to a scouting report from pitch 1.

“That was a conscious effort going into tonight, and I felt a lot better with everything, based off of that.”

Lester attacked the Cardinals with fastballs, working with 4-0, 5-0 and 8-1 leads across six innings. Once again, he found his rhythm later, giving up two walks in the fourth, getting his only 1-2-3 innings in the fifth and sixth and maxing out at 103 pitches.

The Cardinals scored their only run off Lester in the second inning when Jedd Gyorko launched a ball 410 feet out toward left field and “Big Mac Land” – in the same at-bat where shortstop Addison Russell almost made a Derek Jeter catch and turned “Nacho Man” into an instant celebrity.   

“I’m laughing more at the fact that the guy’s taking pictures and signing autographs,” Lester said. “I really don’t know what he did. A guy fell into him and got nacho cheese on his arm and now he’s taking pictures and signing autographs. I guess that shows you where our society is at right now with all that stuff.

“I really didn’t think it was that far foul. I thought it was a pretty routine play that just kept going. And I think it surprised Addie as well. So great effort, but I don’t understand the other stuff.”

Classic Lester, who changed the clubhouse vibe and fundamental nature of this rivalry when he decided to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season and will be 3-for-3 in playoff seasons as a Cub.

“I don’t know,” Lester said three times when asked if those command issues are rooted in taking more than two weeks off in the middle of the season. “I haven’t had stuff like this before, so figure it out as we go.”

How close are you to where you want to be?

“I don’t know,” Lester said. “I was good tonight, so let’s go with that.”

The Cubs trusted Lester enough to give him $155 million guaranteed and make him their Game 1 starter in all three playoff rounds last year. But the team’s inner circle of decision-makers had to be breathing a sign of relief, knowing that plans will take shape before Lester’s final regular-season start, what should be a meaningless Game 161 against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.  

“He’s just been searching, command-wise, (and) I can’t give you an exact reason why,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We just need to get him out of the gate a little bit more on top of his game. Again, I can’t give you a solid reason. He’s well. The numbers on the gun are good. It’s just a matter of executing his pitches and finishing them.”   

Lester always seems to be so hard on himself on the mound, and that competitive fire has made him one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation. The Cubs expect to see that guy show up in October against the Washington Nationals.   

“Everything was just a little bit sharper today than it has been in a little while, so that’s good, moving in the right direction,” Lester said. “There’s a few things in there that I need to clean up. But as far as overall, it’s definitely a positive."

With no more drama left in division race, Cubs-Cardinals turns into Addison Russell vs. Nacho Man

With no more drama left in division race, Cubs-Cardinals turns into Addison Russell vs. Nacho Man

ST. LOUIS – The Cubs played with an all-out intensity that drove Addison Russell to sprint over from shortstop and dive headfirst into the front-row seats beyond the left-field line, kicking a tray of nachos out of some dude’s left hand.

The St. Louis Cardinals have sunk to the point where Nacho Man became their biggest star on Monday night, going viral on social media and getting interviewed by the Chicago Tribune and both CSN Chicago and Fox Sports Midwest during the in-game broadcasts.

Russell didn’t catch that foul ball in the second inning with a Derek Jeter leap that left his right hand covered in cheese. He got booed when the Busch Stadium video board showed the replay of the nachos hitting the ground. He made amends by bringing out another order of nachos and taking a selfie with the Cardinal fan.

“He had a great night at the ballgame,” Russell said. “Initially off the bat, I was thinking that I could make the play. I didn’t see the fence and collided with it and got all nacho-d up.”

No, this didn’t feel like a playoff atmosphere at all, beginning with the 85-degree heat and ending with entire sections of empty seats. Jedd Gyorko actually homered during that at-bat, but it didn’t matter because the Cubs had already given Jon Lester a four-run lead before he threw his first pitch in what was supposed to be a dress rehearsal for October.

The Cubs will be there as the National League Central champions, eliminating the Cardinals from the division race with a low-stress 10-2 victory that sets up the chance for a blowout party late Tuesday night in the visiting clubhouse with another win or a Milwaukee Brewers’ loss.

“Woof,” catcher Willson Contreras said when asked what it would mean to clinch in St. Louis. “It always means a lot.”

Sensing the opportunity to bury the Cardinals, the Cubs jumped St. Louis right-hander Luke Weaver, a talented rookie who came in with a 7-1 record and a 2.05 ERA and lasted only three innings. Russell – who had been such a clutch performer late in last year’s playoff run – started it by driving a two-out, bases-loaded double into the right-field corner in the first inning.

Kris Bryant, the reigning NL MVP, drove Weaver’s 93-mph fastball beyond the left-field wall and into the visiting bullpen for his 29th homer and a 5-0 lead in the second inning. Javier Baez, the No. 8 hitter, launched a three-run homer that traveled 422 feet and slammed off an advertisement overhang above the bullpen in the third inning.

This is like a dream for Cubs fans enjoying this road trip to St. Louis and trolling Cardinal fans this week (with or without taking their nachos).

“I just want to win, honestly,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I understand all that. But I’m so contrary to coming to try to force those kind of thoughts in my methods. It’s about tonight’s game. And whenever we have this first chance to get there, let’s get there. You never want it to drag out. You want to be able to set things up, so it doesn’t matter to me.

“Believe me, man, I just want to win tonight.”

Or, as 2016 World Series MVP Ben Zobrist said: “The testosterone probably raises a little bit this time of year.”

Get your goggles and trash bags ready. The Cubs are the type of team that designed a Party Room into their state-of-the-art clubhouse as part of the $600 million Wrigleyville development and stretched out their World Series victory lap across Disney World, “Saturday Night Live,” and countless talk shows, commercials and ring ceremonies.

Anthony Rizzo – the only player left from the 2012 team that lost 101 games and a consultant on that Party Room project – insisted that celebrating in front of their rivals at a stadium that used to give the Cubs nightmares wouldn’t make a difference.       

“I really would love to be able to do it at Wrigley and use our new facilities even more,” Rizzo said. “But St. Louis is a good baseball city. They appreciate good baseball.

“If it was there, if it was in Arizona, it doesn’t matter where we clinch. Our goal was to win the division.”  

Even if it took until Sept. 26.

“It’s starting to smell like playoff baseball,” Russell said. “I know that these guys are amped up. It’s definitely feeling like playoff baseball."