Showdown with Cardinals: This is why Cubs signed Jon Lester


Showdown with Cardinals: This is why Cubs signed Jon Lester

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.

[MORE: Bring it on: Cubs-Cardinals rivalry will escalate to another level]

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.”

[RELATED: Kyle Hendricks cracks Cubs NLDS rotation vs. Cardinals]

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.”

[MORE: Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina back in play for Cubs-Cardinals]

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.

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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.”

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

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."