Chicago Cubs

As Kyle Schwarber finds his groove, could he settle in at No. 2 spot in Cubs lineup?

As Kyle Schwarber finds his groove, could he settle in at No. 2 spot in Cubs lineup?

If the Cubs are going to have another deep postseason run this fall, they're going to need to lean heavily on Kyle Schwarber.

As the now-polarizing slugger climbs out of his midseason slump, Joe Maddon has moved Schwarber back up to the top of the lineup.

But not at leadoff, instead settling in with Schwarber in the two-hole, ahead of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

That's the spot in the lineup where Schwarber has spent the most time in his career with 60 starts hitting second, plus Games 6 and 7 in the World Series. 

After striking out in eight straight plate appearances from Saturday to Monday night, Schwarber then reached base in eight straight trips. After a first-inning single Thursday, his average raised to .200 on the season for the first time since May 9. Another couple of hits — including his 20th homer of the season — raised his season average to .204.

He's also making an impact in the field, where he threw out two runners at home plate in the first three games of the Reds series.

"All things considered, he's actually on a pretty good roll right now," Maddon said. "Watching the last couple days, it looks like things are getting shorter. The movements are getting shorter, he's making better decisions and it'd be great if we can just keep him in that two-slot right there.

"That's where he's been very successful either off of Jon Jay or [Ben] Zobrist [leading off]. I kinda like what that looks like right now. I think his confidence is coming back up.

"That's who he is; we know that's who he is. Sometimes, it just takes a while coming off missing a season. It just does. I just have a lot of faith in the guy."

Maddon is referring to Schwarber's knee injury that sapped all but a handful of games in 2016. 

Sure, Schwarber returned after more than six months off and raked in the World Series, but a lot of that could be attributed to adrenaline or what was at stake. It's a whole new challenge to perform at that level day in and day out for an entire 162-game season, especially as teams learn his weakness and how to gameplan against him at the plate.

In 33 games since being recalled from Triple-A Iowa on July 6, Schwarber is hitting .278 with a. 381on-base percentage and .969 OPS.

He's been working on shortening his swing and battling with two strikes to at least put the ball in play or foul off tough pitches to work a walk. The results in the four-game series with the Reds are an extremely small sample size, but Schwarber and the Cubs are encouraged.

Maybe keeping him atop the lineup (against right-handed pitchers) could help move his resurgence along even more. He still doesn't figure to get many starts vs. left-handed pitchers anytime soon.

Schwarber has a .355 on-base percentage and .481 slugging percentage out of the two-spot and with Willson Contreras currently on the shelf, this may be the best way to structure the Cubs lineup — making a 2-3-4 heart of the order with Schwarber-Bryant-Rizzo. It worked perfectly in the first inning Wednesday as Zobrist, Schwarber and Bryant all reached ahead of Rizzo's grand slam.

Bryant has spent most of the year hitting two for the Cubs, but dropping him to third could create more RBI opportunities for the reigning MVP if Schwarber can continue to get on base at a high clip.

"To me, the typicaly two hitter these days, I'd much rather somebody that is really good to drive the baseball, drive in runs compared to [the traditional guy who hits-and-runs and bunts]," Maddon said. "I'd rather a guy up there who can really move the baseball and also accept his walks.

"I like that. Part of KB's allure is he's a very good baserunner. Schwarbs is a good baserunner. He's not as fast as KB is, but he's still a good baserunner, makes good decisions out there. I kinda like it."

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."