The Rundown: Mental Energy Up, Lester Energy Down, Time to Extend Nets

“Their mental energy is probably at an all-season-high right now,” Joe Maddon said of a Cubs team that went out and snatched a 2-1 victory from the Rays Tuesday night in Tampa. It was the same team that subsequently rolled over and played dead the following evening, though you can forgive a stutter or three after seven straight wins.

Even accounting for a bad loss, the Cubs are one of MLB’s best teams in the second half and they’re clearly exhibiting more of that loose confidence we’ve grown used to over the last few years. Yet there’s still a tendency to find fault, to point out the epic flaws that will surely cause the downfall of the reigning World Series champs.

I suppose there’s reason to worry a bit about the rotation in light of Jon Lester’s performance last night and in general (more on that below), but can we stop with any complaints about defense? Better yet, I’d like to order a cease-fire on all flaming napalm takes that involve the use of season-long non-counting stats to praise or defame Player X.

Has the defense been as good as last year’s historically efficient group? Of course not, but the Cubs’ 1.62 park-adjusted defensive efficiency (PADE) mark is second in the NL (Dodgers – 2.98) and sixth in MLB. That’s not exactly an Achilles heel. And now that Addison Russell and Javy Baez are healthy and manning the middle infield, we should see even more fantastic plays like this.

Sorry if I’m sounding like a cranky old man, but sometimes I need to get this stuff out. This very talented team took a while to get rolling and even now we’ll get weird hiccups that make you question whether they can really get it done. But the fact of the matter is that the Cubs control their own destiny and just need to keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Lester looks lethargic

Watching Lester pitch Wednesday night, you’d have thought he had already started the first half of a double header and then came back out for the second game. He had 8th-inning stuff in the opening frame and looked as though he was tossing get-me-over pitches like a guy who was being forced to wear one.

That’d be fine if it was just that one start, but it’s been too common a theme this season for Lester. What’s more, he already sat out the latter half of August with what was later explained as lat tightness and/or shoulder fatigue and should be more rested. Brendan Miller will have more on that for you in a subsequent piece, but it sure looked like something was amiss in this last start.

“We’re not going to go make excuses and say [the shoulder]’s why I didn’t throw the ball well,” Lester told the media after the game. “Physically, it’s September. You’re going to have ups and downs. I feel fine. There’s no lingering effects from anything. No, there’s nothing physically wrong.”

There was nothing alarmingly off in terms of the velocity of Lester’s ancillaries, though the fastball only averaged 90 mph, the lowest we’ve seen from him this season. Even more troubling than the speed was the location, which was a far cry from the corner-painting performances we’ve seen in the past. Rather than putting up Frog Tape and using an edger brush, Lester opted for a roller and power sprayer.

Perhaps it’d be better to say the Rays were the ones using the power sprayer, pounding the ball all over as Lester missed both off and over the plate. Though he only gave up one home run, the big lefty allowed eight hits and walked three. Using blunt instruments as a pitcher means missing those coveted corners and allowing batters to barrel up more frequent mistakes.

If there’s a positive in all of this, it’s that Lester did still manage to get 11 swinging and eight looking strikes in the game. The problem is that none of those came in two-strike counts, hence no strikeouts for Lester on the night. That inability to put batters away might be the most worrisome aspect of Lester’s game moving forward. Normally good for nearly one strikeout per inning, becoming a pitch-to-contact guy isn’t going to work.

Nor is the failure to retire right-handed batters, which has been a big problem all season. I’m not going to dive into all of it, but the platoon splits are not favorable in the least. For the Cubs to make some noise in October, Jon Lester needs to be much better than what we’ve seen from him lately.

Extend the nets already

Listen, it’s cool that you want to sit behind the dugout and get a foul ball or have one tossed up to you when it’s grounded over that way, but can we just agree that it’s time to extend the safety nets at MLB parks? I don’t want to hear about the obstruction of vision, since the most expensive seats are those right behind the plate that have been protected by netting for pretty much forever.

It shouldn’t have taken a toddler getting hit in the face by a ball traveling 106 mph off of Todd Frazier’s bat to create the momentum to finally push this issue past the tipping point, but here we are. The little girl is reportedly “doing OK,” but does that make everything else OK?

I get the whole thing about taking your safety and that of your kids (or grandkids in this particular case) in your own hands when you attend a game. I get that, as the ubiquitous signs at Wrigley warn us via cute cartoon bear with a glove, people need to be alert for foul balls. But a pop-up is one thing and a screaming liner another.

This is something MLB and the various teams have been well aware of for years, but now it’s something that could really get the league in hot water. Whether you believe in juiced balls, the fact of the matter is that exit velocities on batted balls are higher now than in the past. Even if MLB is not complicit in that by putting different balls in play, the fact remains that they’re well aware of the changes in the game.

Why is this even a conversation that needs to be had?

More news and notes

• The Padres have signed Clayton Richard to a two-year extension worth at least $6M

• The Giants are reportedly interested in Shohei Otani, which, of course they are. Though they’re limited to a $300K bonus just like the Cubs, the financial factors of Otani’s move to MLB make that less of an issue.

• Jimmy Nelson underwent labrum repair and will miss “a chuck” of the 2018 season. Surgeons didn’t know exactly what was wrong when they went in, but it turns out they did need to do some pretty significant work.

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