Cubs

Jon Lester, the right Cubs free agent at the right time, takes care of business against Phillies

Jon Lester, the right Cubs free agent at the right time, takes care of business against Phillies

PHILADELPHIA — Once Jon Lester finally made The Decision and signed that six-year, $155 million megadeal with the Cubs, Anthony Rizzo told his family: I’m going to play on a contender for the rest of my career.

The Cubs were coming off their fifth consecutive fifth-place finish when manager Joe Maddon escaped his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays and Lester took the leap of faith with Theo Epstein’s front office. That seems like ancient history now.

But Lester is still an anchor for the majors’ first team to 40 wins this season, even with the well-chronicled issues throwing to first base and even as Jake Arrieta gets most of the rotation headlines as the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner.

At a time when two of Epstein’s biggest free-agent mistakes with the Cubs (Edwin Jackson) and Boston Red Sox (Carl Crawford) are now in designated-for-assignment limbo, Lester again showed he’s the right player at the right time.

Lester dominated the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park, throwing eight scoreless innings before the Cubs bullpen hung on for a 6-4 victory. Lester retired 13 straight batters during one stretch, threw 95 efficient pitches, finished with nine strikeouts against zero walks and got enough support from an offense that has been years in the making.

“Some guys didn’t believe it — they didn’t believe in that plan,” said Rizzo, the first baseman/clubhouse leader on track for his third All-Star selection before his 27th birthday. “And Jonny did. Obviously, with Joe signing and Jon coming over and us progressing last year like we did, it couldn’t have been better.”

Jason Heyward — who blasted a two-run homer off Phillies starter Adam Morgan — had been listed in the projected 2016 lineup when the Cubs unveiled a diamond diagram as part of the elaborate presentation during Lester’s recruiting visit to Wrigleyville.

Monday also marked the three-year anniversary of the Houston Astros drafting Stanford University pitcher Mark Appel No. 1 overall, allowing the Cubs to select future Rookie of the Year/All-Star third baseman Kris Bryant (3-for-5, RBI, two runs scored) with the second pick.

Lester — who notched a complete-game victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers last week at Wrigley Field — is now 7-3 with a 2.06 ERA and should be in the conversation for his fourth All-Star selection.

And if you needed another sign of Lester’s increasing comfort level around this team, he collaborated with strength coach Tim Buss and came up with the idea for the NBA Finals-themed road trip, personally paying for all the blue Under Armour tracksuits and white Nike sneakers.

“Maybe reading into it (too much),” Lester said. “But like I’ve said from Day 1 this year, I really do feel more comfortable.

“Obviously, winning last year and going to the playoffs kind of helps everybody relax. We really didn’t know what to expect last year, and we kind of exceeded the expectations. That really allowed us to come in and have everybody play relaxed and have a good time.

“As the year went on, you could really see Joe open up, too, and become more Joe. We had a little bit more fun when we started winning. That just carried over to this year, (and) you can pretty much go down the line — everybody feels more relaxed.”

This from an old Red Sox who admitted he didn’t know if it was — with all due respect — a little tacky or unprofessional when Maddon’s Rays teams did those types of dress-up gimmicks.

“It’s just the personality of our team, too,” Rizzo said. “We’re just all so close that I can see some outsiders looking in (that way). But everyone who knows this team — and is around this team — knows how we are.

“Jonny came up with a really veteran (group), a lot of old-school players that taught him the things that he teaches guys (now).”

The Phillies (28-30) — a completely undermanned offensive team — tried to get in Lester’s head by bunting and aggressively running the bases. But personal catcher David Ross easily threw out Maikel Franco when he tried to steal second base in the second inning. And it ultimately didn’t matter moments later when Lester recoiled at the sight of a Peter Bourjos pop-up bunt, stepping away from the ball and waiting for Ross to pick it up.

“That’s just a tough play — it was like right in the middle between both of them,” Maddon said. “(Bourjos) bisected the mound and the plate. It’s just a tough play for either guy, but I thought overall we’ve been handling that stuff pretty well.

“Everybody says ‘bunt.’ Just go down the list of the bunters in the league who are good bunters. Everybody just thinks it’s that easy. It is the lost art. There are certain teams that do bunt better than others. There are some hitters that bunt betters than others. But just to say ‘bunt’ doesn’t necessarily (work) when the guy’s throwing 94 (mph) with a cutter on your fingertips. It’s not that easy to do.”

Lester — a 32-year-old lefty who’s thrown almost 2,000 innings in The Show when you include the playoffs and those two World Series championships with the Red Sox — can minimize those issues and beat teams in different ways. Nine-figure contracts for pitchers almost never end well, but right now nothing says comfort like a personalized tracksuit.

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Can Jon Lester get out of his slump?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Can Jon Lester get out of his slump?

David Haugh, Ben Finfer and Seth Gruen join Kap on the panel.

0:00- The Cubs winning streak is over as Jon Lester's struggles continue. Should fans be worried that he can't get out of this slump? Would he be a playoff starter right now?

8:40- The White Sox rebuild continues as Rick Hahn says fans might have to wait until next spring to see whether or not they'll be contenders. Is next year too early to compete?

15:00- The Bears backups get ready to face the Colts backups Saturday night. Is there any reason to have the preseason at all?

18:30- Mitch Trubisky's preseason is over. So is he ready for Week 1?

20:00- College football is back. The panel give their picks for Florida vs Miami in the Fanduel Friday Faves.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs rallying behind Jon Lester after another tough outing

Cubs rallying behind Jon Lester after another tough outing

There are three ways to look at the Cubs' 9-3 loss Friday:

1) Jon Lester had another rough outing and the sun is starting to set on his career as a front-of-the-rotation starter.

2) Lester gave up some hard contact, but also had some tough luck and pitched better than his final line indicated.

3) Meh.

To be honest, each of the three perspectives has an element of truth to it, but the third one is probably the main way to look at it as the Cubs tasted defeat for the first time in a week.

No, the team did not play well, but it went far beyond Lester.

The Nationals didn't get into town until the wee hours of Friday morning, yet it was the Cubs who looked sluggish Friday. They managed only two baserunners - a single and a walk - until the ninth inning when they put together a too-little-too-late rally thanks to some shoddy Washington fielding.

But even if the offense did come to play, the game was out of hand by the fifth inning, when Lester and Pedro Strop combined to allow 3 runs, extending Washington's lead to 7-0.

Lester was charged with 6 runs on 9 hits and a walk over 4.1 innings, but 8 of those 9 hits were singles. The only extra-base knock off the Cubs southpaw was Adam Eaton's line drive home run in the first inning that he smacked into the 18 mph wind howling in off the lake.

Of the singles, a couple were hard ground balls knocked down by Cubs infielders and one was a perfectly executed bunt by pitcher Anibal Sanchez with two strikes that the Cubs had no choice but to hope it would roll foul. At that point in the fourth inning, the score was only 3-0, but the Cubs' misfortune seemed to open the door for the Nationals.

"I'm telling you, I don't think he was that bad today," Maddon said. "We were a little bit unlucky with him. ... Outside of that last inning when they squared him up, I thought he actually threw the ball decently.

"I think he's gonna be fine. He will find a way to get himself back into the picture in the right way. There's a lot of time left with the playoffs, etc., so I'm counting on it. I believe in Jon."

Beyond the tough luck, the Nationals hit five balls more than 100 mph off Lester, including a 108.5 mph single on the final batter (Juan Soto) he faced in the fifth inning.

After the game, Lester couldn't do much but shrug and accept responsibility for the loss.

"I feel fine," he said. "Today sucks. Tomorrow, I'll wake up and start a new day and get ready for another start. That doesn't take the sting away from today. Joe's always said, 'you win hard, you lose hard' and losing for me is even harder than that. Sucking as a pitcher is even harder than that.

"It's my job to do better and I'm not. I let a five-game winning streak basically go by the wayside because I didn't throw the ball very well. It's frustrating, but tomorrow starts a new day and move on to the next one."

Friday's game marks the fifth time this season Lester has allowed at least 6 runs in an outing. This was his 25th start of 2019, so that means 20 percent of his appearances have resulted in putting his team in a major hole.

"I think we're getting to the point where you can't isolate [the rough games]," Lester said. "They're happening a little bit too much for myself. I felt pretty good about myself after the last one, just being able to continually execute pitches. I don't feel like stuff was much different than last time, just different results and that's the shitty part about this game and my job - it's results driven and it doesn't matter how I feel or what the gameplan was going in.

"You have to execute and get people out and keep them from scoring runs and I'm just not doing that."

Lester started the five-game winning streak for the Cubs with a performance befitting true "ace" or "stopper" status. After a pair of disheartening bullpen meltdowns, he took the ball last Saturday and shut out the Pirates through 6 innings, battling despite not having his best stuff (5 walks).

But even including that start in Pittsburgh, Lester has now allowed 23 earned runs in 24.1 innings in five starts in August.

For a 35-year-old with three World Series rings and a long track record of pitching well when the lights are the brightest, he isn't where he wants to be as September approaches in a tight playoff race.

"Better than this," he said. "Usually this is the time of year where I pitch a lot better than I have been. For whatever reason, I haven't hit that stride. I usually have ups and downs to every season, but usually more ups than downs.

"Right now, it's just continuing to go down. The old saying - one step forward, two steps back - is kinda what I'm doing right now. The positive is I physically feel fine. Can't blame it on that. Just have to be better. Tomorrow's a new day, prepare for the next one."

Even with the recent struggles, Kyle Schwarber said Lester is still the guy the Cubs would want to give the ball to in Game 1 of a playoff series.

"He'll bounce back," Schwarber said. "He knows how to handle himself really well. He's a leader out there and we always have his back."

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