Mooney: What to make of the September bounce

277260.jpg

Mooney: What to make of the September bounce

Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010
6:12 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Dusty Baker is a thoughtful, honest man, and at this time last year he had to be wondering about his job security and legacy. Baker had celebrated his 60th birthday that summer and would be entering the final season of a three-year contract.

During that time, the Cincinnati Reds had shown minimal improvement, going from 74 to 78 victories and rising from fifth to fourth in the National League Central. By Opening Day 2010, their 71.7 million payroll was less than half what the Cubs were prepared to spend.

But to generate optimism the Reds could point to the 20-11 run that ended last season. One Baseball Prospectus preseason projection had them continuing that gradual growth and finishing at 82-80.

On Wednesday Baker will be chewing a toothpick at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, where the Phillies have sold out 123 straight games and are looking to hang their third consecutive pennant, and second World Series banner in three years.

For the 91-win Reds, Game 1 of this best-of-five series will mark their first playoff appearance since 1995, and it helped the ex-Cubs manager earn a two-year extension.

The Cubs closed out 2010 with a similar 24-13 push under Mike Quade, and you will be hearing about that statistic nonstop if he is named manager for next season.

Its not how you start, Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster said. When you finish like this it does carry over into next year (because) it makes it that much more exciting to get to spring training. Its unfortunate were going home right now, but well enjoy some time off and some relaxation and then get ready to get back at it.

It would have been the same story with the Padres if the Cubs hadnt won three-of-four games last week in San Diego. In 2009 the Padres went on a 37-25 run to finish at 75-87 and the momentum continued into a 90-win season, in a year and a league where 91 and 92 victories won the wild card and the division.

Anybody that discounts (this) and says it doesnt matter in September they couldnt be more wrong, general manager Jim Hendry said. I think youd ask the San Diego Padres if September mattered from a Cubs point of view.

The Pittsburgh Pirates also had a bump near the end of this season, going 13-17 from Sept. 1 on and 44-88 before that point. Does anyone honestly think they will experience the carryover effect?

Its difficult to assess all these performances, when the rosters are bloated with September call-ups and managers are making decisions while taking the long view and not trying to squeeze the most out of every matchup.

But in a game that is increasingly ruled by numbers, theres also something to be said for the feel of a clubhouse, the energy in the room. Near the end, all that changed around the Cubs. You could hear Bob Marley bouncing from the speakers after most wins.

(We) relaxed, outfielder Marlon Byrd said. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves at the beginning of the season, pressed when we werent winning. (Its) one of those things where we turned it on at the wrong time. Were just showing that we are a good team. Its just a little too late.

Theres also a difference between getting outs when the bleachers are empty and when 41,000-plus are packed into Wrigley Field. A young, inexperienced bullpen that began the season as a weakness ended it with 28 consecutive scoreless innings and a 1.19 ERA in its last 25 games.

When he managed at Triple-A Iowa, Quade was a September call-up to the Cubs, and Baker kept him around for the postseason. Quade will always be grateful for that opportunity. Again it could take years to really see what the exposure meant.

To say we want to build on this? Absolutely, but talk doesnt get it done, Quade said. Saying it and doing it are two different things. (But) much the way I said I think I found out a lot about myself these last six weeks, (those kids) better have found out a lot about themselves.

It doesnt mean they have it figured out. The minute you think you (do), youre in trouble. But theyve come a long way and I think theyre ready to take the next step to be better.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

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.”

[VIVID SEATS: Buy your Cubs tickets right here]

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.”