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.