If the Cubs didn’t already know how quickly shiny things like trophies and promise can fade, all they had to do was look across the field the last two days at the team that less than two years ago knocked them out of the playoffs to reach the World Series.
The ace of that New York Mets staff, Matt Harvey, hasn’t been the same since – which can be said of most of the Mets’ rotation. And Harvey struggled again Wednesday as the Cubs took an early lead against him and went on to rout the Mets 17-5 at Wrigley Field.
“This game’s fickle, man,” said Cubs starter Jon Lester (11-7), who struggled early again but finished strong in six innings of work. “You’ve got to take advantage while you can, while you have the players.
“We all see it,” he added. “We all see guys that get called up that are supposed to be the next coming of whatever, and in two or three years they’re out of the game.”
The narrative in the 2015 National League playoffs was that the Mets had the kind of powerful young starting pitching that was the equal and opposite force to the Cubs’ powerful young stable of hitters.
The stuff that promised dynasties in two of the league’s biggest markets.
Injuries to Harvey and most of the other Mets starters over the past two years have sapped the Mets of all that promise as they became sellers this summer and likely rebuilders this winter.
“You’ve got to take advantage of it,” said Lester, whose Cubs haven’t sunk nearly that far but have suffered enough of their own bouts of injuries and underachievement this season to significantly temper the dynasty talk.
“With that being said, you’ve got to take each individual season for what it’s worth,” said Lester, who called the Cubs’ 103-victory amusement park ride last year the anomaly compared to the ups and downs – and surprisingly tight division – race they’ve experienced this time around.
“Years like that don’t happen that often,” he said. “At the end of the day all you’ve got to do is get in, and we’ll figure it out from there. Whether you limp in or you sprint in, it doesn’t matter.”
The Cubs have little choice but to sprint with 17 games left and the Brewers and Cardinals both breathing down their necks.
The Cubs on Wednesday picked up a game on the Cardinals, who slipped behind the Brewers into third place, three games behind the Cubs, with their loss to the Reds. The Brewers beat the Pirates to remain 2½ games behind.
Lester could have a disproportionate say in how the Cubs finish, especially with former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta sidelined with a hamstring injury.
But since returning from a two-week lat and shoulder injury, he has struggled the first three innings in each of three starts – rebounding each time to finish strong. This time he needed 78 pitches to get through his first nine outs – then just 14 pitches to get the next seven.
“The command just isn’t good,” said Lester, who struggled to explain the cause. “I’m just not real crisp early on.”
Manager Joe Maddon emphasized Lester’s strength, the quality of his stuff and the fact he’s been stretched out to 111 and 113 pitches his last two starts.
“He’s going to find that little thing with his release point and all of a sudden it’s going to be real sharp,” Maddon said. “I actually think it’s quite encouraging.”
Meanwhile, it’s all about now for the Cubs. All about beating back the fickle hands of baseball fate and fortune.
“You have to forget ’16,” Lester said. “That was great. We had a great time. We all have rings to show for it. But at the same time we’ve got to worry about ’17 and these next 15-20 games. And at the end of it, hopefully we’re celebrating we got into the playoffs again for a third straight year.
“And hopefully everybody gets hot at the right time and we’re standing there again.”
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