Jon Lester feels like he's 'ahead of the game' this spring with Cubs


Jon Lester feels like he's 'ahead of the game' this spring with Cubs

MESA, Ariz. - Jon Lester feels a lot more at ease this spring with the Cubs.

He's not trying to prove he's worth a $155 million contract, he's familiar with his surroundings and he knows his teammates and coaches.

Life is simpler this time around for the 32-year-old Lester.

"You're not the new guy trying to find your way around Arizona, the clubhouse and all that stuff," Lester said. "Now, you're just a teammate and trying to get ready for spring.

"This year is just different. I'm just in a different place - mentally, physically, all this."

[RELATED - No surprise: Cubs giving Jake Arrieta the Opening Day start]

Lester said at this time last year, there was plenty of unfamiliarity with the Cubs coaching staff, so pitching coach Chris Bosio and catching/gameplanning coach Mike Borzello were still trying to figure the veteran left-hander out.

"I'm trying to kinda fit in and go about my way," Lester said. "They're not gonna say anything early because they don't know me. They don't know what makes me tick.

"Now, you come in and everybody knows you. You've been through the grind and all that stuff. So it's a little bit easier to make adjustments and really just feel more comfortable."

Lester said he feels even David Ross - the outgoing backup catcher and clubhouse leader - is also more comfortable this spring than in his first season with the Cubs in 2015.

"I already feel more ahead of the game," Lester said. "More into my normal routine as far as spring training as opposed to trying to really go out and fit in and press and make sure that you're good enough to earn what you were given.

"I'm just in a different place mentally and physically. It's a good feeling and hopefully I continue to carry that over."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Lester is hoping to avoid the dead arm period that plagued him last spring and helped lead to a 6.23 ERA in four April starts, including suffering a 3-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Opening Day.

But after April, Lester settled in, going 11-10 with a 2.99 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 183 strikeouts in 183.1 innings over his final 28 regular season starts.

This year, Lester has his best friend - John Lackey - in the clubhouse, Ross is still around and Lester is familiar with Maddon, Bosio and the rest of the coaching staff and roster.

Lester knows his surroundings, he's familiar with where to go in both spring training and at Wrigley Field, he has more help in the rotation and he can prepare this spring knowing he won't have the stress or pressure of starting on Opening Day (Jake Arrieta was tabbed the Cubs' Game 1 starter Tuesday morning).

Lester threw live batting practice to Addison Russell, Tommy La Stella and Jorge Soler Tuesday and has one more bullpen session left before his first spring start that will come sometime next week.

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.