As advertised: Jon Lester gave Cubs exactly what they needed


As advertised: Jon Lester gave Cubs exactly what they needed

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.”

[MORE CUBS: No wild-card game viewing party at Wrigley Field]

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.”

[NBC SHOP: Get your Cubs postseason gear right here]

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.

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.