After all the hype, Jon Lester ready to roll with Cubs


After all the hype, Jon Lester ready to roll with Cubs

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.”

[MORE: Cubs will face some interesting decisions with Jorge Soler]

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.

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Before the Cubs hosted the San Francisco Giants on Day 2 of American Legion Week, Willson Contreras was out in left field running and working out his injured right hamstring.

The All-Star catcher hit the injured list earlier this month after hitting a line drive to the gap against the Milwaukee Brewers. 

That was two-and-a-half weeks ago and the Cubs initially tabbed the Grade-2 hamstring strain as a roughly four-week timeline. But team president Theo Epstein said Wednesday Contreras is not nearing a rehab stint.

"He's in what our trainers are calling the aggressive strengthening phase of his rehab, which is building up the hamstring strength now that he's gotten through the initial injury," Epstein said. "Always what comes with that is the strength deficit that you have to really be mindful of building back up so that you don't risk reinjuring it when you get back to full baseball activities. 

"You're gonna see him on the field a lot more over the next few days and hopefully soon he'll be progressing to baseball activities. He's not on the cusp of starting a rehab assignment or anything like that. He hasn't really progressed to baseball activities yet, so that will be the next step."

The minor-league season wraps up in the first couple days of September, so Contreras won't have much of an opportunity to get game at-bats and innings at catcher if he isn't able to head on a rehab stint soon.

But the Cubs won't rush it with one of their most important players. Contreras was hitting .275 with 19 homers, 57 RBI and an .890 OPS in 87 games before the injury.

In his absence, the Cubs have been pretty well covered with Victor Caratini and Jonathan Lucroy splitting duties behind the dish.

Lucroy - acquired Aug. 8 after being released by the Los Angeles Angels - is hitting .333 with a .798 OPS in 7 games and has impressed with his work as a game-caller and veteran presence. Caratini continues to put up quality at-bats while building on his breakout campaign.

Sports Talk Live Podcast: The Cubs' triumphant return home

USA Today

Sports Talk Live Podcast: The Cubs' triumphant return home

Luke Stuckmeyer and Fred Mitchell join Kap on the panel.

0:00- Doug Glanville joins the guys to discuss the Cubs' triumphant return home, Nicholas Castellanos and the importance of the starting rotation over the rest of the season.

11:00- Scott Podsednik drops by to talk about another dominant performance by Lucas Giolito. Could the Sox contend next season after taking a series from another division leader?

17:30- Tony Andracki joins Kap from Wrigley Field with the latest on Ben Zobrist's return and if Brandon Morrow's shutdown will have any impact on the Cubs' bullpen.

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Sports Talk Live Podcast