Jon Lester’s big-game reputation gave Cubs credibility in rebuild


Jon Lester’s big-game reputation gave Cubs credibility in rebuild

The Cubs know nine-figure contracts for 30-something pitchers are ticking time bombs. They understood what the data said when they gave Jon Lester six years and $155 million guaranteed. They felt like they couldn’t afford to not take the risk.

“His particular signing indicated to us – and to the fan base – this is definitely possible,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You need that kind of a presence – especially within your pitching staff – to get this particular moment. Jonny definitely has elevated us this season.”

A crowd of 40,432 didn’t get to see the Cubs clinch their playoff spot on a beautiful Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field. The Cubs had to wait at least several more hours to pop champagne bottles, their magic number stuck at one after a 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates that felt like an October preview.

Lester didn’t beat Gerrit Cole, but he showed why the Cubs will be dangerous if Jake Arrieta wins the National League’s wild-card game.

“We all know what’s in front of us,” said Lester, who allowed two runs across seven innings. “I don’t think there’s much more to learn until you actually get into the battle. We can talk about playoff atmosphere and playoff intensity and all that stuff.

“But until you’re actually there, it’s something that you can’t really describe and explain to guys.”

The Cubs wanted Lester to lead by example and believed he could handle anything after beating cancer and dealing with all the pressure and baggage that comes with wearing a Boston Red Sox uniform. 

This marked a turning point in the rebuild, the Ricketts ownership group taking the plunge and Theo Epstein’s front office making a splash in free agency. Lester also had to take a leap of faith to commit to a last-place team and believe all this young talent could play. 

This was before Arrieta turned into a 20-game winner and a top-two Cy Young Award candidate. Before Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber made their big-league debuts. Before we understood what The Maddon Effect would mean beyond Simon the Magician and Warren the Pink Flamingo.

“He grew up in an environment where every moment was big,” said David Ross, Lester’s personal catcher. “He learned to adapt to that and that’s why he’s a big-game pitcher. That’s why he’s got the reputation he does. That’s why he’s got two World Series rings. That’s why he gets paid all the money he gets paid. Those guys are hard to find in this game.”

[MORE: Joe Maddon: No place for retribution in Cubs-Pirates rivalry]

Maddon had seen enough of Lester while managing the Tampa Bay Rays – and probably had enough red wine that night – to confirm the deal as the news leaked out last December at the winter meetings in San Diego.

While Cubs officials couldn’t comment on the record, reporters spotted Maddon inside the Manchester Grand Hyatt and got a money quote: “We won the baseball lottery.”

“I (had) worked against him for so many years in Boston,” Maddon said. “It was never any fun. In the past, I saw him get better when it mattered. And that’s what he’s doing right now.”

Lester cruised into the seventh inning before giving up a leadoff double to ex-Cub Aramis Ramirez, who lined a ball into left field and got replaced by a pinch-runner. Francisco Cervelli’s sacrifice bunt set up Michael Morse, who drove a ball through the right side of a drawn-in infield to score the go-ahead run.

Lester is a quiet, thoughtful type who came here to make history and win another championship – not simply play meaningful games in September. But he is still going to party, whenever the Cubs clinch.

“We’ll let these guys that have never experienced this really enjoy it,” Lester said. “Hopefully, they don’t hold anything back. I know we got another week or so to go and a lot of things can happen. But not too many guys get the opportunity to play in the postseason.

“I hope guys really soak it in. I’ve played with a few guys through the years – Adam Dunn in particular waited (almost) 15 years to get to a one-game playoff – so hopefully these guys make sure they enjoy it when we do get in.”

[NBC SHOP: Buy a Jon Lester jersey here]

Lester’s 10-12 record for an 89-win team is misleading. The lefty’s put up a 3.43 ERA, 19 quality starts and almost 200 innings, plus the confidence and credibility that can’t be measured in a rebuilding situation. 

“We can play with these guys,” Lester said. “Look at Kansas City last year. No one expected them to go to the World Series, let alone the playoffs. You get hot at the right time.

“Your pitching staff falls into place at the right time, your bullpen falls into place at the right time, you get a couple big knocks. And you look up and you’re standing at the end – and hopefully you’re holding that trophy.”

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

Scott Changnon

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

On the latest CubsTalk Podcast Scott Changnon and Tony Andracki discuss the state of the Cubs offense, the value of Javy Baez and Addison Russell and what it means now that the starting rotation looks to be finding its form.

With 17 games in 17 days (most of which come against contending teams), the Cubs started things off right with a series victory in St. Louis.

Listen to the entire podcast here:

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.