The Cubs know nine-figure contracts for 30-something pitchers are ticking time bombs. They understood what the data said when they gave Jon Lester six years and $155 million guaranteed. They felt like they couldn’t afford to not take the risk.
“His particular signing indicated to us – and to the fan base – this is definitely possible,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You need that kind of a presence – especially within your pitching staff – to get this particular moment. Jonny definitely has elevated us this season.”
A crowd of 40,432 didn’t get to see the Cubs clinch their playoff spot on a beautiful Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field. The Cubs had to wait at least several more hours to pop champagne bottles, their magic number stuck at one after a 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates that felt like an October preview.
Lester didn’t beat Gerrit Cole, but he showed why the Cubs will be dangerous if Jake Arrieta wins the National League’s wild-card game.
“We all know what’s in front of us,” said Lester, who allowed two runs across seven innings. “I don’t think there’s much more to learn until you actually get into the battle. We can talk about playoff atmosphere and playoff intensity and all that stuff.
“But until you’re actually there, it’s something that you can’t really describe and explain to guys.”
The Cubs wanted Lester to lead by example and believed he could handle anything after beating cancer and dealing with all the pressure and baggage that comes with wearing a Boston Red Sox uniform.
This marked a turning point in the rebuild, the Ricketts ownership group taking the plunge and Theo Epstein’s front office making a splash in free agency. Lester also had to take a leap of faith to commit to a last-place team and believe all this young talent could play.
This was before Arrieta turned into a 20-game winner and a top-two Cy Young Award candidate. Before Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber made their big-league debuts. Before we understood what The Maddon Effect would mean beyond Simon the Magician and Warren the Pink Flamingo.
“He grew up in an environment where every moment was big,” said David Ross, Lester’s personal catcher. “He learned to adapt to that and that’s why he’s a big-game pitcher. That’s why he’s got the reputation he does. That’s why he’s got two World Series rings. That’s why he gets paid all the money he gets paid. Those guys are hard to find in this game.”
Maddon had seen enough of Lester while managing the Tampa Bay Rays – and probably had enough red wine that night – to confirm the deal as the news leaked out last December at the winter meetings in San Diego.
While Cubs officials couldn’t comment on the record, reporters spotted Maddon inside the Manchester Grand Hyatt and got a money quote: “We won the baseball lottery.”
“I (had) worked against him for so many years in Boston,” Maddon said. “It was never any fun. In the past, I saw him get better when it mattered. And that’s what he’s doing right now.”
Lester cruised into the seventh inning before giving up a leadoff double to ex-Cub Aramis Ramirez, who lined a ball into left field and got replaced by a pinch-runner. Francisco Cervelli’s sacrifice bunt set up Michael Morse, who drove a ball through the right side of a drawn-in infield to score the go-ahead run.
Lester is a quiet, thoughtful type who came here to make history and win another championship – not simply play meaningful games in September. But he is still going to party, whenever the Cubs clinch.
“We’ll let these guys that have never experienced this really enjoy it,” Lester said. “Hopefully, they don’t hold anything back. I know we got another week or so to go and a lot of things can happen. But not too many guys get the opportunity to play in the postseason.
“I hope guys really soak it in. I’ve played with a few guys through the years – Adam Dunn in particular waited (almost) 15 years to get to a one-game playoff – so hopefully these guys make sure they enjoy it when we do get in.”
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Lester’s 10-12 record for an 89-win team is misleading. The lefty’s put up a 3.43 ERA, 19 quality starts and almost 200 innings, plus the confidence and credibility that can’t be measured in a rebuilding situation.
“We can play with these guys,” Lester said. “Look at Kansas City last year. No one expected them to go to the World Series, let alone the playoffs. You get hot at the right time.
“Your pitching staff falls into place at the right time, your bullpen falls into place at the right time, you get a couple big knocks. And you look up and you’re standing at the end – and hopefully you’re holding that trophy.”