(CBS) On the second pitch of the game last Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Cubs left-hander Jon Lester surrendered a lead-off home run to Dodgers second baseman Enrique Hernandez. That home run turned out to be all the offense Los Angeles would get.
Lester retired the final 15 batters he faced, struck out 10 overall and earned his first career complete game victory at the Friendly Confines.
“I really think that might have been the best I’ve seen Jonny since he’s been here,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “(He) deftly repeated his delivery over and over. Gives up a leadoff homer and then just… nothing.”
Lester’s gem was the second complete game thrown by the Cubs in the previous five. Masterpiece performances by the starting pitchers have become the rule, not the exception, and not just from reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta.
The Cubs’ staff has been reliable and remarkable this season. Through action Friday, the Cubs’ starters have posted the lowest ERA in baseball, a sparkling 2.33. They’re the only staff with an ERA under 3.00.
The Cubs’ starting rotation has a lower ERA as a team than 72 of the 110 Cy Young Award winning pitchers had in big league history, per Chris Kamka of Comcast SportsNet.
The Cubs are less than one-third of the way through the 2016 season, but for perspective, last year’s staff posted a 3.36 ERA, struck out the fourth-most hitters in the game (921) and allowed opponents to bat only .233, the best mark in baseball. That team won 97 games. This year’s staff is on pace to post better numbers in each category.
So how’d we get here?
Adding the veteran leader
What has made the Cubs so much better this season? One difference is obvious.
“We’ve got a much better pitcher that’s in our rotation,” catcher David Ross said. “John Lackey is a proven, veteran, stud pitcher. That always helps, to have that consistency in the rotation.”
After a slow start, Lackey found his groove, posting a stingy 2.09 ERA in May while holding opposing batters to a .170 average. The 37-year-old lackey signed a two-year, $32-million contract to bring championship pedigree and lengthen the rotation. He’s done just that, and his attitude in the clubhouse creates an atmosphere of accountability.
“John’s edgy,” Maddon said. “And he definitely brings an edge to the rest of the group.”
Maddon called Lackey the linchpin to the entire rotation’s success. He has never been the best pitcher in the league, averaging 12 wins per season and a 3.90 ERA, but his career has been defined by clutch performance in big moments.
Lackey burst onto the scene as a 23-year-old rookie in 2002 and fired a gutsy five innings in Game 7 to help the Angels capture the World Series title. Eleven years later, he threw 6 2/3 innings in Game 6 of the Fall Classic to bring the Red Sox their third World Series title in nine seasons.
Maddon notes Lackey’s intellect and experience have left a positive impact on the clubhouse.
“When you talk to John about pitching, it’s really impressive,” Maddon said. “He has a great ability to dissect what’s going on in front of him.”
During Lackey’s recent start against Philadelphia, Maddon noticed a particular adjustment his righty made against one hitter in the Phillies lineup. When he approached Lackey to ask him about it, he left impressed with the explanation.
“It was a much more sophisticated answer than I thought myself,” Maddon said. “Even though I’ve been around him as long as I have, his answer to me on that particular day also indicated a higher level than I really knew about him, in regards to how he approaches a hitter.”
With that intellect and experience, Lackey also brings a commitment to his craft that doesn’t go unnoticed. His leadership by example has set the standard in the Cubs’ clubhouse.
“We talk about Arrieta and how he works harder than anybody, but I’m very impressed with the work ethic Lackey has,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “I see him every day, and I’m like, ‘Man, don’t you ever get tired?’ He works his butt off.”
Go the distance
Last year, just two Cubs’ starting pitchers eclipsed the ever-important 200-inning plateau.
Arrieta fired a team-best 229 innings in a historic, Cy Young Award-winning season, while Lester reached 205 frames in his first season in Chicago.
Maddon believes his team can be better.
“One of our goals or objectives before the season was to have our starters pitch 1,000 innings,” Maddon said. “When that happens, you have a great bullpen, because the bullpen is rested.”
For a starting staff to throw 1,000 innings in a season, each of the five starters must average 6 1/3 innings per start. It also requires the manager to trust each member of his rotation to pitch deep into games.
Kyle Hendricks threw just 180 innings in 32 starts last season, while Jason Hammel fired 170 2/3 innings in 31 starts. Both averaged less than 5 2/3 innings per start, with Maddon frequently removing them early to preserve the Cubs’ chance to win.
This year, Cubs starting pitchers have averaged the requisite 6 1/3 innings per start, up two outs from 2015. They’ve lasted at least six innings in 40 of 53 starts, or about 75 percent of the time.
In fact, only twice have the Cubs starters failed to throw at least five innings, and only once due to poor performance. Jason Hammel left after two innings on Memorial Day with right hamstring cramping, while Jon Lester lasted just 2 2/3 innings in a loss May 21 in San Francisco.
Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio has even higher standards for his pitching staff.
“Our goal for a quality start is seven innings,” he said on the Mully and Hanley Show this past week. “That’s the thing our guys really look at. When you get the seventh inning, we’re going to usually win between six and seven of the 10 games every time. And that’s the kind of streak we’ve been on lately.”
The Cubs’ rotation has pitched at least seven innings in 22 of 53 games. All five starting pitchers have an ERA below 3.00.
Familiarity and confidence
In December 2014, the Cubs added Lester on a blockbuster six-year, $155-million deal, which marked a turning point for the franchise’s rebuilding effort. For the first time in the Theo Epstein-Jed Hoyer regime, the Cubs convinced a prized free agent to choose them.
All of a sudden, a team that hadn’t won more than 73 games over the previous three seasons was expected to improve. An influx of young talent joined the roster in 2015, but they needed to add some veterans to give the club a chance to succeed.
Two of those veterans were catchers. The Cubs signed Montero to a three-year deal to serve as the team’s primary backstop. They added 38-year-old Ross on a two-year contract to primarily work as Lester’s personal catcher.
On paper, the Cubs were better, but they needed to develop chemistry — especially the catchers, who had a brand-new pitching staff to learn.
“The more you get to know pitchers as a catcher, the better and more success you’re going to have,” Ross said. “What guys like to do, what their personalities are like, how to talk to them and how to get the most out of them — that’s a process that starts in spring training from day one.”
While there were ups and downs for the Cubs’ starting pitchers in 2015, the group developed chemistry as the year progressed. Ross and Montero studied their new starters, and the pitchers grew comfortable throwing to their new catchers.
Maddon brought the team together with his usual tactics, including dress-up days and other goofy activities. He hired a magician to perform for the players in New York, and he set up a petting zoo at Wrigley Field later in the summer.
The team began to grow close. And in the late summer, the Cubs really began to win.
The Cubs hit their stride after the All-Star break. They won 19 games in both August and September and won their last eight regular-season contests before a run to the National League Championship Series.
Though the staff eventually ran out of gas in October, it knew they had the makings of something special. The Cubs finished four victories shy of leading the Cubs to their first World Series appearance since 1945.
And when Arrieta won the National League Cy Young Award after a historic campaign in which he went 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA and became the unquestioned ace of the staff, Lester could begin his second year with the Cubs more relaxed. No one was focused on his contract anymore, and he didn’t need to be the ace. He could settle into the role of elite veteran pitcher with a year of experience in the NL under his belt.
Hammel pitched through injury down the stretch last year and changed his preparation and workout routine to be in better shape this season. Lackey signed on to provide another elite veteran to the staff.
And Hendricks — who was thrown into the fire, starting games in both rounds of the playoffs — now had a full year of big league experience to carry with him into 2016.
This group came to spring training this year with something markedly different: confidence.
The pitchers have it in themselves, and Maddon has it in them. He doesn’t have to give the quick hook to any of his starters anymore out of fear of losing a lead.
“I’ve been fortunate to have really good starting pitching where I’ve managed in the past,” Maddon said. “But, the way these guys are playing right now, I’m a big believer when a guy completes a game it can really catapult him in the next several starts. There’s something that it does to a starter mentally. I really believe when they pitch that efficiently and that well, let them finish it.”
Hendricks finished his last start in May against the Phillies, a complete game in which he gave up one run and fanned seven. He followed that with an eight-inning gem against the Dodgers, allowing two runs. The Cubs’ “fifth starter” has a 2.84 ERA this season and posted a 2.23 ERA in May, allowing batters to hit just .183 against him.
Hammel, the “fourth starter,” has the fifth-best ERA in baseball at 2.09. He has pitched at least six innings in all but three of his starts this season, and that includes the Memorial Day game against the Dodgers that he left due to hamstring cramps.
Arrieta picked up right where he left off. He and Clayton Kershaw are tied for MLB’s best ERA at 1.56, and he has become so good that we now worry when he gives up a run, walks a few batters or doesn’t pitch past the seventh inning.
“Just trying to pick up my load as far as my spot in the rotation, and keep this train moving with these four other guys that are throwing the heck out of the ball right now,” he said after throwing that complete game Wednesday night. “That’s the biggest thing, just keep this line moving for the next guy, and it seems like every night we do a good job of keeping our team in the ballgame.”
Jordan Bernfield is an update anchor at 670 The Score and the co-host of “Inside the Clubhouse,” which airs Saturday from 8-10 a.m.