Why longtime Cubs ace Jon Lester has never been more important to team

Why longtime Cubs ace Jon Lester has never been more important to team

This isn’t exactly the way Jon Lester envisioned the final year of his $155 million free agent deal with the Cubs.

A couple of months ago it was difficult to envision anything this season, much less the scene at Wrigley Field he has been part of the past week — and certainly not the mask he has at all times and the piped-in ambient crowd noise he’ll hear for the first time when he pitches in an intrasquad game Sunday night for the first time during this restarted training camp.

“It’s weird,” the five-time All-Star said. “It’s unique. The cool part is everybody’s taking it in stride. All this stuff with the mask and the protocols and the testing and all that is weird but now we just have to adapt and make it kind of normal.”

That’s not going to happen. Not for the Cubs or any other team, no matter how long this 30-team, 1,800-player effort at playing baseball during a pandemic lasts.

But for the Cubs, Lester might be as close as normal gets in the middle of all the “weird.”

When asked Saturday about what Lester brings to the team, the first words out of manager David Ross’ mouth were, “his presence.”

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It’s been there since 2015 as the stabilizing, credibility-building influence for a team that went from last place to 97 wins in his first season and a rise to that historic championship in his second.

Lester has earned two All-Star selections, made 10 postseason starts and four Opening Day starts for the Cubs during his five seasons in Chicago.

And just because he won’t start this year’s opener or that he’s coming off a disappointing 2019 season (4.46 ERA) doesn’t mean he won’t have a major influence on this team’s chances to focus and have success on the field this year and, perhaps just as important, off the field as it navigates the COVID-19 risks.

“Jon’s done so much for this group and this organization as far as preparation off the field, how he goes about his business prior to his start day, the routine he has when he comes in here,” said Ross, a teammate before he became Lester’s manager. “He doesn’t vary from that routine.

“His resumé obviously speaks for itself of what he’s done. But outside of what he’s done on the field, I think he’s influenced this organization as a whole in a really good way."

Lester, 36, is the most accomplished, longest-tenured player on the club — a career workhorse and three-time champion who’s five years older than one of the coaches and closer in age to four more than he is to any of his teammates.

So when Lester wears a mask, those around him notice.

“I think we’re all a little nervous,” he said. “Nobody wants to get this thing. You have to just believe in the testing process; you have to believe in kind of the bubble community we’re trying to create here; you have to believe in these things [holds up a mask].”

RELATED: Cubs COVID-19 tests return negative, Theo Epstein cautions against complacency

Whether Lester is able to achieve the bounce-back performance in a short season that he sought when he started the original spring training in February, he starts the second training camp behind the four other projected starters in a rotation already missing Jose Quintana (thumb injury) — all of whom started twice in scrimmages the first eight days of workouts

“I had a hard time just diving into going and trying to throw bullpens and trying to simulate innings [during the uncertainty timeline of the shutdown],” said the only Cubs starter who didn’t try to ramp up aggressively ahead of camp. “I figured that if I kept my body in shape and kept my arm going [in the weight room] that I would be fine when we got to this stage — it would just be a little slower.”

He said the “multiple factors” involved in that approach includes knowing himself well enough at this point in his career to trust what he needs to get ready — even in a short, “weird” prep period.

“I feel like I’m in a good place,” he said.

Who’s going to tell him he’s not? After the past five years, who’s going to suddenly decide they don’t trust what Lester brings to his job, or even the rest of the room?

In February Ross looked at a “leaner” version of Lester and said he had no concerns about the longtime ace and where he would be once the season started: “I know what his mentality is,” he said. “He is a guy that still has the top-of-the-rotation potential for me.”

That mentality. The presence. Lester’s belief and lead role in creating a “kind of normal.”

It might put him at the top of the Cubs’ rotation in more ways this year than he ever has been in his career.

MORE: Jon Lester on shortened 2020 MLB season: 'A trophy's a trophy'


Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Millions of Americans have lost jobs or taken pay cuts because of the economic impact of a coronavirus pandemic that in this country shows no signs of going away anytime soon, including countless members of the sports media.

So despite some of the more laughably ignorant opinions from the dimmer corners of social media, exactly nobody in the media wants any sport to shut down again.

That said, what the hell are we doing playing games outside of a bubble during the deadliest pandemic in this country in more than 100 years?

With Friday's news that another Cardinals staff member and two more players tested positive in the past two days for COVID-19, the Cubs-Cards weekend series was postponed as officials scrambled to test and retest Cardinals personnel and try to get their season restarted.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since the intake process began in June, have done everything right, from management to the last player on the roster, to keep their team healthy and playing.

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But the operative, most overlooked, word in all of this has always been “playing.”

And the longer MLB pushes through outbreaks, and measures the season’s viability in counting cases instead of the risk of a catastrophic outcome for even one player, the deeper its ethical dilemma in this viral cesspool.

“Ethically, I have no problem saying we’re going to keep doing this,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said over the weekend about asking players to continue working as the league experienced outbreaks involving the Marlins and Cardinals.

“That said, we have to do it the right way,” Hoyer said, citing the extra lengths the Cubs have taken to keep players and staff safe.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

But even he and other team executives understand the limits of all the best-made plans.

“The infection is throughout the country. That’s the reality,” team president Theo Epstein said. “If you’re traveling around, there’s a real risk. Protocols are not perfect. No set of protocols are perfect. They’re designed to minimize the risk as best you possibly can.”

And while the odds for surviving the virus favor young, athletic people such as baseball players, the nearly 160,000 Americans killed by COVID-19 in the last five months include otherwise healthy toddlers, teens and young adults.

Add that to the best-known characteristic of this virus — its wildfire-like ability to spread within a group — and baseball’s attempt to stage a two-month season involving travel in and out of 30 locales starts to look like Russian roulette.

Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez, 27, contracted COVID-19 last month and as a result developed myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart — that might shut him down for the season even after multiple tests say he’s clear of the virus.

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, a fit, 39-year-old, recent major-league athlete, had a monthlong case so severe he went to the emergency room at one point for treatment before the viral pneumonia and high fever began to improve.

The vast majority of players insist they want to play, including Rodríguez, even after his heart diagnosis. More than 20 others have opted out because of the risk, including All-Stars Buster Posey, David Price and — in the past week — Lorenzo Cain and Yoenis Céspedes.

Obviously the owners want to play, with more than $1 billion in recouped revenues at stake in a season of deep financial losses.

“Everyone that I know outside of baseball who’s become positive, who’s gotten COVID-19 at some point, did everything right — washed their hands, wore masks, socially distanced — and they still became positive,” Epstein said. “They don’t know where. It could have been the grocery store. It could have been walking down the street.

“And as far as I know that’s the case inside baseball, too,” he added. “This is everywhere in the country and unfortunately going the wrong direction nationwide. It’s a fraught environment out there that we’re operating in, and we’re going to need to do our absolute best and also be fortunate.”


Cubs-Cardinals series postponed after Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak worsens

Cubs-Cardinals series postponed after Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak worsens

The COVID-19 pandemic finally caught up to the Cubs, who had their weekend series against the Cardinals postponed Friday after the Cardinals' coronavirus outbreak worsened by three positive tests before the teams were scheduled to open a three-game series in St. Louis on Friday night.

The Cardinals, who haven't played since last week because of an outbreak that now includes at least 16 players and staff, scrambled to test and retest personnel Friday as Major League Baseball wiped another series off their schedule.

Cardinals president John Mozeliak said Friday the latest players to test positive are outfielder Austin Dean and pitcher Ryan Helsley. The club announced Tuesday catcher Yadier Molina and shortstop Paul DeJong recently tested positive.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since intake testing began more than a month ago, had not lost a game on their schedule because of coronavirus issues.

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The Cubs (10-3) were scheduled to fly home from St. Louis Friday night and are not scheduled to play again until Tuesday in Cleveland. This weekend's series has not been rescheduled yet.

“Based on the information MLB has shared with us, postponing this series is a necessary step to protect the health and safety of the Cardinals and the Cubs,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said in a statement. “Therefore, it is absolutely the right thing to do.

“While it’s obviously less than ideal, this is 2020, and we will embrace whatever steps are necessary to promote player and staff wellbeing and increase our chances of completing this season in safe fashion,” he added. “We will be ready to go on Tuesday in Cleveland. In the meantime, we wish the Cardinals personnel involved a quick and complete recovery.”