Chicago Cubs

Jon Lester’s playoff message for Cubs after seeing how fragile Mets are now

Jon Lester’s playoff message for Cubs after seeing how fragile Mets are now

The Jon Lester vs. Matt Harvey matchup from Game 1 of the 2015 National League Championship Series feels like ancient history now that the Cubs and New York Mets have gone in completely different directions.

Where Lester cemented his reputation as a three-time World Series champion and a borderline Hall of Famer, Harvey has dealt with too many surgeries, gossip items and clubhouse issues to be more than a one-year lottery ticket next season.

The Mets are so down and decimated by injuries that it’s impossible to draw many conclusions from Wednesday night’s 17-5 blowout at Wrigley Field. Except for looking at the out-of-town scores and remembering the one big idea about how fragile all this can be.

“This game’s fickle, man,” Lester said after beating Harvey and grinding through his third start since coming off the disabled list. “You got to take advantage while you can, while you have the players. We all see it. We all see guys that get called up that are supposed to be the next coming of whatever and two or three years they’re out of the game.

“With that being said now, you got to take each individual season for what it’s worth. You’re going to have ups and downs. You’re going to have injuries. You’re going to have things not necessarily go your way.

“I think we led the league in walk-off wins last year. We obviously led the league in defense. We led the league in pitching. We won 100-and-however many games. Years like that don’t happen that often.”

From one moment to the next, Lester can go from seemingly brooding and sarcastic to extremely chatty and thoughtful, the way he did in the interview room when a reporter mentioned Anthony Rizzo reminding the media that the Cubs were still in first place after getting swept by the Milwaukee Brewers over the weekend.

“How bout that, right?” Lester said. “You wouldn’t think it. God dang, it’s unbelievable.”

To stay there, the Cubs need Lester, who hasn’t shown the same sharpness since left shoulder fatigue/lat muscle tightness sidelined him from the middle of August until Labor Day weekend. Lester watched Jose Reyes drive an 89-mph pitch into the left-center field bleachers for a leadoff homer to begin the game, needed 78 pitches to make it through three innings and walked four batters for the second straight start.

Instead of David Wright, Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto looming in the middle of their lineup, the Mets featured a guy who got released in late August in the No. 2 spot (Norichika Aoki), Kevin Plawecki and Juan Lagares hitting fourth/fifth, followed by two guys who made their big-league debuts last month (Amed Rosario and Travis Taijeron).

Will Lester be ready in time to match up with Max Scherzer and a loaded Washington Nationals lineup on Oct. 6? The $155 million ace stretched out to 114 pitches, lasted six innings and allowed two runs while the Cubs knocked out Harvey (5-5, 6.14 ERA) early and put up another football score against an overmatched team.

The Brewers winning kept them 2.5 games out of first place while the St. Louis Cardinals losing dropped them back to third place, three games out in the NL Central. The magic number for the Cubs to clinch the division is now 15.

“All you got to do is get in,” Lester said. “It doesn’t matter how the season looks, what everybody’s stats are. Whether you limp in or you sprint in, it doesn’t matter. You get in, anybody has a chance. I’ve always been a big believer in that. And there’s been a lot of teams over the years that have proven that.”

Lester brought up the Los Angeles Dodgers – going from a “Best. Team. Ever?” Sports Illustrated cover to losing 11 games in a row and 16 of 17 – and how everything will be wiped away in October.

“They’ve been the best team all year – from Day 1 – and look at the skid they’re going through right now,” Lester said. “This game will humble you. It will bring you back down. But at the end of the day, all you got to do is get in. And we’ll figure it out from there.”

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

MILWAUKEE – Teammates swarmed Kris Bryant in Miller Park’s visiting dugout late Thursday night, flinging sunflower seeds and forming a mosh pit around the National League’s reigning MVP.

Are you not entertained? The Cubs haven’t always played with this urgency or made it easy while nursing a World Series hangover. But they can feel it now, how close they are to October and how much they learned last year while making history.

It’s too early to pop champagne bottles, but the Cubs won a huge swing game in the NL Central race, beating the Milwaukee Brewers in the 10th inning when Bryant blasted Oliver Drake’s 92-mph fastball off a beam underneath the gigantic video board.

The Cubs watched it ricochet back onto the right-center field grass for a go-ahead two-run homer, bumping up the division lead to 4.5 games while cutting the magic number to clinch the division down to six.

After a head-spinning 5-3 victory that lasted 3 hours and 57 minutes and ended at 11:08 p.m., Bryant didn’t sound surprised or overexcited, the same way he didn’t overreact when the Cubs struggled to gain traction before the All-Star break and the Brewers swept the defending World Series champs two weekends ago at Wrigley Field.       

“We’ve done that so many times,” Bryant said. “We’ve had a nice run with that. I guess it is experience. The heartbeats aren’t going too fast when the game’s on the line there. It kind of plays to our advantage.”

So did the Brewers pushing their bullpen so hard this week trying to catch up that Cubs manager Joe Maddon would have to admit “their A-listers were not available,” meaning Corey Knebel, Anthony Swarzak and Josh Hader. Classic response from Bryant, who has 28 homers and likes to think of pitchers as nameless, faceless opponents: “I didn’t find out their top three guys were down until after the game was over.”

Maybe that changes the ninth-inning rally against Jeremy Jeffress where Ian Happ sprinted for a “Respect 90” single and scored the game-tying run when Javier Baez delivered a two-out, two-strike single up the middle. But the Cubs are in their element now, playing games that matter, not what-if.

“I just think we like loud,” Maddon said. “I think we’re a little bit like adrenaline junkies with the fact we’re used to 40,000 people a night.”

Just look at the stone face Wade Davis made in the ninth inning, escaping a bases-loaded jam by striking out Domingo Santana swinging at an elevated 95-mph fastball and forcing Orlando Arcia to chop a 3-2 pitch back to the mound. The All-Star closer who’s 32-for-32 in save chances went back out for the 10th inning and struck out the side to notch the win. That is a five-out playbook Maddon can use in October.

“You definitely feel it,” Davis said of the playoff atmosphere in a road stadium filled with Cubs fans. “It’s a lot easier to get up for the moment itself instead of having to create it yourself. You feel that.”

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

MILWAUKEE – This was the type of game Jake Arrieta visualizes, a loud atmosphere with 35,114 fans on their feet and an opponent that really doesn’t like the Cubs at all.

This one would ultimately be out of his hands, lasting 10 innings and almost 4 hours on Thursday night at Miller Park, but Arrieta looked like a Game 1 starter as the Cubs roared back for a 5-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Those playoff plans are coming into focus, the magic number to win the National League Central title down to six and Arrieta managing the Grade 1 right hamstring strain that has been one of the biggest question marks hanging over the defending World Series champs.

“It’s just good to be back out there,” Arrieta said. “These are big games, and I want to be a part of as many as I can, especially to try and clinch the division as quick as possible and then kind of line things up for us in October. But we got to get there first.”

Arrieta threw his first real pitch in 18 days at 7:16 p.m., firing a 92-mph fastball toward Brewers leadoff guy Eric Sogard and giving the Cubs a shot of adrenaline. That always wears off, but the Cubs are a different team when Arrieta sticks his chest out and triggers his perfect posture into a crossfire delivery.

Arrieta looked sharp in his first real action since Labor Day, even as his five-inning, 71-pitch limit exposed how fragile this pitching staff might be right now. If it’s not Jon Lester laboring at the top of the rotation, it’s the softer spots in the middle of the bullpen, or questions about how much wear and tear the Cubs can take after a deep playoff run in 2015 and last year’s World Series madness stretched into early November. 

But Arrieta basically picked up where he left off as the NL pitcher of the month for August, realigning his unique mechanics and generating enough power from his right leg, restarting the momentum in a second half where he’s shown the flashes of dominance you saw during his 2015 Cy Young Award season. 

Arrieta exited this game with a 2-1 lead – before it spun out of control – and passed one test by hustling to cover first base to complete an inning-ending 3-6-1 double play in the fifth. He walked just one of the 20 hitters he faced and could really only regret one pitch in the fourth inning, the 92-mph fastball Domingo Santana drilled off the batter’s eye in center field.

“I felt OK,” Arrieta said. “I can tell that something happened. I think it’s just the residual feeling of something like a hamstring strain. But no pain, really no discomfort. That’s a good sign.

“Tomorrow is the biggest indicator moving forward of how we’ll be able to approach this. I don’t see any reason that I won’t feel good tomorrow.”

Arrieta is scheduled to make two more regular-season starts, but this dramatic comeback means the Cubs might be able to treat those as controlled experiments instead of must-win situations.

“Just an incredible baseball game,” Arrieta said. “This is a really awesome time to be in an organization like this, in a division like the NL Central, where there’s a couple teams that have playoff aspirations in mind. If we take care of business here over the next few days, we get a couple steps closer.”