A touch of gray suits veteran Lester

March 7th, 2019

MESA, Ariz. -- A few strands of noticeable gray streak through one side of ’s beard, marking the time and their territory. He could snip them, he could dye them, he could shave the whole thing clean. But Lester has learned to wear this sign of age as a badge of honor.

“It’s stuck with me now,” he said with a smile after an uneven outing in the Cubs’ 7-5 loss to the Rockies at Sloan Park on Thursday.

Lester, who turned 35 in January, feels much the same about his leadership role in the Cubs’ clubhouse. Younger players come up to him all the time. They want to know how much to tip the road clubhouse workers. They want to know how to properly pack for a 10-game trip. They want to know how you recover from a 4 a.m. arrival to a new town with another game looming later that night. At first, fielding these questions was a rude awakening to Lester that, yes, he’s one of the old dudes in the room now.

He has come to grips with all that and more.

“At first it’s kind of a hard pill to swallow,” he said. “You turn around and you think you threw a fastball well, and it says 90 or 91, as opposed to 94 or 95. But it’s cool to have the [Anthony] Rizzos or KBs [Kris Bryant] ask you questions. I remember being in their shoes for a while. … It’s cool to answer those questions. At the same time, I wouldn’t mind trading about five years and going back and having that [time] on my side.”

Ah, but with age comes wisdom. Such as the wisdom to shrug off a start in which he gave up three runs on four hits -- including two well-struck homers off the bats of Garrett Hampson and David Dahl -- in 3 2/3 innings of work in his latest spring tune-up. Lester, who is entering the fifth year of his six-year contract with the Cubs and coming off an ’18 season in which he posted a 3.32 ERA and 129 ERA+, was more concerned about the angle of his pitches than the outcomes. He admitted that when he arrived to the Cubs in 2015, he was throwing as hard as he could in camp to make an impression on his new team. Now, he’s more comfortable in his own skin.

That, too, comes with age.

“As a competitor, you don’t ever want to give up runs and home runs,” he said. “But as a realist, you’ve got to step back and say I’m still working on things to get my feet under me and build up. The biggest thing for me in spring is to make sure we reach that pitch count in the right inning. I think when you step back, that’s something you have to look at is, hey, I got to the inning I was supposed to. So there were a couple positives and some negatives we’ll work on the next bullpen. It’s just a different mind-set.”

Chatwood’s camp encouraging
He’s auditioning for the Cubs. For all we know, he could be auditioning for other teams. Whatever the role, whatever the case, , having addressed a mechanical flaw that affected his release point, has made a strong impression this spring.

It continued when he worked three innings out of the bullpen in Wednesday’s game against the Royals and allowed just three hits, with seven outs recorded via ground ball. He now has a 2.25 ERA in eight innings of work. Most notably, he has walked just one batter, after a 2018 season in which his walk rate was a career-worst 19.6 percent.

“It has been great,” manager Joe Maddon said of Chatwood’s spring. “Command of his pitches, strike-throwing and good velocity, too. He’s been 94, 95, 96 [mph] sometimes. He throws the curveball for strikes. He’s been really outstanding. And people don’t talk about his defense, but he really moves well on the mound.”

The only question is what to do with him. Though he’s still being stretched out with a starter’s workload, there’s no room for Chatwood (entering the second year of a three-year, $38 million contract) in the Cubs’ rotation. So he might wind up in the bullpen. Or, perhaps, the trade block.

Worth noting
• Nico Hoerner, the Cubs’ No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline and the 24th overall pick in last year’s draft, played the entirety of Thursday’s tilt and had a nice showing. He went 3-for-3 with an RBI and a run scored. He stroked an RBI single to center in the second and fought off some tough pitches from former Cubs closer Wade Davis before reaching on an infield single in the fourth.

• Yes, the Cubs played the Rockies -- the team that eliminated them in the NL Wild Card Game last fall -- in Cactus League play on Thursday. No, it doesn’t mean anything, despite Maddon getting asked about the matchup by a well-meaning but overzealous reporter. “It’s just a different vibe,” Maddon said. “Getting ready for the season. Having lost to them last year, bully for them. They played well at the end of the year. But none of that is felt [now].”

Up next
The Cubs will give non-roster right-hander Duncan Robinson the start opposite left-hander Marco Gonzalez and the Mariners for a 7:40 p.m. CT game Friday at the Peoria Sports Complex. Many of the Cubs’ regulars will be spared the trip west for the night game. Back at the Cubs’ complex, Yu Darvish will throw a simulated game in lieu of pitching in a big-league game.