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Jon Lester fares well in #%x! return, reminds Cubs why they signed him

MESA, Ariz. — In the middle of a minor-league intrasquad game hours before any regular team activities, Cubs ace Jon Lester cruised into the third inning in relative peace and quiet Thursday before a small gathering.

That’s when Lester suddenly disrupted the peace with an unprintable outburst on the mound over a sequence of pitches that did not please him. A few pitches later, he was back into a quiet mode.

“I wear my emotions on my sleeve, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent,” Lester said. “It is what it is. It’s who I am.”

Did we mention this was a minor-league intrasquad game? In spring training? On a practice field?

“That’s why he’s the pitcher he is. It’s because he competes hard. He’s a perfectionist,” said catcher David Ross, in his third year as Lester’s teammate.

“I know he gets frustrated. But that’s why he’s Jon Lester, because he expects a lot out of himself. That’s why he’s done what he’s done in the game and gets the contract he’s gotten.”

And that’s why the Cubs seem to have no concerns about the $155 million left-hander’s ability to be ready for his Opening Night start April 5 against the St. Louis Cardinals. Never mind that he skipped his start Saturday with a “dead arm,” threw 54 pitches in a low-pressure outing Thursday and has just one more start before the opener.

“I’ll take that guy off the couch in December,” Ross said. “I’ll take that guy any game any time, no matter if he’s picked up a ball in two months.”

Lester, whose fastball reached 93 mph during the four-inning start, said he felt fine, though he has strength and sharpness to work on. He doesn’t pretend he’s over his dead-arm issue.

“Any time you pitch for a living, you’re never really past the dead-arm phase,” he said. “After the first day, it never really feels too good after that.”

But don’t try to suggest there could be reason to think he won’t pitch the opener.

“It’s not my first rodeo,” Lester said with a chuckle. “We’ll figure it out.”

Lester, who has made at least 31 starts in each of the last six seasons, is due to make one more start on the minor-league side of camp Tuesday. He’ll have a 75-80 pitch limit.

He seems as sure and calm about his abbreviated prep time as he did for (most of) his outing Thursday. Lester has shown little concern despite the unusual timing of the dead arm, which he said usually comes before exhibition games or well into April.

Then again, if the issue arose during the season, Lester said he wouldn’t have missed a start.

“What I was really watching was him, watching his face,” manager Joe Maddon said, “and he never seemed like anything bothered him. I know his arm feels great, and that’s all I was worried about.”

The Cubs knew they were getting that calmness, self-awareness and intensity based on a 12-year relationship with the front office dating to Lester’s time with the Boston Red Sox.

It’s why the Cubs listen when he talks and why they trust him with what comes next for the club.

“There won’t be any surprises. That’s the biggest thing for us, the comfort level,” team president Theo Epstein said when he signed Lester. “He’s focused, competitive, hard-working, intense and now fully mature. And he’s at his best in the most important moments, I think because he’s so driven and focused and not swayed by outside variables like pressure or attention.”

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com
Twitter: @GDubCub