MESA, Ariz. -- The conversation between Cubs manager Joe Maddon and left-hander Jon Lester was brief on Monday morning. Before the veteran pitcher made his way outside for the day's workout, Maddon informed Lester that he would be handed the ball on Opening Day.
"He accepted," Maddon said with a smile.
Naming Lester the Opening Day starter for the Cubs' 2019 opener against the Rangers on March 28 was more of a formaility than a surprise. Barring the unforeseen, Lester was always the obvious choice for the assignment. He is the veteran in a rotation full of them. He has three World Series rings, five All-Star appearances and seven Opening Day outings already on his resume.
What Lester loves about Chicago's starting staff, though, is that the group features an entire cast of arms who would be worthy of the same honor. In fact, Cole Hamels (four times), Yu Darvish (once) and Jose Quintana (once) already have Opening Day experience. The lone exception is Kyle Hendricks, who won the National League ERA title as part of the Cubs' World Series rotation in 2016.
"You can almost put five guys in a hat and pull one out and say, 'OK, yeah, that one sounds good,'" Lester said. "I love our rotation. I love kind of how unique each one of our guys are. I know we've got three lefties right now, but we're all very different in how we go about things. I like our guys. I like our rotation. We're in a good place right now."
The Cubs have certainly been in a good place since Lester entered the fold.
Lester received a six-year, $155 million contract to come to Chicago prior to the 2015 campaign, when a young team overflowing with promise emerged as a true World Series threat. He has been a steady force atop the rotation for each of the past four years, continuing his career track record of taking the ball almost without fail every five days. Over the last 11 seasons, Lester has averaged 32 starts and 202 innings per year.
Last year, as Lester's velocity and age continued to move in opposite directions, the lefty finished 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA in 181 2/3 innings. Earlier this spring, when asked if he can be even better in the upcoming campaign, Lester barked back, "Why not? I'm not dead."
"He's been our rock. He's been our rock out there," Maddon said. "I've gained an even greater appreciation working with him side by side."
When the 35-year-old Lester takes the ball in Texas later this month, it will mark his third straight Opening Day start for the Cubs, and fourth overall with the franchise. He also opened the season as Boston's starter four times. Lester will become the 10th pitcher in Cubs record history (since 1908) to have at least four Opening Day starts (Fergie Jenkins holds the record with seven).
Lester said that starting on Opening Day is not an easy task. Given the hype surrounding the first game -- leading to extra interviews, a soldout stadium, pregame ceremonies and everything else that comes with the opener -- the pitcher puts the assignment right up there with a postseason game.
"It's the hardest start of the year," Lester said.
It is also one of the most meaningful games of the year for players.
"I've been fortunate enough to do this a few times. It's always a huge honor," Lester said. "I always go back to the organization and the guys that have started Opening Days here before. To be entrusted with that a couple times here and other places, that's just a huge honor to have that on your shoulders and try to get your team off to a good start."