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Opening-day starter Jon Lester pitching with ‘chip on shoulder’ for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. — A seventh opening-day assignment meant a lot to left-hander Jon Lester on Tuesday.

“Pretty cool,” he said.

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But what means even more to him are those eight 200-inning seasons, including five in a row — a streak that ended last season.

Jon Lester will start for the Cubs on Opening Day. | Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Not cool.

“I don’t know if ‘motivate’ is the right word, but there may be that little chip on your shoulder to try to get back to being yourself,” Lester said after making his first start of the spring. “Hopefully, last year was just one of those anomalies, and you move on from it. I’ve pitched for a long time and had some really good years and a couple of bad ones.

“I like my odds to have another good year.”

That was the idea as Cubs manager Joe Maddon announced the opening-day decision that had been obvious since the start of spring training.

“What he’s been through, what he’s established, I don’t even know why I’m in the conversation,’’ said Kyle Hendricks, the 2016 ERA champ and Game 1 playoff starter touted for the assignment by multiple Chicago columnists. ‘‘We know Jon is definitely the face of this rotation.”

And it’s a 34-year-old face with an especially stern look these days as Lester enters the back half of that six-year, $155 million deal focused on showing any doubters how he earned that contract and his four All-Star selections.

After finishing second in National League Cy Young voting in 2016, Lester had his roughest season in five years, going 13-8 with a 4.33 ERA. He spent time on the disabled list because of a lat injury late in the season and finished with his lowest innings total (180‰) for any of his 10 full seasons in the majors.

“Yeah, it’s frustrating,” he said. “Obviously, the two things I pride myself on are making every start and throwing 200 innings. I didn’t do that last year, so in my mind I let the team down.”

Lester said the body and arm feel good this spring after the physical issues last year. He struck out three of the eight batters he faced — albeit, walking the leadoff man in both of his innings — and allowed only one hit.

Maddon said he likes all the talk about getting back to 200 innings. He even says he sees a more comfortable-in-his-skin Lester with a bigger voice and emerging leadership presence in the absence of some of the bigger personalities — David Ross, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey — who’ve moved on.

“I think that’s really just kind of the whole clubhouse vibe,” Lester said. “I feel like guys are kind of opening up a little more. For a lot of us, this is our fourth year together. Some of the younger, younger guys, like [Ian] Happ, it’s their second year being around everybody. I’ve gotten older, and they’ve grown up.

“But I haven’t noticed much difference in myself, but apparently other people have. I’m just trying to be me.”

If that means the Lester of the 2015 and ’16 playoff seasons, the Cubs will take all 200 innings of it.

“I think he’s in a really good place mentally,” Maddon said, “and he’s throwing the ball well.

“Last year, in a perverse way, is going to help him this year because we had to back off on him just because of different factors.”

Lester’s March 29 opening-day assignment in Miami also lines him up to pitch the Cubs’ home opener April 9 against the Pirates. It also keeps him out of the four-game series at the end of the opening trip in Milwaukee, where the Cubs want to exploit matchups with more right-handed starters.

Maddon said the rest of the rotation plans have been made, but he wouldn’t reveal them until all the starters were informed.

Lester is 1-2 with a 3.74 ERA in six previous openers.

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.
Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com