DETROIT – The pitcher they tried to build around for big free agent money 2 ½ years ago shut them down Tuesday in Detroit.
The pitcher they paid more than twice as much to build around this season pitched his shortest, worst start of the season in that loss.
And yet here go the Cubs, approaching mid-season looking like aggressive buyers and coming off a 6-0 loss still sitting in a wild-card position in the National League.
They have more than 100 games left, and if many of them look like Tuesday’s nobody will remember the first 56.
But if the paths that led to the Cubs’ one-time centerpiece target Anibal Sanchez beating newly minted $155 million ace Jon Lester showed anything Tuesday, it’s the nature of the best laid plans o’ men and Cubs.
Case in point: “Tonight sucks,” Lester said after making it through just 4 1/3 innings and giving up five runs on nine hits. “Think about it for a little bit and move on.”
Sanchez and Lester traded one-run blows in head-to-head starts during the 2013 American League Championship Series won by Lester’s Red Sox. By Tuesday, Sanchez was lugging a 5.69 ERA into his start – then pitching 7 2/3 scoreless innings.
But it’s the Cubs who would be in NL wild-card game if the season ended now, the Cubs beating out the Mariners and Rangers to sign former All-Star closer Rafael Soriano to a free agent deal Tuesday, and the Cubs with the better record than the perennially contending Tigers.
“If we’re worried about the wild card right now, we’re worried about the wrong things,” said Lester, who said he actually felt good despite the poor outing (11 runs, 9 1/3 innings over past two starts). “We’ve got to play good baseball tomorrow.
“But if you want to talk about the future, obviously that would mean a lot to this team, the organization, the city. We’ve been playing good baseball, and I feel at times we’ve been playing better baseball than what the results have been.”
Maybe. They’ve also won some games with smoke and mirrors.
But it looks like they won’t have to do it alone. The front office has been eyeing trade potentials (Oakland’s Ben Zobrist for one) since before the trade deadline. And the addition of Soriano might provide some elusive answers for a beleaguered bullpen by this time next month.
He’s 35, slumped the second half of last year (7.02 ERA final 18 games) and hasn’t pitched since then after going unsigned as a free agent until switching agents and coming to terms Tuesday.
But if he looks anything like the guy who saved 117 games the last three years, he could be in play for the closer role Hector Rondon belched up over the past week. As of Tuesday, manager Joe Maddon had a closer committee for the ninth.
Soriano signed a minor-league deal that will be worth roughly $2 million if he’s called up about this time next month (plus $4 million in performance bonuses).
“He sees things. He wasn’t just out there throwing,” said Maddon, who had Soriano during a 2010, 45-save All-Star season in Tampa Bay. “He really knows how to pitch. I would like to believe that he would be able to impart his pitching wisdom on a lot of those guys and how to pitch hitters and how to pick your poison – if there’s an open base, what you might want to do …”
Maddon said he doesn’t know what the timeline is, but Soriano hasn’t pitched since last year, and he’s expected to need at least three weeks of prep work and minor-league starts to be ready for the Cubs’ bullpen.
Could they still be vying for a wild card by then (when they happen to be playing the first-place Cardinals)?
“As far as the wild-card stuff, it would be great,” Lester said. “Our main goal is to win the division. We’re going to keep plugging. And that starts tomorrow.”