The Cubs are bigger than just Jon Lester.
This isn’t exactly how Theo Epstein’s front office drew up The Plan, or how any big-name free agent wants to make a first impression in a new city starving for a winner.
But the Cubs are now alone in first place in the National League Central after Monday night’s 7-6 comeback victory over the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field. It took 10 innings before Lester’s teammates bailed him out, leaving the Cubs (4-2) more than one game over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2009 season.
“At the end of the day, we won,” Lester said. “That’s the main thing.”
Lester should get the benefit of the doubt, because he had the guts, the nerve and the will to beat cancer and cement his reputation as a big-game pitcher, winning two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox. Until the All-Star lefty shows why he got $155 million guaranteed, the Cubs are going to ride a different wave of momentum.
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Jorge Soler got his first curtain call, and that might have been the only time the Cuban outfielder got nervous on a two-homer, four-RBI night that had Lester comparing his raw power to David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.
Joe Maddon pushed the right bullpen buttons as Brian Schlitter, Jason Motte, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon combined for four scoreless innings. Chris Coghlan finished a triple shy of the cycle and even played out of position at third base. Arismendy Alcantara finished the comeback with his first hit of the season, a bases-loaded, walk-off shot that started a mosh pit at the edge of the infield.
Without all that, the feeling would have been very different inside the interview room/dungeon after the Reds (4-3) hit Lester hard, putting up six runs on 10 hits in six innings.
Maybe Lester is still working through that “dead arm” that limited him in spring training.
“Obviously, I haven’t hit my stride yet, but I don’t want to use anything as a crutch,” Lester said. “Things have to be better. When you have (four) guys going out there and doing their jobs, when you’re the loose end of the chain, that’s never good.
“Back to work tomorrow. A lot of things to work on, a lot of things to improve on. And I’ll get back to being the front end of that chain instead of the back end and letting these guys down. It will be better.”
Two starts into a six-year contract is way too early to overreact, but all this can’t be completely ignored, either. Combine Lester’s performance against the Reds and an Opening Night loss to the St. Louis Cardinals and here’s what you get: Nine runs on 18 hits in 10.1 innings (plus 10 strikeouts).
“Physically, everything’s fine,” Lester said. “Absolutely.”
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Maybe the Boston/Bristol/Chicago press corps has it all wrong and “the yips” are overblown. That storyline wouldn’t go away, either, even with the Reds sitting Billy Hamilton as their speedster dealt with an injured finger.
Lester got mock cheers from the crowd of 26,390 in the second inning after throwing over to first base for the first time since April 2013.
Moments later, Lester airmailed a ball that went nowhere near Anthony Rizzo, bouncing up and away from the right-field line and ricocheting off the rolled-up tarp and into the visiting bullpen. That’s where Soler picked it up and made what Maddon called a “ridiculous” throw to third base to nail Zack Cozart.
“It’s been awhile,” Lester said and sort of chuckled. “The second one, I got a little excited. I looked over there and the guy was going the other direction.
“When you’re not used to doing stuff like that, I just got a little overexcited and tried to throw the ball a little bit too soon. But once again, Georgie picked me up (and) makes a great play.
“There’s a lot of things to work on. That’s one of them. The adjustments that we’ve made through spring training until now have felt really, really good.
“It’s just a matter of doing it repeatedly and keeping those guys at bay, and we were able to do that. We had the one stolen base in the first and then after that kind of shut it down a little bit.”
Just like “the yips,” the Cubs being in first place in the middle of April will get blown out of proportion. But your mind can also wander and wonder what this team could look like if Lester really gets rolling as the No. 1 guy he’s supposed to be.