Cubs

This is nice for Cubs, but Jon Lester signed up to win World Series

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This is nice for Cubs, but Jon Lester signed up to win World Series

PITTSBURGH — This is why the Cubs gave Jon Lester $155 million guaranteed — to pitch in big games, give their young players more confidence/attitude and ultimately lead this team into October.

Lester took care of business in Tuesday night’s 2-1 Game 2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, salvaging a split of this huge doubleheader at PNC Park. He pumped his fist at the end of this complete-game performance — and then quickly came down from the emotional high by the time reporters surrounded his locker.

Sure, this is nice. The Cubs reduced their playoff magic number to 12 and stayed within four games of the Pirates for home-field advantage in the National League’s wild-card game. But Lester earned two championship rings with the Boston Red Sox, so in terms of expectations for the first season of this six-year deal megadeal ...

“When I signed here, I envisioned winning a World Series,” Lester said. “Not just playing September baseball. Hopefully, we can get to that point and we can talk about that a little more.”

[MORE CUBS: Scott Boras knows what 20 wins could mean for Cubs and Jake Arrieta]

That looks more realistic when the Cubs have Lester or Jake Arrieta on the mound, a 1-2 playoff punch that might be as good as any other combination in the game.

Manager Joe Maddon noticed Lester still throwing 94 mph in the eighth inning, and the lefty got Andrew McCutchen and Aramis Ramirez to swing at first pitches in the ninth for two quick outs. Lester froze Francisco Cervelli with a 94-mph fastball — his 111th pitch — to end the game with his ninth strikeout.

“This is what he does,” Maddon said. “He likes pitching in big games in the latter part of the season. It’s not a surprise.”

In the moment, the Cubs (83-61) needed Lester (10-10, 3.38 ERA) to give the bullpen a break and stop a three-game losing streak. Big picture, the franchise needed someone to anchor the rotation and set an example for being a professional and handling the big stage.

“(I) prepare the same way (for) an April start as I do in September or October,” Lester said. “If there’s a magic formula or whatever, I think everybody would try to share that with all your teammates. I don’t know. I always feel better the second half of the year, both with stuff and physically.”

[MORE CUBS: How Theo Epstein would fix the wild-card format]

Since Lester’s issues with throwing over to first baseman Anthony Rizzo and controlling the running game have been so publicized, it’s only fair to also mention that he initiated a 1-3-4-3 to pick off Starling Marte, ending the third inning.

“He picked himself off,” Lester said. “He tried to sneak one, and the infield did a good job (with) that rundown. He’s such a good athlete. He can turn and move and he’s fast.

“As far as other teams and all that stuff and all the other things that have gone on this year, I’m not too concerned about it. I’ll continue to try to vary my looks and holds.

"And I may surprise you guys one day with just like an Andy Pettitte move over there — and maybe surprise Rizz a little bit, too.”

Lester doesn’t appear to get defensive or too stressed out, and the Cubs also looked much sharper defensively in Game 2, whether it was Kris Bryant crashing into the right-field wall to make a leaping catch or shortstop Addison Russell gliding to his left and flipping the ball to Starlin Castro to start a key double play that limited the Pirates to one run in the seventh inning or Javier Baez seemingly getting to everything over at third base.

That’s what the Cubs will need if they return to this beautiful waterfront stadium on Oct. 7 in a win-or-else situation. Arrieta and Lester can take it from there.

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.