ST. LOUIS – Jon Lester didn’t come here for a haircut, either, to quote cowboy philosopher John Lackey. This year is all about jewelry and Big Boy Games. If the Cubs don’t win the World Series, it will be a massive letdown and a total shock to the system. That’s how 2016 is set up for a too-big-to-fail team.
With TV cameras taking up more and more clubhouse space, Lester reminded the swelling group of reporters who traveled to Busch Stadium for a potential clinch party that the Cubs haven’t accomplished anything yet, that this team will ultimately be judged in October.
This is why the Cubs handed the big-market-tested, two-time World Series champion with the Boston Red Sox a $155 million contract. Lester absolutely looked like a Game 1 starter on Wednesday afternoon, dominating the St. Louis Cardinals in a 7-0 victory that chopped the magic number to win the National League Central down to one.
Beat the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday night at Wrigley Field on CSN and the Cubs can pop champagne bottles and celebrate in front of their fans, friends and families.
“You guys have seen our team,” Lester said with a smirk to the reporters crammed into a clubhouse hallway for a makeshift press conference. “We definitely don’t like to party too much. I’m sure it will be fairly low-key.”
[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]
Less than 48 hours after Kyle Hendricks almost threw a no-hitter, Lester responded with his own Cy Young Award statement, accounting for eight scoreless innings and limiting a strong St. Louis lineup to three singles while finishing with eight strikeouts against one walk.
So the clubhouse guys will have goggles and cover the lockers in plastic inside that new state-of-the-art facility. The Cubs should enjoy this moment, because winning 93 games by Sept. 14 is extremely difficult and a reflection of the entire organization.
But when you wear “Embrace The Target” T-shirts, market the idea of “When It Happens” and sell free agents like Lester and Lackey on the idea of making history, does winning the division even matter if you don’t win the World Series?
“That’s conjecture,” manager Joe Maddon. “I’m just worried about winning the division. And then keep moving it from there.
“Of course, if you win it, then it’s easy. Everything’s easy. The beautiful prose is written. Everybody’s wonderful.
“If it weren’t to occur, then it’s up to whomever wants to write whatever they want to write. Whatever your perception is – I’m not even there yet. I cannot emphasize enough – it’s about today.
“It’s going back home, clinching soon, building the method to get ready for the playoffs. And then attack the playoffs. That’s it. All that other stuff – I understand. I get it. But I don’t worry about things like that.”
The Cubs will have even more confidence if Lester (17-4, 2.40 ERA) keeps pitching like an ace, freed from some of the first-year pressures and dead-arm issues that bothered the lefty last season.
Lester faced only two batters over the minimum through eight innings, with assists from personal catcher David Ross, who threw out two runners trying to steal second base. And on a day where Carlos Martinez struck out five of the first eight Cubs who came to the plate, Lester (.077 average) drove in the first run with a line-drive single up the middle in the third inning.
Lester is now 7-0 with a 1.02 ERA in his last nine starts, a stretch where the Cubs have won all those games except for a 1-0 loss at Dodger Stadium.
“This whole run he’s been on is maybe as good as I’ve seen,” said Ross, who blasted a two-run homer off Martinez that traveled 429 feet onto the center-field berm in the fifth inning. “In ’13, I think he gave up a run in the (World Series), so that was pretty impressive, too.
“But right now, he’s the complete pitcher. He’s sinking it. He’s throwing his cutter. He’s got a four-seam (fastball moving) in and out. He’s got a really good changeup and his curveball. It’s nice for me to have that many options to call a game. It makes my job really easy.”
This isn’t the time for guarantees or predictions, but Lester certainly appears to be peaking at the right time.
“Everybody’s goal coming into spring training is to win the World Series,” Lester said. “Hopefully, we’ll save some bullets and guys are feeling good going into October. We’ll put one good, last run into it and see where we’re at.”