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?"

That escalated quickly: Cubs just a game back of Brewers, could be in first place as soon as this weekend

That escalated quickly: Cubs just a game back of Brewers, could be in first place as soon as this weekend

To quote the great Ron Burgundy: That escalated quickly.

Don't look now, but the Cubs are just a game out of first place in the National League Central standings and could take over first place sometime this weekend.

While the Cubs have been on their post All-Star break tear, winners of all six of their games since the Midsummer Classic, the first-place Milwaukee Brewers have been on a simultaneous skid, losers of their last five games.

Because of all that, the standings have tightened dramatically. What was a five and a half game difference between the Cubs and Brewers at the break is now just a one-game gap.

It goes up and down the standings, too, as the Pittsburgh Pirates — who completed a four-game sweep of the Brewers on Thursday afternoon — are just three games back. The St. Louis Cardinals, who start a weekend series with the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Friday, are just four and a half games back of the Brewers.

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Given how hot the Cubs are right now, a move into first place sometime in the next couple days wouldn't be surprising in the least.

The Cubs have scored a whopping 44 runs during their six-game win streak, an average of more than seven runs a game. That stretch has also seen 16 home runs off Cubs bats.

The Cardinals roll into Wrigley losers of back-to-back games and four of their last seven since the All-Star break. Meanwhile, the Brewers travel for a three-game weekend set against the Philadelphia Phillies, the team with the worst record in baseball, and the Pirates pay a visit to the Colorado Rockies, a 56-win team that scored 18 runs in a Wednesday win over the San Diego Padres.

If you were hoping for a fun race in the Central in the second half of the season, it seems your wish has come true. As for those fans waiting around for the Cubs to finally move into first place, where they haven't been since June 6, you might soon get your wish, too.

Cubs Talk Podcast: State of Cubs-Cardinals rivalry and what lies ahead

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: State of Cubs-Cardinals rivalry and what lies ahead

St. Louis Cardinals beat writer Derrick Goold stops by to chat with CSN's Patrick Mooney about the landscape of the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry and preview the weekend series at Wrigley Field on the latest Cubs Talk Podcast.

Later, Double-A Tennessee broadcaster Mick Gillespie joins the podcast to chat with Mooney about what prospects the Cubs have left in the farm system.

Also, how pitcher Dillon Maples could make an impact on the big league club as soon as this year.

Check out the entire podcast here: