The Decision: Cubs name Jon Lester team's Opening Day starter

The Decision: Cubs name Jon Lester team's Opening Day starter

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Jon Lester — a transformative figure as the Cubs shed their Lovable Loser label and finally became World Series champions — will be the Opening Day starter against Dexter Fowler and the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

As expected, Cubs manager Joe Maddon met with Lester on Thursday morning and told the lefty he would get the April 2 assignment on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball," setting up Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta for Game 2 in St. Louis.

Lester is clearly the most accomplished pitcher in camp, as a three-time World Series champ, four-time All Star and finalist for last year's National League Cy Young Award. The Cubs chose Lester to start Game 1 in all three playoff rounds last October, knowing his reputation as one of the best playoff performers of his generation.

"He definitely earned it and deserves it," Maddon said before a Cactus League game against the Cincinnati Reds at Goodyear Ballpark. "And then I also talked to Jake about being the No. 2 guy. Jake obviously understood why we went with Jon first."

There is some symbolism to being an Opening Day starter, as well as the $155 million investment the Ricketts family and Theo Epstein's front office made after a last-place finish in 2014, giving Lester the biggest contract in franchise history at the time and showing people the Cubs would be serious about winning.

"To be honest with you, I didn't really care about other people when I made that decision," Lester said. "I wanted to make the decision for me and my family and make sure it was the right one.

"Secondly, I made the decision to win, and we did that. I was happy with the decision from the day I signed the contract. I didn't want to look back. I didn't want to second-guess myself. It's easy now to say: 'Well, yeah, I made a great decision, because we won.'

"But even if we hadn't won to this point, I still feel like I made the right decision, with these people and this organization. The way the ownership and Theo on down treat us as players — and the way they treat our families — is second to none.

"I am beyond thrilled and happy that we did make that decision to come here, regardless."

[MORE CUBS: John Lackey has no interest in a David Ross-style retirement tour with Cubs: "I just won't show up the next year"]

After feeling slighted by an initial lowball offer from the Boston Red Sox — the team that drafted, developed and traded him — Lester turned down a bigger guarantee from the San Francisco Giants for the chance to be part of The Team in Chicago.

Lester — who has now made at least 31 starts for nine straight years and put eight 200-inning seasons on his resume — solidified a rotation that watched a supremely confident Arrieta blossom into an ace and the mild-mannered Kyle Hendricks turn into an ERA titleholder.

"Yeah, Kyle was throwing things" after not being named the Opening Day starter, Maddon joked. "I saw Lester walk by him and probably say something to him, and then all of a sudden stuff was like flying all over the weight room. And I knew that Jon broke the news to him."

As much as "Bryzzo Souvenir Co.," the other young stars and a historic defense deserve credit, the Cubs won 200 games across the last two seasons on the strength of their rotation.

"Not many clubs have that luxury," Maddon said. "Jake, for two years in a row, has really done an outstanding job, so has Jon Lester. Of course, the ascension of Kyle, then John Lackey, a lot of good options there, man.

"But obviously it has to go to Jon Lester, based on the body of work. We feel really good about that. You feel great about Jake behind him, and then however we want to set up 3-4-5 to follow. It's good stuff."

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy is home in Kansas City for a couple rare days during the baseball season. His mom wants to meet him for lunch, and his sister, a grade-school teacher in town, just had a baby that he hasn’t had a chance to see yet.

“How much would I love to go get to see her and my new nephew?” Hottovy said. “Can’t do it. Just can’t.”

Not this time. Not with what’s at stake. Not when possible threats to health and professional purpose lurk in every unfamiliar hallway, byway and unmasked face while the Cubs navigate their first multi-city road trip of the season.

Don’t believe the risk of spread and large-scale COVID-19 team outbreaks are that sensitive, extreme and potentially swift? Just ask the Marlins and Cardinals, whose outbreaks in the first week of play put their seasons on hold and threatened the status of the league’s season.

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“I’m not leaving the hotel. I told my family and friends and everybody [in Kansas City],” Hottovy said. “We all signed up for this, to make sure that for this to work we all have to make those kinds of sacrifices. I love my family to death and would love to get to see them, but right now this is our home.”

The Cubs second trip, which started with a 6-1 victory Wednesday in Kansas City and continues to St. Louis before finishing in Cleveland next week, coincides with stepped-up COVID-19 protocols from Major League Baseball following the Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks.

The Cubs already had protocols in place that exceeded MLB’s original mandates and that are in compliance with the new mandates. And a month into the league’s restart they remained the only team without a player having tested positive for the virus.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

In fact, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant decided on his own to start wearing a protective mask on the bases when the Cubs played last week in Cincinnati, where three Reds players were sidelined either by positive tests or self-reported symptoms as that series opened. And first baseman Anthony Rizzo told ESPN 1000 on Tuesday that he plans to keep a mask in his pocket while in the field in St. Louis and will consider wearing it when somebody reaches base.

“No matter what measures you put in place, when you’re trying to pull off a season that requires travel in the middle of a global pandemic, it ultimately does come down to personal responsibility,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “And everyone is at the mercy of the least responsible person because of the nature of the spread of this disease.”

Nobody knows that more than Hottovy and many of the Cubs who watched their pitching coach deteriorate in real time during daily Zoom sessions in May and June until the worst symptoms of his frightening monthlong bout with the virus forced him to hand off his job duties.

Whether Hottovy’s experience led directly to the Cubs’ more extreme safety policies or the individual players’ apparent hyper diligence, MLB’s recent coronavirus outbreaks and other cases at least raise questions about whether some teams and players — or even the league — respect the potential severity of a virus that has killed more than 158,000 Americans in five months.

“I don’t think people underestimate that aspect of it; I think they underestimated how easy it was to spread,” Hottovy said of the outbreaks — including a Cardinals outbreak that reportedly was traced to one asymptomatic, outside individual familiar with the team.

Hottovy called the highly contagious nature of the virus “the scary part of this,” both in terms of the potential to quickly render an organization unable to field a team as well as the subsequent, inherent risk that poses to family members and others who might, in turn, be among those who then become severely impacted by the virus.

And the hardest part, he said, is not letting down your guard within the team bubble when it’s easy to trust that when it’s only teammates in the room that it’s OK to disregard masks, distancing and other safety measures.

“That’s when it gets dangerous,” said Hottovy, whose team talks often about assuming everyone — including each other — has the virus.

So just like in Cincinnati, neither he nor anyone else in the Cubs’ traveling party plans to go anywhere but to and from hotels and ballparks during their trip.

“Listen, you don’t have to search too far for a reason to take it serious,” Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis said.

“I have three of my close friends who got it, that are over it. But the symptoms are as real as it gets from the sounds of it. And I think you have guys who are risking stuff coming and playing this season, whether it’s Craig [Kimbrel] and his daughter [heart condition] or Anthony [Rizzo] and Jon [Lester] with their [cancer] history.

“You’re paying respect to them and doing your teammate justice by not being the one to kind of go out,” Kipnis added. “It’s one of those years where, hey, you’ve got to buckle down and stay the course. I think everybody’s going through it, so you don’t want to be the one that kind of screws this one up.

The Cubs’ 10-2 start to a 60-game season seems to further incentivize that discipline — some players in recent days even suggesting the discipline in following the protocols has carried into the professionalism on the field.

It’s impossible to know if any of it will be enough for the Cubs to keep their moving bubble secure, much less whether the two outbreaks that MLB seems to have withstood will provide the significant enough wakeup call that MLB and team officials have suggested.

“The vast, vast majority of everyone involved in this enterprise, the players and staff, are doing a solid job so far in making a lot of sacrifices,” Epstein said. “And we just have to get everybody on board. And hopefully these two outbreaks are enough to get everyone to the point where we have essentially perfect execution going forward, because that’s largely what it will take.”


Cubs' David Ross defends Javier Báez, doesn't 'nitpick' baserunning lapse

Cubs' David Ross defends Javier Báez, doesn't 'nitpick' baserunning lapse

Cubs shortstop Javier Báez recognizes he should have run out of the batter’s box.

“It was my mistake,” Báez said after Wednesday’s 6-1 Cubs win over the Royals. “I thought that ball was foul.”

With two on and no out in the fourth inning Wednesday, Báez hit a towering pop fly down the right field foul line. He hesitated in the batter’s box for a few moments, leaving shortly before the ball dropped in fair just inside the line.

“I kind of lost it, but the wind started bringing it back,” Báez said. “Even [Royals catcher Salvador Pérez] was kind of surprised and he was like, ‘I think it’s gonna be fair,’ so I started running.”

Báez wound up with an RBI single, scoring Kris Bryant from second and moving Anthony Rizzo to third with no outs. He likely could have wound up at second base with a double, setting up the Cubs with two runners in scoring position and no outs. 

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The inning ended shortly after, as Willson Contreras grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, scoring Rizzo to take a 2-1 lead, and David Bote struck out two batters later. In the end, the moment didn’t hurt the Cubs, who never trailed after taking that fourth inning lead.

After the game, Cubs manager David Ross defended Báez and said he didn’t talk to him about running that ball out.

“I think that’s a really close play,” Ross said. “If I want to be the type of manager that nitpicks every little thing... These guys go out and play their butt off every single night for me and for this group. 

“If I feel like they’re dogging it, we’ll have a conversation. I feel like that’s a play that he may have assumed was foul. I think Javy’s one of the most exciting players and he plays hard every time I see him out there on the field. 

“So, I don’t have a problem with a guy that brings it every single day.”