Chicago Cubs

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 say this isn’t the beginning of the end for their ace: ‘I believe in Jon Lester’

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USA TODAY

Cubs say this isn’t the beginning of the end for their ace: ‘I believe in Jon Lester’

MILWAUKEE – Cubs executives bet on Jon Lester because they had so much inside information from their time together with the Boston Red Sox and believed he would age gracefully with his fluid left-handed delivery, imposing physical presence and competitive personality.

The Cubs also went into it with their eyes wide open, knowing the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers and how those megadeals usually lead to a crash.

“I think it’s way too early to talk about that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said Thursday at Miller Park, where Lester’s mysterious struggles overshadowed the beginning of a four-game showdown against the Milwaukee Brewers that could decide the National League Central race.

The night before at Tropicana Field, Lester got rocked in an 8-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, leaving him with a 5.91 ERA in four September starts since coming off the disabled list. Lester has a body of work that will make him a borderline Hall of Famer, but he’s given up 27 hits and 12 walks in 21.1 innings since the Cubs activated him after a left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue diagnosis in the middle of August.

“With any pitcher, you want to have that guy pitching at the top of his game going into October,” Hoyer said. “There’s no question. The timing of last night’s game, obviously, isn’t ideal. But we have two starts and we’ll hope he bounces back from that. We can’t control the timing.”

Almost exactly halfway through a six-year, $155 million commitment, the Lester investment has already paid for itself, because the Cubs are the defending World Series champs and couldn’t have done it without him. Period. But Lester is also 33 years old and has already thrown almost 2,200 innings in The Show, plus nearly another season in 14 career playoff series.

“Nope, nope, nope,” manager Joe Maddon said when asked if Lester was getting examined.

“Listen, I know a lot of people are concerned,” Maddon said. “I’m not overly concerned, because the guy’s been good for a long time. As long as he says he’s healthy – which he has – I’m fine. If he’s hurting at all – but he’s not revealing – that’s a different story entirely.

“But for right now, I believe he’s well, so I anticipate good.”

Maddon’s answers left a little wiggle room, but Lester didn’t want to make excuses and said there’s nothing wrong physically. If that’s the case, it would be foolish to write off someone who’s survived a cancer scare, thrived in the American League East, embraced the challenge of playing in two of baseball’s biggest markets and won three World Series rings.

“He has evolved as a pitcher,” Hoyer said. “When we first had him with the Red Sox, he was throwing 97 (mph). With most guys, you have to get past that loss of velocity, and the great ones do that.

“He’s always thrown hard, but he’s been kind of 93-94 tops the last few years. He’s got four pitches. He’s got a good sinker now. He’s got a good cutter. A changeup, curveball – they all come out of the same place. I think right now it’s about making some mistakes at the wrong time, and his stuff hasn’t been probably as dominant as he would want.”

This could just be a blip on the radar. But the Cubs didn’t earn the luxury of treating late September like spring training and warming up for the playoffs. These games matter, and that usually brings out the best in their ace.

“I believe in Jon Lester,” Maddon said, writing it off as a few “hiccup” games. “It’s unusual to see him struggle like that, primarily with his command. The velocity was down – but where the pitches were going – I’m not used to seeing that.

“I got to believe that’s going to get rectified soon. Guys like him, I’m normally not into physical mechanics this time of the year. But I’d bet if, in fact, there’s something wrong, it’s going to be more mechanically speaking.

“I just want to be very patient about this. I think he’s fine. Until I hear that he’s not well – which I’ve not heard at all – I think he’ll be fine.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Previewing Cubs-Brewers NL Central showdown

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Previewing Cubs-Brewers NL Central showdown

On the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast, Hub Arkush (670 the Score/Pro Football Weekly), Phil Rogers (MLB.com) and Jordan Cornette (ESPN 1000) join Luke Stuckmeyer on the panel.

Jake Arrieta returns for the big NL Central showdown. Len Kasper joins the guys from Milwaukee for a preview. Plus, who should be the Cubs Game 1 starter in the NLDS?

Also, the panel discusses Mike Glennon’s leash on Sunday, the Aaron Hernandez CTE diagnosis and if Yoan Moncada’s hot September means big things in the future.

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here: