Jon Lester ready for Year 2 after taking leap of faith with Cubs


Jon Lester ready for Year 2 after taking leap of faith with Cubs

This was supposed to be the breakthrough year when the Cubs made their recruiting pitch to Jon Lester. No one projected the 2015 team would win 97 games and advance to the National League Championship Series.

Chicago will always be a destination for free agents, because even Cubs players on last-place teams get treated like royalty in this city. In the end, money talks, and the Cubs guaranteed six years and $155 million, caving on that no no-trade clause policy. 

But Lester had to trust Theo Epstein’s front office in a way that John Lackey, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward did not. Lester had to believe ownership would boost payroll, support a playoff contender and eventually finish the Wrigley Field renovation by raising a World Series flag.

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Lester had to believe in the scouting reports on Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, which sounds obvious now but would have been a leap in November 2014 for a three-time All-Star who’s already won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox.

“You put a lot of faith in these guys when you sign here that they’re going to do what they say,” Lester said. “And they’ve done more.”

Lester won’t be the focus next week when pitchers and catchers officially report to the Sloan Park complex. There will be so many other storylines in Mesa, Arizona. 

Jake Arrieta is the unquestioned ace of the pitching staff, a Cy Young Award winner who will have to prove he can bounce back after throwing almost 250 innings last year.

Heyward now has the biggest contract in franchise history, an eight-year, $184 million megadeal for a Gold Glove outfielder who doesn’t have to be a superstar, just part of the supporting cast.   

Lackey – Lester’s buddy from Boston and a player Cubs Twitter loved to hate when he pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals – will have to deal with the welcome-to-Chicago adjustment period.

“Any time you walk into a room and you know who everybody is, you’re more relaxed,” Lester said. “I’ve been here for a year. I understand how everything works. I think people have gotten to know me a little bit.

“Last year, I felt like I needed to do a little bit more at certain times than I’m used to just because of everything that comes with what was going on last year.

“I feel like this year, I can just go out and do my normal routine and not have to worry about getting off to a good start in spring training. My concern is getting off to a good start in the season.

“I wanted to impress people a little bit too early last year and obviously it set me back. That’s stuff you learn.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Lester experienced a “dead arm” and threw less than nine innings in the Cactus League last year. His Opening Night debut will be remembered for the bathroom debacle at Wrigley Field and the ESPN broadcast highlighting the lefty’s issues throwing over to first base. He wound up finishing with a losing record (11-12) and losing both of his playoff starts.    

But that obviously doesn’t tell the story of Lester’s first season on the North Side. He made 30-plus starts for the eighth consecutive year. He passed the 200-innings mark for the seventh time.

Lester’s 3.34 ERA marked an improvement from his career numbers in the American League (3.58). He also ranked as a top-15 NL pitcher in terms of strikeouts (207), WHIP (1.122), quality starts (21), batting average against (.240) and opponents’ OPS (.661).

“I don’t do anything flashy,” Lester said. “I’ve never been a flashy guy. I don’t have electric stuff. I don’t do anything that makes anybody go ‘Wow!’

“I just put my hat on, grab my glove and go out and pitch as best I can every day. If you look at it that way, I did my job.

“All the other numbers, I think they were probably right around my career norm. It was a good season as far as making all my starts and being healthy (after) dealing with all the stuff in spring training.”

Lester has long-term security, but he will still feel a sense of urgency at the age of 32. The window won’t stay open forever, there are no guarantees with young players and the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers is filled with bad investments.

If the 2015 Cubs arrived a year ahead of schedule, there is no doubt that this team is all-in for this season: It’s World Series or bust.

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Cole Hamels' dominant start to his Cubs career continued on Friday in stellar fashion, and with some considerable help from his infield.

The 34-year-old veteran not only pitched seven innings of five-hit ball without allowing a run, but induced five ground ball double plays. The Cubs finished with a staggering seven double plays in a 1-0 win at the Pirates on Friday.

The last time the Cubs turned five double plays was in 1985. 

All five hits Hamels gave up were groundball singles. The 16 groundballs induced is the most for a Cubs pitcher this year.

After Hamels exited after seven innings, the Cubs got double plays in the eighth, on a line drive double play with Jorge De La Rosa on the mound, and ninth, on a groundball induced by Jesse Chavez to end the game.

Hamels was initially brought in to provide depth to a struggling rotation and ease the pain of Yu Darvish being unavailable. But Hamels has now started an honest debate over who should be the Cubs' starter in Game 1 of the postseason. He has been otherworldly since joining the Cubs, with an 0.72 ERA, three wins and one no-decision (the Cubs won and he had nine strikeouts). 

The 1-0 win over the Pirates gives the Cubs more breathing room in the NL Central. The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday, pushing the Cubs lead to 4.5 games in the division.

And the Hamels hot-streak comes at an excellent time for the North Siders, who took in Jon Lester's gem of an outing on Thursday, where he went six innings with no earned runs and eight strikeouts in a win against the Pirates. The Cubs starting pitching seems to be turning the corner, and with three straight series against sub-.500 teams following their series in Pittsburgh, this could be the beginning of a great run of outings that carries the Cubs confidently into the postseason.

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season.