Will Cubs regret playing their Jon Lester card too early?

Will Cubs regret playing their Jon Lester card too early?

Instead of spraying champagne all around the Wrigley Field clubhouse, Jon Lester had a gaudy 2016 World Series ring on his right hand as he placed a Miller Lite can on the ledge of an empty locker and began talking with the waiting reporters.

Instead of wearing goggles and a soaking-wet, officially-licensed T-shirt on Wednesday night, Lester had already showered and changed into a gray windowpane jacket and dress pants for the business trip to Washington. Whatever happens next to the defending champs, it’s out of his hands.

Will the Cubs regret playing their Lester card too early against the Nationals? Who knows? That’s the nature of unpredictable playoff baseball and the “barroom banter” manager Joe Maddon likes to reference after growing up in Pennsylvania’s blue-collar, coal-mining region.

But Lester emerging from the bullpen in the fifth inning and getting 10 straight outs sure looked like a statement on how much the Cubs wanted to end this National League Division Series and avoid Thursday night’s Game 5 at Nationals Park.

“I don’t know,” Lester said after a 5-0 loss. “I just do what I’m told. I don’t even know what today is, what, Wednesday? I asked Monday night if they wanted me in the ‘pen on Tuesday and we got rained out. They came to me yesterday and said: ‘Hey, you’re in there tomorrow.’

“Like I said, I don’t ask questions. I don’t really read into things. They wanted me down there, and Joe called my name, so you got to try to go out there and do your job. I was able to keep us in it there until the end.”

Exactly one year to the day the Cubs pulled off a stunning ninth-inning comeback at AT&T Park to eliminate the even-year San Francisco Giants – and avoid a bad-vibes elimination game against Johnny Cueto at Wrigley Field – Maddon felt the sense of urgency to use Lester as a $155 million lefty reliever.

The Cubs took into account their Game 5 alignment – Kyle Hendricks (1.98 ERA in eight career playoff starts) with Jose Quintana (zero relief appearances in the last five seasons) waiting in the wings – plus Jake Arrieta seeing his first action since Sept. 25 as he recovered from a Grade 1 right hamstring strain.

Arrieta battled, needing 90 pitches to get through four innings on a day where Stephen Strasburg drew all the pregame attention. Arrieta worked around five walks and allowed only one unearned run when Ryan Zimmerman’s two-out chopper bounced off the heel of shortstop Addison Russell’s glove in the third inning.

“I was in the bullpen, so you never really know,” said Lester, who didn’t get the clean inning Maddon promised against the Cleveland Indians in that World Series Game 7. “Any time you have a plan, just like last year when you’re in the ‘pen, it never really goes according to plan, so you make adjustments.

“We made adjustments and ended up out there a little bit sooner than we all thought.”

Just before 5 p.m., Jason Aldean’s “Gonna Know We Were Here” started blasting on the Wrigley Field sound system, the warm-up signal for Lester’s country hardball. Now batting: Bryce Harper, who chucked his bat toward the visiting dugout after lifting a harmless flyball to shallow left field.

Lester retired the first 10 batters he faced until giving up a walk to Zimmerman in the eighth inning. Lester got so far outside of his comfort zone that he made two pickoff throws to first base, the first one getting mock cheers – a recognition of the yips – and the second one leading to a standing ovation after Anthony Rizzo dropped the tag on Zimmerman’s left foot and a Cub challenge overturned the call on the field.

Lester tipped his cap when he walked off the mound and back to the dugout, leaving a runner on for Carl Edwards Jr. with two outs in a one-run game. Things quickly got out of control, with All-Star closer Wade Davis taking over in the middle of an at-bat in a bases-loaded situation and giving up a grand slam to Michael A. Taylor.

If the Cubs find themselves in another emergency situation on Thursday night, they can’t realistically expect to use one of the best big-game pitchers of this generation.

“I have no idea, I haven’t talked to anybody,” Lester said. “I don’t know how many pitches I threw (55), but I would imagine I’m probably not involved. We’ll see tomorrow. I’ll do whatever I can to be ready and to be available. But I would imagine that’s probably an argument that I won’t win.”

This is probably the ending Cubs vs. Nationals deserves.

“Both sides – if that side’s honest over there – thought this would be a good series,” Lester said. “Nobody thought it was going to be a three-and-done-type series. It’s two heavyweights going at it. And we’re going to the last round.

“It should be exciting TV.”

Lester will be watching, just like the rest of us.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.