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.”

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Before the Cubs hosted the San Francisco Giants on Day 2 of American Legion Week, Willson Contreras was out in left field running and working out his injured right hamstring.

The All-Star catcher hit the injured list earlier this month after hitting a line drive to the gap against the Milwaukee Brewers. 

That was two-and-a-half weeks ago and the Cubs initially tabbed the Grade-2 hamstring strain as a roughly four-week timeline. But team president Theo Epstein said Wednesday Contreras is not nearing a rehab stint.

"He's in what our trainers are calling the aggressive strengthening phase of his rehab, which is building up the hamstring strength now that he's gotten through the initial injury," Epstein said. "Always what comes with that is the strength deficit that you have to really be mindful of building back up so that you don't risk reinjuring it when you get back to full baseball activities. 

"You're gonna see him on the field a lot more over the next few days and hopefully soon he'll be progressing to baseball activities. He's not on the cusp of starting a rehab assignment or anything like that. He hasn't really progressed to baseball activities yet, so that will be the next step."

The minor-league season wraps up in the first couple days of September, so Contreras won't have much of an opportunity to get game at-bats and innings at catcher if he isn't able to head on a rehab stint soon.

But the Cubs won't rush it with one of their most important players. Contreras was hitting .275 with 19 homers, 57 RBI and an .890 OPS in 87 games before the injury.

In his absence, the Cubs have been pretty well covered with Victor Caratini and Jonathan Lucroy splitting duties behind the dish.

Lucroy - acquired Aug. 8 after being released by the Los Angeles Angels - is hitting .333 with a .798 OPS in 7 games and has impressed with his work as a game-caller and veteran presence. Caratini continues to put up quality at-bats while building on his breakout campaign.

Sports Talk Live Podcast: The Cubs' triumphant return home

USA Today

Sports Talk Live Podcast: The Cubs' triumphant return home

Luke Stuckmeyer and Fred Mitchell join Kap on the panel.

0:00- Doug Glanville joins the guys to discuss the Cubs' triumphant return home, Nicholas Castellanos and the importance of the starting rotation over the rest of the season.

11:00- Scott Podsednik drops by to talk about another dominant performance by Lucas Giolito. Could the Sox contend next season after taking a series from another division leader?

17:30- Tony Andracki joins Kap from Wrigley Field with the latest on Ben Zobrist's return and if Brandon Morrow's shutdown will have any impact on the Cubs' bullpen.

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Sports Talk Live Podcast