On Day 1 of the 2018 "playoffs," Jon Lester left no doubt about where he stands in this rotation for when the actual postseason rolls around.
Joe Maddon called Thursday the first day of the playoffs for his Cubs team as they attempt to fend off the fast-charging Brewers in a tense NL Central race.
And for Game 1 — as may be the case next week if the Cubs can hold on to the division — Maddon handed Lester the ball and the veteran lefty did what he does best: Put the team on his back in a crucial game.
Lester wasn't all that sharp and he certainly was not dominant. He allowed the first two batters of the game to reach, loaded the bases with one out in the first inning and gave up seven baserunners total in his 6 innings of work.
But he didn't allow a single Pirate to cross home plate, stranding all seven guys on base, five of which were in scoring position.
"Wow," Maddon said. "He wasn't sharp command-wise — stuff looked normal from the side, but command-wise was abnormal. But he got through it. ... He battled. He showed his mettle there tonight. That's who he is."
With the strong outing, Lester improved to 18-6 on the season with a 3.32 ERA and 1.31 WHIP over 181.2 innings.
He also added to this total of most starts with at least 5 innings of 1 or 0 earned runs allowed since his first outing with the Cubs:
Most starts with 5+ innings and 1 or 0 runs allowed— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) September 28, 2018
54 Jon Lester (6 scoreless tonight)
52 Jake Arrieta
51 Max Scherzer
51 Zack Greinke
51 Jacob deGrom
Pitching in the fourth year of his six-year, $155 million megadeal, Lester has been worth the return on the entire contract and so much more. Whatever they get from him on the final two years of the deal is gravy.
It's not even just the stats, though the numbers are very good.
It's about showing up. Lester now has 11 straight seasons where he's made at least 30 starts, dating back to 2008.
Thursday was his 32nd start of the year, marking the seventh year in a row in which he has reached that total.
"That's pretty incredible," Maddon said. "All that matters. When you show up in your post, that always matters. He always posts. He's always showing up. And he was not gonna be denied."
From the second Lester walked through that door in spring training 2015, he changed the culture inside that clubhouse.
Maddon of course also deserves credit for the winning mindset this team has adopted over the past few years. But there's something different about it for players when it's their peer that shows up, works the way he does and goes out and performs every fifth day, without fail.
Lester is accountable, he's refreshingly honest and he's as mentally tough as they come.
That mental toughness has clearly worn off on Anthony Rizzo and the rest of the Cubs' young core.
"It's the culture that we've created here," Rizzo said. "We prepare hard, we play hard and we keep it loose at the same time. It's a fun atmosphere to come to work every single day."
When asked last weekend about how close the Cubs are to clinching the division, Lester stopped the reporter asking the question in his tracks. He didn't want to get to ahead of himself and he didn't want his teammates to lose focus.
When the Cubs clinched at least a spot in the wild-card Wednesday night, they didn't pop bottles. There was no way Lester would let them stray from their goal of winning a second World Series in three seasons.
"We've made the playoffs and nobody in the clubhouse is satisfied with that," he said. "I don't think that's an arrogance. We all kind of expect to win the division. Same thing — that's not a knock on the other teams in our division.
"We feel like that's one of our goals and hopefully that comes to fruition this weekend and we'll celebrate then. To be in the playoffs four straight years for us is awesome. I think three years [in a row] has been the most for me. So four in a row is pretty special when you're able to do that."