Jon Lester is already bald and has white whiskers in his beard. He sounds older than 33, maybe because his nine seasons with the Boston Red Sox should be measured in dog years. He toasted his boy John Lackey’s presumed retirement last week as the Cubs celebrated their National League Central title.
Lester sees the changing of the guard at the front of the rotation and knows he already accomplished exactly what the Cubs wanted when they signed him to a landmark six-year, $155 million contract after a last-place season in 2014.
Lester sincerely respects Kyle Hendricks and believes he earned the Game 1 assignment against the Washington Nationals. But beyond that, Lester isn’t conceding anything in the best-of-five NL Division Series that begins Friday night at Nationals Park.
“Last year, we had all these expectations,” Lester said during Wednesday’s workout at Wrigley Field. “We won a bunch of games and we were supposed to win the World Series. That, to me, is harder than defending the World Series. Going forward, we have really nothing to lose. We’re still a really good team and we should win the World Series.
“But Washington was the second-best team in (the NL). The Dodgers, I think, have a lot to lose, just playing so well all year. So now you get into the playoffs with the added pressure on yourself – and you start pressing and not being who you are – and you look up and you’re heading home.
“We’re in a good place. I like this team being underdogs. We got some very prideful guys on this team.”
Like Lester, who started Game 1 in all three playoff rounds last year and earned his third World Series ring in a borderline Hall of Fame career. The Cubs still trust Lester will figure it out in Saturday’s Game 2 against the Nationals. Even manager Joe Maddon admitted Lester closing the regular season at full strength would have changed the calculus for this decision. But Lester watched up close last year as Hendricks grew into an ERA titleholder, a Cy Young Award finalist and the World Series Game 7 starter.
“I’m happy for him,” Lester said. “This is kind of that next step. Hopefully, the next step for him is to go through the whole playoffs like that and then be our Opening Day starter next year. That’s a cool step. I remember back in the day when the torch was kind of passed to me to do that.”
This isn’t an ego thing for Lester, who went 13-8 with a 4.33 ERA this season, the stress from pitching in 14 career playoff series probably catching up to him while Hendricks got into a groove and put up a 2.19 ERA in 13 starts after the All-Star break.
“We’re a unit out there as our starting staff,” Lester said. “I’m not by any means mad. I’m not upset. I wasn’t going to be a Game 1 starter or an Opening Day starter for the rest of my career. At some point, somebody’s got to take it over. I’m really, really happy for him.”
Lester went on the disabled list with left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue in late August and made it through six up-and-down starts in September. The surface-level numbers were fine (5-1, 4.18 ERA), but opponents generated an .828 OPS while Lester struggled with his command and location (36 hits and 14 walks allowed in 32.1 innings). Even in good times, it can look like Lester is second-guessing himself and unsure about what to do next, which makes his bubbling frustrations stand out against the blank stares from Hendricks.
“Kyle’s the perfect guy for it – you never know what’s going through his head,” Lester said. “You hardly know he’s breathing out there. As an emotional guy out there, to me, that’s the most impressive part, how he doesn’t allow (anything to get to him).
“How he goes about his business out there, you’d never know if he’s up 10, down 10, if it’s Game 7 or if it’s an April 15 start.”
Lester always envisioned the Cubs being good for a long time – and not just a one-and-done champion – as he transitioned into more of a supporting role. You can see the future with Jose Quintana lined up for Game 3 at Wrigley Field and his first playoff experience. There is the worst-case possibility that looming free agent/Game 4 starter (if necessary) Jake Arrieta may have already thrown his final pitch in a Cubs uniform as he continues to try to strengthen a strained right hamstring.
Not that the Cubs are thinking in those terms or that Lester would ever sell this team short, even as he makes way for Hendricks and maybe sees the beginning of the end of his reign as the staff’s ace.
“We’re not anxious,” Lester said. “Basically 95 percent of our team has been through everything, so there’s not going to be anything that surprises us as we go along this journey.”