ST. LOUIS – The recruiting video shown to Jon Lester during his visit to Chicago last November built up to the climactic scene with a play-by-play account of the Cubs finally winning the World Series and the lit-up Wrigley Field marquee.
The chance to make history – and $155 million guaranteed – while living in a world-class city and playing in an iconic ballpark wouldn’t have to be a hard sell. The postseason dream sequences for a last-place team required a little more imagination.
“This is why he’s here, why we signed him,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “He loves it. He loves that things have come together for us to a place where he gets a Game 1 start like this.”
That would be the historic National League best-of-five division series that begins Friday at Busch Stadium, where the Cubs get their first-ever shot at the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs.
Lester already beat the Cardinals twice in the 2013 World Series, allowing one run across 15.1 innings and earning his second championship ring with the Boston Red Sox.
This rivalry will be different for someone who never got a chance to face the New York Yankees in the postseason but can now take down The Mild-Mannered Midwest Empire.
“I wanted to come here to win,” Lester said after Thursday’s workout. “I wanted to come here and be a part of this and hopefully bring a World Series championship here. But I can’t look at tomorrow being that defining game. I gotta take it as a normal start against the Cardinals and prepare the same.
“Like I’ve always said, I’ll give you everything I got. And hopefully, at the end of the day, it’s better than the other guy.”
That other guy would be old friend John Lackey, a free agent Theo Epstein once lured to Boston and a big-game pitcher for two World Series winners, the 2002 Anaheim Angels and the 2013 Red Sox.
“They’re both big rednecks,” said Cubs catcher David Ross, who worked with Lester and Lackey on that 2013 Boston team. “I love ‘em both. But we’ll try to kick one of their tails tomorrow.”
Lester signed the richest deal in franchise history and dealt with a “dead arm” in spring training that slowed his momentum at the beginning of the season, which got overshadowed anyway by all the talk about “the yips.”
But Lester lived up to his reputation, making 30-plus starts for the eighth year in a row and putting up his seventh season with at least 200 innings. His losing record (11-12) said something about a few bullpen breakdowns and the offensive inconsistencies that could catch up to this young, inexperienced team against St. Louis.
Lester finished with a 3.34 ERA, 21 quality starts (or one less than San Francisco Giants lefty ace Madison Bumgarner) and a 1.122 WHIP that almost set a new career low. He broke the franchise’s single-season record for strikeouts by a left-hander (which is now 207).
“When you sign a big free agent, that number becomes attached to him, for better, for worse,” Hoyer said. “It doesn’t happen when you stay in the same city. When you go to a different city that follows you. (But) he’s won a lot of big games in his career.
“In a lot of ways, it hasn’t been the smoothest year for him, just given the way it started out. But when you look at the whole body of work, he had an excellent season.
“If you had told us that his innings, his hits, his walks, his strikeouts would be that in March, we would have signed on the dotted line right away.”
The Cubs also overpaid for Lester’s intangibles, the professional attitude and a signal they would be serious about winning in 2015, though not even Epstein’s front office could have predicted 97 victories and Wednesday’s wild-card takedown of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Lester helped with that second-half surge (2.36 ERA in six September starts), leading the Cubs to believe he’s peaking at the right time.
“All those things (come into) play,” Ross said. “Contract, new environment, pressure you put on yourself, pressure that other people (create). You’re trying to prove yourself to your teammates, your organization, the coaching staff. You’re trying to prove your worth.
“And that’s hard to do. It just takes a little while to settle into the environment and know that – win or lose – Jon Lester is our guy.”
Lester has at least five more seasons left on that megadeal, and the Cubs hope he will be making playoff starts for years to come, but you never know how long this window will stay open.
[NBC SHOP: Get the latest Cubs gear here]
The Cubs and Cardinals have a 123-year rivalry without a single playoff game. Until now.
“You (can’t) get too amped up for things,” Lester said. “I can’t look at April 15th any differently than tomorrow, you know what I mean? You gotta prepare the same. That’s why I’m so routine-oriented.
“I prepare the same for every start. Obviously, tomorrow, when you go out there, there’s going to be a little more adrenaline and there’s a little more on the line. (But) I can’t worry today about the possibility of tomorrow defining my short stint here with the Cubs.
“You gotta look at the bigger body of work.”