Jon Lester feels like he's 'ahead of the game' this spring with Cubs


Jon Lester feels like he's 'ahead of the game' this spring with Cubs

MESA, Ariz. - Jon Lester feels a lot more at ease this spring with the Cubs.

He's not trying to prove he's worth a $155 million contract, he's familiar with his surroundings and he knows his teammates and coaches.

Life is simpler this time around for the 32-year-old Lester.

"You're not the new guy trying to find your way around Arizona, the clubhouse and all that stuff," Lester said. "Now, you're just a teammate and trying to get ready for spring.

"This year is just different. I'm just in a different place - mentally, physically, all this."

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Lester said at this time last year, there was plenty of unfamiliarity with the Cubs coaching staff, so pitching coach Chris Bosio and catching/gameplanning coach Mike Borzello were still trying to figure the veteran left-hander out.

"I'm trying to kinda fit in and go about my way," Lester said. "They're not gonna say anything early because they don't know me. They don't know what makes me tick.

"Now, you come in and everybody knows you. You've been through the grind and all that stuff. So it's a little bit easier to make adjustments and really just feel more comfortable."

Lester said he feels even David Ross - the outgoing backup catcher and clubhouse leader - is also more comfortable this spring than in his first season with the Cubs in 2015.

"I already feel more ahead of the game," Lester said. "More into my normal routine as far as spring training as opposed to trying to really go out and fit in and press and make sure that you're good enough to earn what you were given.

"I'm just in a different place mentally and physically. It's a good feeling and hopefully I continue to carry that over."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Lester is hoping to avoid the dead arm period that plagued him last spring and helped lead to a 6.23 ERA in four April starts, including suffering a 3-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Opening Day.

But after April, Lester settled in, going 11-10 with a 2.99 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 183 strikeouts in 183.1 innings over his final 28 regular season starts.

This year, Lester has his best friend - John Lackey - in the clubhouse, Ross is still around and Lester is familiar with Maddon, Bosio and the rest of the coaching staff and roster.

Lester knows his surroundings, he's familiar with where to go in both spring training and at Wrigley Field, he has more help in the rotation and he can prepare this spring knowing he won't have the stress or pressure of starting on Opening Day (Jake Arrieta was tabbed the Cubs' Game 1 starter Tuesday morning).

Lester threw live batting practice to Addison Russell, Tommy La Stella and Jorge Soler Tuesday and has one more bullpen session left before his first spring start that will come sometime next week.

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

Smiling came easy for Anthony Rizzo as stood at his locker and fielded questions in a robin-egg blue T-shirt that read: "positive vibes."

This was roughly a half-hour after he went through the high-five line telling all his teammates the 12-11 victory was a "season-defining win" for the Cubs.

Who knows if it will really be that big of a "W" for this ballclub in the midst of what has been an up-and-down season to this point, but there has certainly been no shortage of positive vibes around the clubhouse lately.

One thing's for certain: The Cubs will wake up Thursday morning in sole possession of first place again as the Cardinals lost to the Brewers in a rain-shortened game in St. Louis.

Yu Darvish and the Cubs bullpen squandered a 6-2 lead and then a 10-9 lead. Yet the offense picked up the slack, smacking 14 hits, including Kris Bryant's game-winning two-run blast in the bottom of the eighth inning.

"We haven't won a game like that really all year, I don't think," Rizzo said. "They scored 9 runs in the fifth to seventh innings. Teams don't really win when that happens. Just a good, hard-fought, never-quit win."

Rizzo is right: The Cubs haven't won a game in which they allowed at least 11 runs since Sept. 2, 2017 when they beat the Braves 14-12.

The Cubs have claimed 14 of 17 games at home since the All-Star Break and are now 43-19 at Wrigley Field this season - a winning percentage approaching .700 to combat the .390 winning percentage on the road.

So is it a season-defining victory?

"That's what Rizz told me," Bryant said. "We were high-fiving there and Rizz told me this is a season-defining win. I mean, I can't disagree with him. It's one of those games where you don't feel like you're gonna win just because you take a lead and then you're giving it back, but we came out on top. 

"Definitely some good momentum. We're playing good at home here, obviously and just gotta roll with the records at home and on the road."

Early on, it looked to be a night where the Cubs would cruise to victory behind Darvish, who came into the game red-hot and had settled into a rhythm after serving up a two-run shot to the third hitter of the game.

But that wasn't the case, as Darvish served up four homers overall and Derek Holland and Tyler Chatwood combined to allow 4 runs while notching just two outs as the first arms out of the bullpen.

Before the game, Joe Maddon talked again about how he felt like the only way the Cubs would be able to pull away in a tight NL Central race would be if the offense got into a groove and for one day at least, they were certainly firing on all cylinders.

The only starter who didn't reach base safely at least twice was Kyle Schwarber, and he drove in 3 runs on a homer and a groundout in which he hustled down the line to avoid a double play. Darvish even chipped in with an RBI single in the second inning.

Yes, it was a good win. Yes, the Cubs can go to sleep feeling content and wake up feeling hopeful.

But the only way this becomes a "season-defining win" is if the next five weeks play out like they hope. There have been several wins before Wednesday that seemed like they could propel the Cubs - including the finale in Cincinnati on the last road trip where Bryant once again came through with a clutch late homer. And every time, the team failed to keep the good times rolling for an extended period.

This is all a moot point if the Cubs come out and look flat this weekend or fail to carry any momentum onto the road.

"We'll find out," said Maddon, who has been in this game for nearly four decades. "I mean, I've been involved in those seminal moments and all of a sudden, things switch. 

"I'll tell you one thing though - I liked the method at the plate. Nobody was grinding sawdust; everybody was up there nice and chill and were getting good hacks on good pitches. ... I liked that. That's what we need to get to that point."

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.