MESA, Ariz. — Manager Joe Maddon was so impressed watching Jon Lester pitch to Cubs hitters in practice Thursday that he told him afterward, “Man, you could have been pitching the first game of the season today, the way you looked.”
“He could have been.”
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Maddon isn’t ready to announce his Opening Day decision until he talks to all of his starters, but the matchups the first two weeks of the season suggest Lester is the likely choice for the opener in Miami, which also would line him up for the home opener against the Pirates on April 9. Presumptive No. 2 starter Yu Darvish would pitch the series opener against the Brewers on April 5.
For now, the important things for Lester and the Cubs are that he looks fully recovered from the lat injury that compromised him at the end of last season, and that he’s thinking of a bounce-back season entering the back half of the six-year deal he signed before 2015.
“Go back to the first day he was here a couple years ago. Didn’t today look better than that?” Maddon said. “I’m probably seeing the best version of Jon that I’ve witnessed as a person, how he goes about his business.”
Maddon said Lester is more vocal and emphatic in pitcher and catchers meeting this spring, carrying himself more as a leader.
“He was hurt a little bit in the beginning when he first arrived [in 2015]. And conversationally, he wasn’t settled here,” Maddon said. “He was just coming from another spot with high expectations, a big contract.
“He’s definitely really comfortable in his Cubs skin right now.”
Common caps for openers
To honor the victims of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last week, all 30 major-league teams have been given Stoneman Douglas High School caps to wear for pregame work Friday and Saturday as exhibition seasons open in Florida and Arizona.
Teams were told they can switch back to their regular caps for the games, but the Cubs plan to wear the school caps during their games Friday against the Brewers and Saturday in their exhibition home opener against the Rangers.
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is a Stoneman Douglas alum and flew home to be with friends and family in the community in the aftermath of the shooting.
The game-worn hats will be auctioned through Cubs Authentics and Cubs Charities.
Stars at Wrigley?
Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said Tuesday he hopes in the next few months to announce All-Star Game sites for 2020 through 2022. And he implied Wrigley Field could be in the running for one of those games.
“Chicago has expressed a strong interest in having the game,” he said. “Obviously, places where there have been new stadiums or extensive renovations kind of get a thumb on the scale in terms of our thinking. And I also think it’s important for us in terms of marketing the game to be in major markets. So stay tuned. We hope to have some announcements on that in the relatively near future.”
While the park has undergone dramatic upgrades and renovations (scheduled to be finished next season), the state of the cramped, outdated visitors clubhouse could be an issue — though Manfred said MLB has talked to the Cubs recently about “interim improvements” to solve some of the disparity between the two clubhouses.
“It’s a lot more complicated than asking for it,” Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said this week. “And every team wants it every year. So we’ll see.”
The Cubs last hosted an All-Star game in 1990.
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