Jon Lester views himself as a finisher, someone who gets stronger later in the season, when the games become bigger and bigger. That’s why the $155 million pitcher came to Chicago — to earn a third World Series ring and change this team’s entire identity.
That’s why Cubs fans might have seen their playoff hopes flash before their eyes when Joey Votto smashed a line drive that drilled Lester’s wrist as he tried to make the glove save, the ball ricocheting into shallow right field.
“It’s fine,” Lester said as soon as he sat down in the Wrigley Field interview room after Tuesday night’s 6-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds. “My right hand. I don’t need it.”
The lefty stayed in the game, faced seven more Reds after that scare leading off the sixth inning and finished the seventh, making a strong closing argument for the National League Cy Young Award voters and looking like the Game 1 starter when the Cubs face the wild-card survivor on Oct. 7.
This is a battle of attrition. The New York Mets are paying the price for last year’s World Series run, with Jacob deGrom (right elbow) scheduled for season-ending surgery, something Matt Harvey (thoracic outlet syndrome) already went through this summer.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are managing the herniated disc in Clayton Kershaw’s back and dealing with the blister on Rich Hill’s left middle finger. The Washington Nationals don’t know when Stephen Strasburg will return or if his right elbow will allow him to honor the seven-year, $175 million extension he signed four-plus months ago.
This much is clear: Washington’s 1-0 loss to the Miami Marlins combined with Lester’s dominant performance made three the magic number for the Cubs (96-55) to clinch the league’s best record and home-field advantage through their first two playoff rounds.
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“If I’m chosen for Game 1, awesome, it will be a great honor,” Lester said. “If I’m not, it’s still a great honor to pitch in the postseason for this team.”
Lester leads the NL with 18 wins and ranks first in the majors with 25 quality starts. His ERA is now 2.36 after his seventh straight start allowing zero runs or one run. He’s peaking at the right time — 9-0 with a 1.46 ERA through 12 starts since the All-Star break — and one of the most accomplished postseason pitchers of his generation.
“I’m along for the ride,” Lester said. “We have a really, really good staff, so if I’m the guy, it will definitely be a huge honor.
“If I’m not the guy, tell me when I’m going. I’ll be there. I’ll be ready. I’ll be prepared. I’ll give you everything I got.
“But obviously it would be nice to start a home game here, whether it’s (Game 1 or 2). This atmosphere’s been great all year. It’s been a playoff kind of atmosphere all year. They’ve expected a lot of us. We’ve given them a lot. And they give us a lot in return, as far as energy.”
The Cubs placed a huge bet on durability, and Lester has now made 30 starts for the ninth consecutive season. With two more starts to go, he’s only nine innings away from hitting 200 for the eighth time in his career. The Cubs also wanted someone who wouldn’t be satisfied with a division title or allow teammates to become complacent.
“I don’t care what the lead is,” Lester said. “My mentality’s the same going into every start: I want to win every start. I don’t take days off when it comes to that.
“When it’s my day to go, it’s my day to go. I’m going to show up with the same intensity as if it was Game 1 or if we’re fighting for a playoff spot right now. I feel like if I let off the gas mentally, then I’m doing a disservice to my team.”