CINCINNATI – As advertised, Jon Lester delivered 32 starts, 205 innings and a sense of confidence for a Cubs franchise that desperately needed some credibility.
The big question now is whether or not the $155 million lefty will throw another meaningful pitch this year.
One week out from the National League’s wild-card game, Lester again looked like he’s peaking at the right time, shutting down the Cincinnati Reds during a 10-3 victory on Wednesday night at Great American Ball Park.
Whether or not Lester saw it coming this fast, it goes back to that recruiting trip to Chicago 10 months ago, listening to president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and staffers from all across the organization make their sales pitch.
“I told Theo,” Lester said, “I kind of made a point: ‘Hey man, I’m not here to grind through 2015. I want to make sure that we’re going to be contenders. I want to make sure that we’re going to be somewhat in this thing.’ I didn’t want to be in last place and have to deal with that again.
“To expect 93 wins? I don’t think anybody did. I don’t think the front office or the fans or any of you guys (in the media) believed that we could do 93 wins. And I think we’ve surprised probably ourselves a little bit.
“That’s what kind of sold me on being here – the talent is here. It’s just a matter of teaching these guys how to do it every single day. And you didn’t really have to teach ‘em. They knew what they needed to do.”
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Lester wants a third World Series ring to go with the two he got from the Boston Red Sox. The Cubs hope this is the beginning of a long runway with their high-flying group of young hitters. But these windows won’t stay open forever – and usually slam shut faster than you think.
Jake Arrieta – a leading Cy Young Award candidate who will face the Pittsburgh Pirates on Oct. 7 in the National League’s wild-card game – can become a free agent after the 2017 season.
The minor-league pipeline doesn’t have any big-time pitching prospects on the verge of making it to The Show.
Chairman Tom Ricketts gave a measured response this week when asked about the resources Epstein’s department will be given this winter to augment the team through the free-agent market.
And the Cubs overpaid Lester knowing they might be lucky to get only two or three good seasons out of that six-year megadeal, understanding all the risks that come with 30-something pitchers getting nine-figure contracts.
“I definitely see him having more left in the tank,” manager Joe Maddon said, “and another level left in the tank.”
Lester has now accounted for at least 200 innings in seven of his last eight seasons, making between 31 and 33 starts every year, showing remarkable durability at a time when a $9 billion industry can only make educated guesses about why certain pitchers stay healthy and others blow out.
“It’s a combination of arm stroke/delivery, the way he takes care of himself,” Maddon said. “All that stuff matters. We always talk about ‘maximum effort.’ I never really liked that phrase because I think everybody should give a ‘maximum effort’ every time. It’s kind of like a ‘full effort.’
“His is easy. If you watch and think about it right now – the way he delivers a baseball – it’s kind of a fluid motion. And there’s not a whole lot of grunting or grinding at the end.”
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Lester’s response to all the pressure and expectations that came with signing that contract, not to mention the spotlight on his issues throwing over to first base and controlling the running game: Just make starts.
“That’s the only goal that I set at the beginning of the year,” Lester said. “If I make 32, 33 starts, throw 200 innings, at the end of the year, you look up, and usually everything falls into place.
“I take great pride in that, knowing that these guys can count on me. When my turn comes, I’m going to be out there. No matter how good or bad you feel, try to give as many innings as you can.”
Lester allowed one run across eight innings against a last-place Cincinnati team that’s now on an 11-game losing streak. He lowered his ERA to 3.34 and notched nine strikeouts against zero walks. He finished with 207 strikeouts, breaking Ken Holtzman’s franchise record for a lefty in a single season.
That losing record (11-12) doesn’t begin to explain Lester’s first season in Chicago, the performance level and the sense of purpose and professionalism he brought into this clubhouse.
“He’s been pretty much nails the whole way,” Maddon said.