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New and improved Jon Lester stymies Angels as Cubs start 2-0

Jon Lester pitched seven strong innings Tuesday night to beat the Angels 6-1.

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Who was that guy on the mound in the Cubs uniform Tuesday night, stifling the Angels for seven innings, winning his first start of the season with apparent ease, shrugging off trouble with his cut fastball to dazzle the Angels’ hitters with a changeup?

Even Jon Lester admits it wasn’t the same guy who opened last season for the Cubs with lingering effects of a spring training “dead arm” and the weight of a $155-million contract on his shoulders.

“Obviously, I’m in a better place than I was last year coming into the season,” Lester said after beating the Angels 6-1 to finish off a two-game, season-opening sweep.

“Last year was just so different, and there was a lot of hype involved just around myself, and a lot of expectations for myself,” he said. “And you try to go out there the first start and I think live up to those expectations all at once as opposed to just letting the season play out and go through your 32, 33 starts and see where you’re at, at the end.”

Still on a strict pitch limit as he entered last season because of the recovery process from his dead-arm period, Lester (1-0) lost 3-0 to the Cardinals in the season opener last year.

He finished April with a 6.23 ERA and didn’t win a game until May.

“Physically, mentally, all that stuff, I’m light years ahead of where I was last year at this point,” said Lester, who on Tuesday night didn’t walk a batter and allowed just two singles until a one-out double followed by a run-scoring single in the sixth produced the only run against him.

This time around, he’s clearly more settled into his surroundings, one of his best friends, newly acquired John Lackey, at his side most of the time they’re at the park.

Manager Joe Maddon said Lester’s delivery and, consequently, his cutter have been better since the start of spring than the manager saw at any time last year (though Lester said the cutter wasn’t reliable for him Tuesday).

And if he’s going to pitch that way from the start this season – the way he did Tuesday — then the Cubs’ big hopes for this season might be getting even bigger. Even with last year’s struggles, Lester finished 2015 with a 3.34 ERA, 205 innings and 207 strikeouts.

“After Jon’s first pitch today, it was a ball, but I was like, `Man, that moved a little more than it normally does,’ “ said first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who provided two runs of support with a third-inning home run. “He looked locked in.”

Lester, whose next start comes in the Cubs’ home opener Monday, is so much better than last year at this time because he’s more relaxed, say Maddon and teammates such as Rizzo. He also looks so much different because he’s not only healthy, catcher David Ross said, but because his spring consisted of a “natural progression” without interruption, setback or adversity (other than a few fielding yips).

Lester added one more reason for the difference: His spring and early-season issues last year caused “bad habits” he struggled with mechanically all year.

“This year I feel more like myself,” said the three-time All-Star. “I’m able to repeat more. The ball is obviously down a lot more. I’m able to fix the mistakes the next pitch as opposed to three or four pitches later.

“The frustration of that is gone, and now I can just worry about what the scouting report is and what we’re trying to do, what we’re trying to execute as opposed to all these other outside distractions … and all this other BS. I can just go out and worry about pitching.”