Jonny on the spot: Cubs turn to Lester to save the season against the Rockies
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Don’t poke the bear. Of all the things the Cubs do to prepare for Tuesday’s win-or-stay-home NL Wild Card game against the Rockies at Wrigley Field, steering clear of an ornery-as-ever Jon Lester will be right at the top of the list.
“Just avoid him,” fellow starting pitcher Cole Hamels said. “Not in a bad way, but let him do his job. Let him do his thing. It’s his moment.”
Right, not in a bad way. As in: Don’t make eye contact with the 34-year-old lefty before the game lest he gnaw off your face, but not in a bad way.
Let’s be honest: That the Cubs were forced into this scenario by the Brewers, who stole the division title with a 3-1 victory in Monday’s NL Central tiebreaker, is a real bummer. Another World Series crown suddenly seems far less attainable than it did at any point during the season. The possibility of such an abrupt end to the 2018 campaign wasn’t supposed to be part of the narrative.
But let’s also be honest about this: Winning Tuesday and keeping the dream alive is, to borrow Hamels’ words, Lester’s job. Taking the ball in the playoffs, stalking from the dugout to the mound and back, staring down the opposition and — apologies if this is overly dramatic — spilling blood and guts on the field is, indeed, Lester’s thing.
You’re darn right this is his moment. Ride-or-die time with Lester? There are worse positions to be in.
“It’s comforting,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Jon’s been there, done that. Jon will be ready to roll.”
The Cubs wooed Lester after the 2014 season with the idea that he could help them achieve the almost unimaginable: the organization’s first championship since 1908. Mission accomplished. But they gave him a six-year, $155 million deal for more than one run at glory. And in this case, they need him to be more up to the task than ever.
What a mess the Cubs bullpen finds itself in. Blame Maddon for his endless yo-yoing of pitchers if you wish, but the bottom line is relief arms are fried and Lester — who’s a lot closer to the smoke-and-mirrors stage of his career than he is to the lights-out-stuff stage — could do no greater service for his team than digging deep and finding, oh, seven innings of true quality.
Hamels is ready to relieve Lester if he must, but does anyone really want to see the Cubs burn through two of the linchpins of the rotation before the NL Division Series even begins? Is that really the way the Cubs would want to head into Milwaukee to see the Brewers again?
No, what this situation calls for is for Lester to go the long haul for career postseason victory No. 10. That would tie him with CC Sabathia for the most among active pitchers, right behind Justin Verlander and his 11.
It’s a big ask, but it’s all we’ve got.
“He’s the ultimate competitor,” Hamels said. “You just see how he approaches big games, big moments. He’s been very fortunate to play in big cities, big environments. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s done well in big moments. You look at that, it instills confidence and creates a calm for everybody else.”
Lester hasn’t been perfect in big games. He was the loser in Game 1 of the 2016 World Series. He lost both of his starts in the 2015 playoffs. Before that, he pitched into the eighth inning — but unraveled — for the A’s in their 2014 AL Wild Card loss to the Royals.
And it must be acknowledged that the Cubs are 6-2 in elimination games since the start of the 2015 postseason, and three of those victories were delivered by Jake Arrieta.
Still, Lester is the Cubs’ guy, their ace, their No. 1. A burning intensity will emanate from him as he walks through the clubhouse Tuesday afternoon in his customary American flag shorts and tight gray T-shirt. He’ll be expecting a win, if for no other reason than he always does.
He won’t be the only one.
“I feel great that he’ll be out there,” third baseman Kris Bryant said. “He’s been in the postseason plenty of times. He knows the magnitude of the situation. We couldn’t ask for a better guy to go out there in a one-game playoff.”
Hamels, who will be a free agent, isn’t even entertaining the thought that he already has started his last game as a Cub.
“With Jon going out there?” he said. “I know I’m going to get another opportunity.”
Leave it to first baseman Anthony Rizzo to find just the right words:
“It’s Jonny Lester.”
If all is right in the world, that’ll be enough.