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Value of Cubs ace Jon Lester rises and shines when team struggles

LOS ANGELES — Where would the Cubs be without Jon Lester this season?

“Probably in third or fourth place,” teammate Ben Zobrist said. “At least.”

It is rough stretches like this that remind the Cubs why Lester is here, why they invested all that long-term money in his left arm and what he has contributed to their ability to win division and playoff series the last three seasons.

After a 2-1 loss Monday night to open a four-game series against the defending National League-champion Dodgers, the Cubs fell to 0-5 to start this eight-game trip with seven losses in their last nine games.

Lester

Lester, their ace in the wings, goes Tuesday night, six days after he pitched seven scoreless innings to beat the Dodgers at Wrigley Field.

He’s 4-1 with a 2.17 ERA in seven starts after a Cubs loss (the Cubs are 5-2 in those games). The game he didn’t win was a 1-0 loss to Cleveland in which he pitched seven innings.

“It’s hard to say how much impact a particular player has on the whole team, but I would say that obviously he’s provided that anchor,” Zobrist said.

With all the issues in the Cubs’ rotation this season, from Yu Darvish’s struggles to Tyler Chatwood’s walks, Lester is in the midst of an All-Star season. Nationals ace Max Scherzer is the favorite to be the NL starter in his home ballpark, but Lester could get the nod depending on how the next two weeks play out. NL ERA leader Jacob deGrom of the Mets also is in the conversation.

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But Lester (9-2) is pitching as well as he has since being a Cy Young runner-up in 2016.

“Physically I wasn’t able to do the things I’ve been able to do in the past,” said Lester, who was upset he didn’t reach his usual 200 innings and dealt with some fatigue issues. “I worked to correct some things. I’m just recovering better this year. I feel better; I’m taking my bullpens into my starts as far as the work I’ve been putting in, and I’ve had a little bit of luck on my side.

“I’m not reinventing the wheel,” he said. “I think just physically I’m able to do things that I’ve done in the past, and that’s what’s been able to carry over from start to start.”

Whether it’s the stretching routines he has incorporated into his between-starts work, the decrease in intensity of some of the weightlifting or the accumulated wisdom of another year in the league, it is working for him at 34 like it hasn’t worked for years.

“I know he’s matured a while ago,” manager Joe Maddon said, “but it’s been like another level of maturation pitching-wise.”

A byproduct has been that Lester is starting to make his six-year, $155 million contract look like a bargain for a title-starved franchise that already has a World Series championship to show for it.

Lester, who has made all but one Opening Day start in four seasons with the Cubs, could be making his fourth playoff appearance with the team.

Scherzer, in the fourth year of a seven-year, $210 million deal with the Nationals, might be the only pitcher with a long-term contract whose value compares.

“I’m not worried about the contract,” said Lester, whose 2.10 ERA ranks third in the league. “I just worry about trying to take the ball and pitch. Probably the first two months of being here, it’s something that weighs on you. But for me it was getting past that point and feeling more comfortable here in my surroundings. Once I was able to do that, I’m not worried about [the contract].

“So I’m not worried about living up to anything. I’m worried about taking the ball every five days for these guys and making sure I’m somebody they can count on to make those starts. Whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, I’m taking the ball and giving these guys everything I can. If in everybody else’s eyes that fulfills the contract, then that fulfills the contract.”