CINCINNATI – For all the talk about dead arms, yips and individual win-loss records this year, Jon Lester’s first season as a Chicago Cub is really all about this:
If team president Theo Epstein doesn’t sign the two-time World Series champion to the biggest contract in franchise history last winter, then this week is about as meaningful to the Cubs as it is to the last-place Reds that Lester beat 10-3 on Wednesday night.
“I told Theo in the meeting that we had in the off-season, before everything kind of got going,” Lester said, “that, `Hey, man, I’m not here to grind through 2015. I want to make sure that we’re going to be contenders. I want to make sure that we’re going to be somewhat in this thing.’ I didn’t want to be in last place and have to deal with that again.”
Instead, the workhorse left-hander signed to be the $155 million centerpiece to a last place team’s competitive turning point has become a linchpin for the Cubs’ sudden, improbable breakthrough season – early struggles, throwing yips and all.
For all the big performances by rookies and the Cy Young-caliber pitching by Jake Arrieta, it’s impossible to imagine the Cubs reaching the playoffs for the first time in seven years without the steadying influence of Lester in a mostly shaky rotation – not to mention his 32 starts, 205 innings, 207 strikeouts and 3.34 ERA.
Talk about value on an investment.
Talk about “winning the lottery” – as Maddon referred to Lester’s signing in December when the Cubs’ won a monthslong bidding war that included a front office recruiting process heavy on personal history from Boston.
“He’s been outstanding,” Maddon said of a season-long performance that included a 2.36 finishing kick in September – with nine strikeouts and no walks in an eight-inning regular-season finale.
“He had everything playing tonight,” Maddon said. “He is probably peaking at the right time.”
Lester (11-12) finished with a losing record in large part because of some of the worst run support in the majors. But his 21 quality starts trail only three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and World Series Madison Bumgarner in the National League this year.
And along the way, he broke the franchise record for strikeouts in a season by a left-hander with five more than Ken Holtzman in 1970.
“It was nice to finish on that note,” said Lester, who seemed anything but finished this season. “We’ve got a few more to go.”
If the Cubs win Arrieta’s start Wednesday against the Pirates in the wild-card game, Lester would open a five-game division series against the St. Louis Cardinals – who clinched the division with their 100th victory Wednesday night.
Lester would get two starts in that series if it went the distance – the same number of starts he won against the Cardinals in the 2013 World Series to help the Boston Red Sox win their third championship in 10 seasons.
This is where the vision – and the value – of that six-year deal he signs comes into play. But this year?
“To expect 93 wins, I don’t think anybody did,” Lester said. “I don’t think the front office or the fans or [the media] believed we could do 93 wins. I think we surprised probably ourselves a little bit and obviously the people around us.
“The talent is what kind of sold me on being here. The talent is here.”
Most of it’s just very, very young. And ahead of schedule.
And as good as Lester, 31, has been in his career – three All-Star appearances, 200 innings even of the last eight years – Maddon says: “He’s not done getting better, either.”
He already has shown he might have solved his issues with making a pickoff throw to first – finally doing it in back-to-back September starts against the Cardinals and Pirates.
“The box was checked,” Maddon said. “I definitely see him having more left in the tank and another level left in the tank.”
And whatever the do in the playoffs – whether he even gets a shot to pitch – the value of last winter’s deal already is resonating into this fall and next spring.
“Jake and Jon have really set the tone for us this year and in the future,” Maddon said. “That’s the kind of expectation you’re going to have out of your pitching staff, that kind of performance.”