MESA, Arizona — The Cubs defeated the Angels 6-1 Friday at Sloan Park, and Jon Lester threw five good innings, allowing just three singles.
I could say that Lester’s ready for Opening Day, but we’ve already been through that, and this solid outing comes with a caveat, and that is: The Angels brought to Mesa, according to their depth chart, only two players who are likely to be in their lineup Opening Day: Luis Valbuena and Martin Maldonado, and it’s not even a sure thing for Valbuena.
MLB has gone on record as saying teams need to bring four “major leaguers” to away games, and if the Cubs wanted to complain about this one they probably could, although with Lester’s fine outing and a sellout crowd, they surely won’t.
One thing I noticed about Lester: when I watched him throw his bullpen before Sunday’s game at Talking Stick, he was grunting and muttering to himself. He didn’t seem happy with his bullpen Sunday, and he didn’t have nearly as good a game then, issuing three walks in less than three innings.
Today, in his pen session, his fastball was popping, no muttering, and it showed in his game action — he must have been quite happy with his game. And after his five innings, which included three strikeouts, he came back to the pen and threw about 15 more pitches:
Lester was helped out by a slick pump fake by Chris Gimenez in the third inning. Kaleb Cowart led off with a single and advanced to second on another single. A force play at second by David Fletcher moved Cowart to third. Fletcher then took off for second, and Gimenez faked throwing there and held the ball. Cowart took the fake and was caught in a rundown between third and home, nice defensive work by both Gimenez and third baseman Tommy La Stella. TLS also made a nice play in the fifth on a sharp grounder by Cowart, the last out recorded by Lester. Gimenez’ pump fake got the attention of Cubs Mental Skills Coordinator John Baker:
Pump Fake just worked. First time in baseball history. @ChrisGimenez5 - pro.— John Baker (@manbearwolf) March 9, 2018
By the time the Cubs played all that defense, they had also pounded Angels starter Matt Shoemaker for six runs, all they would score and more than they needed.
Doubles by Jason Heyward and Albert Almora Jr. plated a run in the first. J-Hey’s double was to left-center, yet another ball he hit with authority to the opposite field. The BA might not show it yet, but there’s definite progress from Heyward as he and new batting coach Chili Davis work on his stroke.
In the second, singles by Peter Bourjos, Mike Freeman and David Bote made it 2-0. Here’s Bote’s RBI single:
Base knock for David Bote. #Cubs 2012 18th-round #MLBDraft pick coming off a strong Fall League campaign and making his debut on the @Cubs' Top 30 list: https://t.co/KGD2Tbxcts pic.twitter.com/gCCQeFTaIA— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) March 9, 2018
In the third, Anthony Rizzo singled with one out. That brought up Kyle Schwarber:
May not count but it's still fun to watch. pic.twitter.com/YY8ifVcBDp— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) March 9, 2018
That ball was crushed, Schwarber’s second of the spring. Worried about his power with his new svelte form? Don’t be.
One inning later, Freeman walked and Bote came to the plate:
That was Bote’s first of the spring, and he’s making an impression in camp: .303/.378/.485 (10-for-33) with a double, triple and home run. Bote won’t make the 25-man Opening Day roster, but you can bet he’ll be considered for callup from Triple-A if needed during the season. He can play second base and third base and has dabbled in the outfield and at shortstop.
Brandon Morrow followed Lester and hit the first batter he faced, Michael Hermosillo, who promptly stole second and third and scored on a sacrifice fly. It was still a decent inning for Morrow, who was likely focused on his pitching rather than the baserunner. If you are the least bit concerned about Morrow, consider that last spring Wade Davis had a 14.40 ERA and 3.000 WHIP in seven spring outings. It meant nothing.
Brian Duensing threw a scoreless inning, allowing one hit, and Justin Hancock, trying to make himself known after being added late in camp, walked two, but got out of the inning scoreless. And Oscar De La Cruz wrapped things up with a 1-2-3 ninth.
Before the game, this sight greeted fans and Cubs employees in the parking lot next to the Cubs’ office building:
That was laid out across Theo & Jed’s parking spaces. Eventually it was learned that it was Tommy La Stella’s doing:
#Cubs Hoyer's kids took advantage of the bounce house in the parking lot. La Stella did fess up that he put it there— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) March 9, 2018
Did #Cubs La Stella plan on pranking the bosses this spring? "It was just kind of spur of the moment."— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) March 9, 2018
Well, good for him, I say. Here’s a guy who had troubles two years ago to the point he left the team. But they supported him and eventually welcomed him back, and now he seems like one of the guys, a part of the team not just emotionally, but production-wise. TLS could probably start at second base for some teams, but he seems to have accepted his role with the Cubs, and I’m happy for him and for the team. They seem as if they’re getting along unusually well this spring, having fun and winning games, though the winning means less than simply being prepared for Opening Day, now less than three weeks away.
The Cubs announced Friday that two popular former Cubs outfielders have been hired to work in the front office. Chris Denorfia was hired as a special assistant to the President and General Manager, and Matt Murton was brought in as a Baseball Operations Assistant. The press release announcing the hirings said that both will “contribute to all elements within the club’s baseball operations department. They will visit the club’s affiliates to work with the minor league players on and off the field, evaluate amateur players leading up to the draft, and spend time around the major league club among additional responsibilities and opportunities.”
Welcome back, Chris and Matt. Good to have you back in the fold.
Attendance watch: The beautiful 80-degree day brought a sellout of 15,481 to Sloan Park, the second-biggest crowd of the year. That makes the season total 112,136 for nine dates, or 12,460 per date. Another sellout is expected Saturday.
That’s when the Cubs will host the White Sox for the second time this spring. Kyle Hendricks will go for the Cubs and Lucas Giolito for the Sox. Game time is 2:05 p.m. CT and it’ll be on 670 The Score, and also on WGN-TV with the Sox announcers.
Saturday is the Cubs’ first split-squad date of the spring; they’ll also play a night game against the Dodgers at Camelback Ranch. Luke Farrell will start for the Cubs in that one against former Cub Rich Hill. Game time for that one is 8:05 p.m. CT, and there will be audio on cubs.com and TV coverage via the Dodgers network SportsNet LA. We’ll have separate game threads for these two games, a recap of the day game before the night game, and a recap of the night game Sunday morning.