ANAHEIM, Calif. – The way Jon Lester understood The Plan, the Cubs would go full throttle trying to win the World Series in 2016.
How the Cubs got to this point is a completely different story, without the kind of incremental improvement that would gradually raise expectations and create a cautious sense of optimism around the team.
For two nights in Orange County, the Cubs absolutely lived up to the hype, blitzing the Los Angeles Angels and following the offseason playbook with dominant starting pitching, a relentless lineup and across-the-board contributions.
“It always eases the overall tension of the clubhouse when you come out and you start playing well,” Lester said after Tuesday night’s 6-1 win. “Nobody wants to get out to a bad start. Especially now with the two wild cards, it could come down to one game whether you’re in or out at the end of the season.”
[BOX SCORE: Cubs 6, Angels 1]
The Cubs looked more like the American League team, outscoring the Angels 15-1 during this two-game sweep. That’s another reason why Lester can exhale and not be defined by dollar signs in the second season of the six-year, $155 million megadeal that signaled the Cubs were finally ready to compete.
Lester followed up Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta by cruising through seven innings, allowing one run on four hits with four strikeouts against zero walks. The lefty didn’t have to compensate for the “dead arm” that slowed him down in spring training last year – or prove something to new teammates and a new city.
“Obviously, I’m in a better place than I was last season,” Lester said. “Last year was just so different. There was a lot of hype involved – just around myself – and a lot of expectations.
“You try to go out there the first start and live up to those expectations all at once, as opposed to just letting the season play out and go through your 32, 33 starts and see where we’re at in the end.
“Physically, mentally, I’m light years ahead of where I was last year at this point.”
To be clear, Lester didn’t have a bad season (11-12, 3.34 ERA, 207 strikeouts in 205 innings) and the Cubs would do this deal all over again. But manager Joe Maddon has already noticed the differences in a player known for being a creature of habit after spending 13 years in the Boston Red Sox organization.
“I don’t think there was a moment last year that I thought his delivery was as smooth as I saw it (in spring training),” Maddon said. “The cutter from early on in camp was probably as good as it was at any time last season.
“I also believe that one year removed from last year, he’s more comfortable not having the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“He’s got other guys to deflect from right now, which I think is going to make him even better.”
That includes everyone from MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo (two-run homer) to leadoff guy Dexter Fowler (two-run homer) to Matt Szczur (homer), the 25th man on the roster who got the start in left field the day after his Villanova Wildcats won the NCAA tournament and now leads the team with four RBI.
“This is what we can do,” Rizzo said. “Now, it’s just about doing it every day. We took care of business.”
The Cubs are now 2-0 for the first time since 1995 – or the year after shortstop Addison Russell was born – and should get a tougher test from another team that dominated the offseason headlines.
The Cubs head back to the desert for a four-game series against Zack Greinke, Shelby Miller and the Arizona Diamondbacks that begins Thursday night at Chase Field.
“So far, so good,” Lester said.