Jon Lester fully expects Cubs to keep winning big for years to come

Jon Lester fully expects Cubs to keep winning big for years to come

"Well, I don't want to sound like an a--hole," Jon Lester said near the end of spring training, rolling with a question about sky-high expectations and where the bar will be set now that the Cubs are the defending World Series champs. 

"But that bar's always been there for me. I came from Boston, where it was if you didn't make the playoffs, all hell breaks loose. So I love that. That's why I wanted to come here."

Lester riffed the same way last October after his final start in a regular season where the Cubs won 103 games and he finished second in the National League Cy Young Award voting: "I don't want to sound like an a--hole or anything, but we haven't really done anything yet."

For years, people around the Cubs always talked about changing the culture. Lester actually did it, bringing that win-or-else intensity he felt with the Red Sox, being a dependable 200-inning workhorse at the front of the rotation and delivering a championship in Year 2 of that $155 million megadeal.  

Now what? That's the wrong question for a guy signed through at least the 2020 season, or prime years for Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr. and what might ultimately become a dynasty on the North Side.

After an offseason that saw an unforgettable parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue, perhaps one of the largest gatherings in human history at Grant Park, a trip to the White House, and Cubs all over Disney World, "Saturday Night Live" and the talk shows, it's fitting that Lester's no-nonsense, get-over-it personality will come through on Opening Night against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium.  

"I wanted to be a part of this," said Lester, who will start opposite Carlos Martinez and a rebooted St. Louis team that last year missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010 and could feel the balance of power shifting in this rivalry. "I wanted these young guys to experience this, because once you win, you don't want to go back the other way.

"Baseball's so funny and fickle about things where you have unexpected years and people get hurt. That's just part of the game. But that bar still needs to be there. And I think the accountability and the responsibility of having that bar is important. It makes you show up every day being ready to play."

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Lester deflects credit for helping create that sense of professionalism, saying those blue-chip prospects had already been wired that way and expecting Theo Epstein's scouting-and-player-development machine to keep rolling out hitters like Ian Happ and Eloy Jimenez.

"As you get older, it's fun to see these young guys come up and do well and not be surprised by the moment," Lester said. "I just remember my first big-league camp. You get up there and you face your first big-leaguer and it's like: ‘Oh my goodness, I'm facing this guy?' 

"You see these guys and they don't care. It's like: ‘Who are you? I'm just trying to get hits.' It's really good to see that, because their transition now is easier when they get to the big leagues. It's still not that awe moment where I'm facing this guy. 

"I remember facing the Yankees for the first time. You're just standing on the mound and it's Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, the list goes on.

"You're just like: ‘Oh my God, I used to watch this guy. This guy's awesome,' instead of worrying about trying to get him out, so it's really impressive to see how these guys handle it."

The Cubs signed Lester, now 33, with the idea that the lefty could age gracefully like Andy Pettitte, who pitched into his early 40s (and also admitted to using human growth hormone). Pettitte had been a big-game pitcher for the last team to defend a World Series title, the three-peat Yankees (1998, 1999, 2000).   

The Cubs trusted Lester to start Game 1 in all three playoff rounds last October and will have him start the first game of the rest of their lives. 

"It should be fun," Lester said. "Great ballpark, one of my favorite ballparks, going up against one of our rivals. What better way to start off than with the Cardinals?"

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Gift Ngoepe might not have had the weight of the world on his shoulders but he felt like a continent was counting on him.

Ngoepe, the first African to reach the major leagues, singled in his first plate appearance and Josh Harrison led off the bottom of the first with a home run Wednesday night to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 6-5 victory over the Chicago Cubs.

Ngoepe was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis and entered the game in fourth inning as part of a double switch and finished 1 for 2 with a walk. The 27-year-old South African, who signed with the Pirates in 2008 as an amateur free agent, led off the fourth with a hit off winless Cubs ace Jon Lester.

"To accomplish this only for me but for my country and my continent is something so special," Ngoepe said. "There are 1.62 billion people on our continent. To be the first person out of 1.62 billion to do this is amazing."

It was so special that Ngoepe nearly broke into tears when he trotted from the dugout to take his positon at second base.

"I told myself not to cry because I'm in the big leagues and I'm a big guy now," Ngoepe said with a smile. "(Catcher Francisco) Cervelli hugged me and I could feel my heart beat through my chest."

A year after winning 19 games in helping the Cubs win their first World Series title since 1908, Lester (0-1) is still looking for his first victory after five starts. The left-hander was tagged for six runs - five earned - and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings.

"It's probably the best I threw the ball all year," Lester said. "That's baseball."

Wade LeBlanc (1-0), who pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of rookie Tyler Glasnow, got the win.

The fifth leadoff home run of Harrison's career keyed a two-run first that included an RBI double by Cervelli. Andrew McCutchen and Phil Gosselin hit run-scoring doubles in a three-run third that pushed the Pirates' lead to 5-1.

After the Cubs got within two runs, Josh Bell gave the Pirates a 6-3 lead with a solo home run in the sixth inning off Lester. The rookie first baseman has reached base in 11 straight games.

Anthony Rizzo's two-run homer deep into the right-field stands in the eighth inning off Daniel Hudson drew the Cubs within 6-5. Tony Watson then got the last four outs for his seventh save in as many chances.

Glasnow remained winless in nine career starts, allowing three runs in 3 1/3 innings and requiring 89 pitches to get 10 outs.

Rizzo had four RBIs and Kris Bryant had three hits as the Cubs lost for just second time in eight games while stranding 13 runners. The Pirates won for the third time in nine games.

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

It was just over a week ago when Cubs fans were freaking out about the bullpen's struggles in a weekend series with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

It was understandable, given Cubs relievers allowed 11 runs in the course of blowing two late leads to end that three-game sweep at the hand of the Bucs.

But since then, the Cubs bullpen has been fantastic.

In eight games entering Wednesday night's series finale with the Pirates in Pittsburgh, the Cubs bullpen is working on a stretch where they've posted a 1.56 ERA and 0.94 WHIP over the last 28.2 innings.

In that span — in which the Cubs are 6 — relievers have allowed six runs (five earned) while striking out 33 batters and surrendering just one homer.

They've been especially stingy over the last three games, allowing just five baserunners in eight shutout innings, including three straight scoreless frames to close out a 1-0 victory Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Wade Davis has been the anchor at the back end of the bullpen the Cubs were hoping he'd be when they traded Jorge Soler for him over the winter. Davis is a perfect 5-for-5 in save opportunities and has not allowed a run in 9.1 innings, allowing just three hits and a pair of walks in the season's first month.

Setting up in front of Davis, Hector Rondon and Carl Edwards Jr. have combined to allow one run and three hits in 15.1 innings.

Brian Duensing — who started the year on the disabled list after a back issue sapped his spring training — is still searching for a rhythm and has surrendered six runs and 10 hits in 6.1 innings on the season. Over the last week-and-a-half, the 34-year-old southpaw has allowed more runs (three) than the rest of the Cubs bullpen combined.

Take Duensing's numbers away from that same eight-game stretch and the Cubs bullpen has been even more fantastic — 0.73 ERA and 0.81 WHIP.

Of course, it's still not even May yet, so this stellar stretch is just another small sample size. 

But just like that, the Cubs suddenly have a Top 10 bullpen, tied for the Colorado Rockies for ninth in Major League Baseball with a 3.07 relief ERA.