PHOENIX – It would only be natural if Jon Lester felt the pressure after signing that $155 million megadeal. As much as the Cubs eyeball the Boston Red Sox and try to turn Wrigley Field into their version of Fenway Park, this team is a different animal.
And it is another thing to go from the homegrown, All-Star lefty who helped Boston win two World Series titles to franchise savior on the North Side.
This 5-4 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks took 13 innings and wouldn’t be decided until long after Lester’s work shift ended on Friday night at Chase Field.
But one takeaway is Lester looks like a No. 1 starter again, someone who could help lift the Cubs from five games to 10 games to 15 games over .500, the way manager Joe Maddon talks about piling up wins.
That begins with starting pitching, assuming the Cubs (23-18) can stabilize the bullpen, tighten up the defense and hit with runners in scoring position (the 0-for-31 streak that lasted a week is over). But Lester’s underwhelming April (6.23 ERA) is clearly in the rearview mirror now.
“I don’t know if ‘pressing’ is the right word,” Lester said after limiting Arizona to two runs in seven innings. “But obviously you come to a new team, new guys, new city, new everything, you want to get off on the right foot. You want to do well.
“Everybody knows (about) the contract stuff. You definitely don’t want to be one of those guys that at the end of it you look at it as a bust.
“You obviously want everything to go right. You want everything to just fall into place. But sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes you have take a few beatings to get back to doing the things that you’re used to.
“It took me a little bit of time, but I’m starting to feel more comfortable. I think the results have been better. We’ll just keep trying to figure things out as we go.”
Lester has gradually gotten back to full strength, accounting for at least six innings in each of his last six starts, with the Cubs winning five of those games while he’s lowered his ERA to 3.56.
“I think maybe it weighed on him a lot more early on than it does now,” said David Ross, Lester’s personal catcher. “He’s just going out and pitching now and trying to do the best he can. Because as much as the contract stuff (is out there) and people put expectations on him – honestly – he’s always been the way he is.
“He’s going to put as much pressure on himself as anybody, because he wants to do well for the team. That’s his day. And when he walks in here that day, he’s got his game face on.”
Then again, maybe there’s no need for psychoanalysis considering Lester dealt with a “dead arm” and didn’t see enough action in the Cactus League to truly be ready for Opening Night.
“I’ll still defend the fact that his spring training was short,” Maddon said. “I think that had as much to do with the difficult start as anything. Had he had the benefit of a full, normal spring training – and then (started slow) – that might have been more of an explanation.
“(But) he was behind when he came out at the beginning of the season. Combine that with the fact that he had a little bit more heaped on his plate than normal, you probably saw less than Jon Lester.”
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It’s not like Lester isn’t used to playing under a microscope.
“He’s a perfectionist,” said Ross, who earned a World Series ring with Lester as a piece to the 2013 Red Sox. “He always feels like he can get better, and that’s why he is who he is.
“When you’re in a big market and you have high expectations, there’s always critiquing an aspect of your game, what you’re doing good and what you’re doing bad. He sees all angles of his outing and tries to get better at every aspect of his game.”
The Cubs never seemed worried about the transition for Lester, who’s now 0-for-62 at the plate (including the postseason) after spending almost his entire career in the American League.
“The biggest thing we’re waiting on is the first hit right now,” Maddon said. “That will truly get the monkey off his back.”