Lord of the Rings: Lester's eyes on title No. 4

Cubs veteran on 60-game season: 'You still have to win'

July 11th, 2020

CHICAGO -- already has three World Series rings at home. He wants another one.

"A ring's a ring," Lester said on Friday. "I'm still fighting for that. I don't care if it's 60 games or 190 games or whatever it is. You still have to play well to get that trophy."

With 14 Major League seasons under his belt and 36 years on his body, Lester is no longer the No. 1 starter for the Cubs. The Opening Day assignment that Lester accepted four times in the past five years will likely go to either Yu Darvish or Kyle Hendricks. The big lefty remains, however, the unquestioned leader of Chicago's rotation.

The work Lester puts in behind the scenes sets an example that is followed by his teammates. The words he utters -- often with an edge or a quick roll of the eyes if the question posed warrants it -- carry weight. He won titles with the Red Sox in 2007 and '13, and then he helped the Cubs end their 108-year drought with the '16 crown.

If Lester says no asterisk applies to this 60-game season, his teammates will echo that stance.

"You still have to win. You still have to play good baseball," Lester said. "It's not like they're just handing them out at the end, like, 'Oh, hey, here's your participation trophy because you guys showed up this year.' That's not the case.

"We have to go out there and there's a lot of good teams, not only in this new division that we're playing in, but there's obviously good teams across the league you have to go through to get to that point."

For Lester, the past three months without baseball posed a problem.

A creature of habits and routines established over his many seasons as a Major League ace, Lester was suddenly faced with a training period that lacked an end point. After baseball hit the pause button in March due to the COVID-19 crisis, there was no Opening Day date Lester could use to work backward and map out a schedule.

Rather than run the risk of overworking, Lester settled into a rhythm of getting in the weight room and finding activities to keep his body and arm moving. He adopted a conservative throwing program, wanting to "save as many bullets as he possibly could," as pitching coach Tommy Hottovy put it. Lester prioritized his physical condition rather than building up innings.

"As we started kind of getting word that we were building toward this," Lester said, "I started picking up the ball and throwing and moving in that way. But, I just had a hard time, and we talked about it quite a bit. I had a hard time just diving into going and trying to throw bullpens and trying to throw innings and simulate that.

"I figured that, if I kept my body in shape and I kept my arm going, that I would be fine when we got to this stage. It would just be a little slower. And I feel like we've done that, and I feel like I'm in a good place."

On Wednesday, Lester threw two simulated innings in a live batting practice session. Another step forward in his throwing progression is planned for Sunday evening, when the left-hander is scheduled to log some innings in the Cubs' intrasquad game at Wrigley Field.

Ideally, Cubs manager David Ross would like to have all his starters built up to five innings by the July 24 opener. That said, Ross emphasized that the team would give guys breaks, if necessary, given the unique nature of Summer Camp and the season ahead.

And Ross, who has caught more of Lester's career innings than any other catcher, understands that Lester's impact extends beyond the mound.

"He's prepped and locked in when he steps on that mound," Ross said. "His resume obviously speaks for itself, of what he's done. But, outside of what he's done on the field, I think he's influenced this organization as a whole in a really good way."

Now, Lester can influence how the group views this abbreviated season.

A cancer survivor, Lester said he was more concerned about his family when it came time to decide whether to take part in this season. He did not hesitate to join the team though, putting his trust in the protocols and safety measures installed by Major League Baseball and the Cubs.

"I think you just have to kind of dive into this headfirst and go with the protocols," Lester said. "You just really have to concentrate on that, I guess. And hopefully everything else kind of takes care of itself."

And maybe the season ends with another World Series ring, sans asterisk.

"When we look back on this, yeah, people will talk about this season," Lester said. "But, you still have to show up. You still have to play well, and you still have to do your job in order to get that trophy, to get that ring. And that's still important to us, and it's still important to me."