Just get it to Game 3, Cubs — old pro Jon Lester will be ready for the moment
Is it possible we were all focusing on the wrong Cubs pitching duo? That their one-two punch is still coming? That even though they don’t have four aces in their hand, maybe, just maybe, they have a third one?
The Cubs’ “two aces” narrative went out the window Wednesday when Kyle Hendricks lost to the Marlins in the opener of a best-of-three playoff series at Wrigley Field. Hendricks and Yu Darvish won’t be enough, no matter how well the latter pitcher performs Friday in Game 2.
Is it possible, though, that we were all simply focusing on the wrong duo? That the Cubs’ 1-2 punch is still coming? That even though they clearly don’t have four aces in their hand, maybe, just maybe, they have a third one?
We’re talking about Jon Lester here, people.
Lester, who has 77 regular-season victories in six outstanding years with the Cubs. Lester, a four-time Opening Day starter for the team. Lester, a five-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion and owner of the most wins — 193 — of any active left-hander in the game.
Yes, Lester has a lot of miles on him at 36. Yes, he’s in his final guaranteed year with the Cubs and not the pitcher he was when he arrived here. Yes, a game can be postponed — as occurred Thursday at Wrigley because of bad weather in the forecast — but the natural erosion of skills cannot.
If Darvish, who tied for the major-league lead with eight wins and posted a sparkling 2.01 ERA in 2020, can deliver in his first playoff start with the Cubs — and if the offense actually scores a couple of runs for him — it’ll be Lester, a real Mr. October kind of guy, who gets the ball in Game 3.
That has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?
“To get Jonny out there to pop it off, to show his leadership, to lead by example, that’s something I’m looking forward to having happen,” right fielder Jason Heyward said.
You can throw out the season stats when it comes to Lester. One reason: They’re not all that good, so they don’t exactly help build our case.
But the larger reason is that Lester lives for these moments. No pitcher playing today has thrown as many playoff innings as Lester. No pitcher has been more give-me-the-damn-ball ready for the kind of big-moment pressure that often suffocates others.
Lester isn’t the true ace he was in 2016, when the Cubs won it all, but can he channel the guy who dominated the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series and revived the Cubs’ curse-busting efforts by beating the Indians in Game 5 of the World Series?
He won’t even get the chance if the Marlins sweep the Cubs. That might be it for his time in a Cubs uniform, too. It could even be it for Lester’s career. He’d like to keep pitching — for the Cubs, best of all — but he isn’t about to beg anybody for a job.
“If this is it here, this is it,” he said. “I have to move on with it. The organization will definitely move on. You see it over the years. If somebody leaves or goes down, you fill it in with another person.
“I’ve definitely appreciated everything that this organization has done for me, and I hope it’s not [the end]. I hope we can figure something out for next year and these conversations are kind of null and void.”
Lester is one of only eight lefties to pitch 1,000 innings for the Cubs, and the first since Ken Holzman did it long before Lester was born. Although he built the foundation of his career with the Red Sox, he has been as instrumental in this run of Cubs success as anyone. That’s probably an understatement — there’s zero chance the Cubs win that 2016 World Series, and no chance they reach the postseason five times in six years, without him.
“I know what this guy has meant to this franchise,” said manager David Ross, who was Lester’s personal catcher in Boston and again with the Cubs. “I know there’s nobody that’s done more for me in my career than that human being, and what he’s done for me and my family.”
Will the Cubs pick up Lester’s $25 million option for 2021? That’s awfully far-fetched. Expect them to pay his $10 million buyout. And then?
It would be nice to have him back. Short of that, it would be a real shame if he didn’t get to pitch for the Cubs in the playoffs one more time.
“That would be great,” Lester said. “I love pitching here. Any time I get to go out there, it’s obviously a good thing for me. . . .
“It’s a special place, [has] a special place in my heart, and it would be nice to finish up here on a good note.”