LIVE: Castro having big night, Cubs have big lead

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LIVE: Castro having big night, Cubs have big lead

Monday, Sept. 12, 2011
Posted: 10:08

Associated Press

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Dontrelle Willis missed an opportunity last week to beat the team that drafted him and end his lengthy winless drought.

The Cincinnati Reds left-hander will get another chance to face the Chicago Cubs in Monday night's opener of a four-game series at Great American Ball Park.

Wills (0-5, 4.21 ERA) has allowed three runs or fewer in nine of his 11 starts since being called up from the minors in July, but he's still seeking his first victory since June 5, 2010. In his 200th career start last Monday in Chicago, he gave up four runs over seven innings and struck out eight while taking the loss in a 4-3 defeat.

Willis hasn't received more than three runs of support in any outing this season.

"It's frustrating because I've pitched worse and won," he said. "I'm going to continue to battle and fight and hopefully I'll get a win and then they'll come in bunches."

Willis would probably love to earn that long-awaited win against the Cubs (64-82), who selected him in the eighth round in 2000. Chicago traded him to Florida in 2002 for Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca, who pitched for Chicago's division-winning club the following season.

Willis, meanwhile, was named NL Rookie of the Year in 2003, going on to help the Marlins defeat the Cubs in the league championship series and claim their second World Series title. Two years later, he led the majors with 22 wins.

After being dealt to Detroit in December 2007, Willis registered only two wins over parts of three seasons with the Tigers and endured anxiety issues.

The Reds (71-75) are the third organization for Willis since May 2010, and they could use his help as they strive for their first back-to-back winning seasons since 1999 and 2000.

Cincinnati appears less likely to accomplish that feat after dropping nine of its last 13. That stretch began with a four-game series sweep at the hands of Philadelphia from Aug. 29-Sept. 1 at home.

The Reds went 4-5 on their subsequent road trip, including losses in their final two games at Colorado over the weekend. Joey Votto drove in the lone Cincinnati run of Sunday's 4-1 defeat with a solo homer in the ninth inning.

"They looked like they were at the end of a 10-day road trip," Reds manager Dusty Baker said.

Baker's former team, the Cubs, won two of three against the New York Mets to open a seven-game trip and are 5-2 in their last seven games overall. Chicago scored six times in the 11th inning of a 10-6 victory Sunday night.

"We don't do things the easy way, that's for sure," manager Mike Quade said. "They kept playing. They kept battling."

The Cubs may be in for a battle if they want to help Rodrigo Lopez (4-6, 4.82) snap a personal three-game skid. The right-hander gave up two runs over 5 2-3 innings to Cincinnati on Tuesday during a 4-2 loss in 13 innings.

Lopez is 2-0 with a 4.59 ERA in seven career starts against the Reds, earning both wins in Cincinnati, while Willis is 3-2 with a 3.47 ERA in his last five starts versus the Cubs.

Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro, the NL leader with 187 hits, went 1 for 3 against Willis as part of his current 12-game hitting streak. He's batting .407 in his last six games against Cincinnati.

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Preview: Cubs-Marlins Sunday on CSN

Preview: Cubs-Marlins Sunday on CSN

The Cubs take on the Miami Marlins on Sunday, and you can catch all the action on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com and the NBC Sports App.

Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 11:30 a.m., followed by first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies on the call. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Starting pitching matchup: Mike Montgomery (1-3, 2.26 ERA) vs. Edinson Volquez (3-8, 4.19 ERA)

Click here for more stats to make sure you’re ready for the action.

— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the Cubs: All of the most recent news and notes.

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

MIAMI – Jon Lester dropped his head and wiped the sweat from his face. The Cubs ace didn’t jerk his neck and twist his body, hoping the swing and the sound somehow fooled him. The slow turnaround revealed the obvious – the 75-mph curveball out of his left hand flew over the left-field wall and nearly into the Clevelander bar billed as an adult playground. 

Lester gripped the next ball, stared out into the visual noise at Marlins Park and went to work late Saturday afternoon after J.T. Realmuto’s two-out, three-run homer in the first inning. This is the bulldog determination and tunnel vision that’s been the antidote to the big-market pressures at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field and made Lester such a big-game pitcher.

“You really just have to lock it down,” Lester said after doing just that in a 5-3 win. “You have to try to figure out a way to pitch innings. That was one thing I learned at an early age in Boston with ‘Schill’ (Curt Schilling) and Josh (Beckett). It doesn’t matter. Now we start over. You have to take that mindset of ‘It’s back to zero’ and not keep looking at the scoreboard.”

From that Realmuto moment, Lester retired the next 13 hitters he faced, 15 of the next 16 and 18 of his last 20 at a time when the Cubs needed that performance to buy time for their young hitters, weather a series of injuries and survive a brutal schedule.

Lester believed enough in the coming waves of talent to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season, and got rewarded with his third World Series ring, continually impressed with this group’s poise and maturity.

The day after getting shut out for the sixth time this season, Addison Russell, Ian Happ, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. – four 24-and-under players – combined to go 7-for-15 with five RBI and four runs scored.

“It’s a test for everybody,” Lester said. “These guys are kind of getting broken in early. They’re going to figure it out and we’re going to go. Now it seems like our guys are really feeling comfortable at the plate. We’re having good at-bats, normal at-bats.

“The results will come. This is, obviously, a results-driven industry. But the plans – as far as on the mound and in the batter’s box – just look a lot smoother right now, a lot cleaner and hopefully we can just keep playing good baseball.”

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The Cubs are 38-36, a half-game behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and in position to win three consecutive series for the first time since April. Whether or not Lester (5-4, 3.83 ERA) returns to Little Havana for the All-Star Game, he is the bellwether for this rotation.  

“Jonny’s just got this thing going on right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He knows where the ball is going and he gets the high-number velocity when he wants to. He’s not just pitching at 92, 93, 94 (mph). It’s in his back pocket when he needs it. And he gets it with command when he wants it.

“As well as I’ve seen him pitch – I know he had a great run last year also – from a stuff perspective, command perspective, it’s as good as he can pitch.”

This $155 million investment will at some point become a sunk cost. The Cubs understand the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers and how desperately they need reinforcements. But almost 100 innings into this title defense, Lester feels like he’s just getting started. 

“I feel better now than I did in April and May, for sure,” Lester said. “I think bigger bodies just take a while sometimes. Some years are different than others. Some years you come out like gangbusters and you’re ready to go and the body feels fine. And other years it takes a while to get into that rhythm of pitching every five days again. This was one of those years.”