Don’t try to tell Jon Lester the Cubs’ slow start this season is because of some kind of postseason hangover, unless you want an earful.
Lester and the rest of the Cubs’ starting rotation lag far behind their pace from a year ago, when they carried the team to a 25-6 start and provided the backbone for a 103-win season. But hangover?
“How does he know the hangover’s real,” said Lester, responding to a local analyst before Wednesday night’s 5-4 victory over the Phillies.
“Right now, this is the product of taking it slow in spring training. That was a front-office decision. I feel like April was kind of the back end of our spring training.”
Lester, a three-time World Series champ who had two of his best seasons in the years after pitching in the World Series, has said for the last several days that he senses the rotation is on the verge of getting on a roll.
If so, it’s not a moment too soon.
Jake Arrieta’s six-inning start Wednesday — only the Cubs’ fourth quality start in two weeks — is an indication of what Lester was talking about.
“Everything has kind of built up to this point,” said Lester, who survived a squeezed strike zone Tuesday to get through five innings for a win. “Obviously, everybody’s comparing everything to last year, and last year we started off on a historical pace. You had guys that threw the ball at a historical pace. So you’re comparing a normal season to something historical.
“That’s where everybody’s trying to compare and say that we’re on a hangover.”
Before Wednesday, the Cubs had only nine quality starts — just one more than the lowest mark in the majors. And even after Arrieta’s start, the rotation had a 4.65 ERA. That ranked 26th in the league.
Even in victory, Arrieta (4-1) continued a troubling trend of first-inning runs, two more scoring on a pair of two-out hits.
It’s the 12th time in the last 15 games the opponent has scored in the first (29 total runs). It’s a big reason six of the Cubs’ victories have come after trailing in the sixth or later.
This time, the Cubs batted around in the sixth for four runs, including a two-run, pinch-hit double by Willson Contreras, who then scored from second on an infield hit to short.
“It’s a good sign to be where we’re at without throwing the ball as crisp as we’re capable of as a staff,” said Arrieta, who added he still doesn’t feel locked in. “But we’re all confident that things will change for the positive.”
The Cubs returned their top four pitchers from a rotation that produced a major-league-leading 2.96 ERA and 100 quality starts.
Several have experienced dips in velocity early. And the overall performances have been up and down.
“Sometimes that’s just the game of baseball kind of rearing its head and letting you know that anything is possible in this game,” Arrieta said.
“And we still have a good rotation,” Lester said. “I don’t think we’ve hit our stride yet, which is good.”
And by design, he said.
“Last year we came out so hot that we plummeted at the end of June, along with the whole team,” Lester said. “And then we had that [All-Star] break, and all of a sudden came back and we’re good.
“I think we’re doing the right thing. I think we’re going in the right direction,” he added. “This organization isn’t playing for September any more. We’re playing for October and into November. So I think you have to plan for that.”
Said Maddon: “For the most part, our whole game I really believe is going to continue to trend north. So I’m not really concerned right now.”
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