CHICAGO -- Cubs starter Jonathan Lester was named to his fifth All-Star team on Sunday night and it's fitting that the left-hander will be taking his favorite player to watch in Javier Baez and his personal catcher, Willson Contreras.
Lester, Baez and Contreras were named to the National League team for the All-Star Game presented by Mastercard on July 17 at Nationals Park. This will be the first trips for Baez and Contreras; they were selected by the fans votes.
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"To watch them blossom over the last couple of years, to see what Javy's gone through from this crazy swinger to a much more controlled game of baseball, and Willson, on the other hand, he's pretty much fought, fought, fought his way," manager Joe Maddon said. "Now he is the best catcher in the National League. I think he's the best catcher in baseball."
Maddon added that Contreras still has some aspects of his game to work on, but the physical talent is there as well as the energy.
"The two of them, as young men to get their first opportunity, I could not be more thrilled," Maddon said.
Lester was excited, too, about the pair, especially Contreras.
"I know our relationship has grown a lot over the last couple years," Lester said of Contreras, who took over for David Ross after he retired. "I know the whole 'Rossy' thing is kind of always in the back of his mind, I'm sure, every time we take the ball. It's nice for him to get rewarded for his hard work and what he's done.
"Both those guys deserve it," Lester said of Contreras and Baez.
Baez has dazzled on the basepaths and with his glove work, but this season, he's impressed at the plate as well. He's the fourth player to reach 20 doubles, 15 homers, five triples, 60 RBIs and 15 stolen bases prior to the All-Star break, joining the Giants' Willie Mays (1960), the Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez (2013) and the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen (2014). Mays, Gonzalez and McCutchen all made the NL All-Star team in those respective seasons.
Baez, who stole home on Wednesday for the fourth time in his career, is the first Cubs middle infielder to hit 17 home runs before the All-Star break since Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, who had 24 at the midway point in 1990.
In the previously released fan balloting, Baez was third among NL second basemen.
"I know we have a lot of fans and they dedicate a lot of time to us, and to what we do outside the field," Baez said. "I just feel blessed to be here and in this spot."
Baez has played second, short and third, and now has 65 RBIs, which ranks among the top three in the NL. He is the first Cubs infielder to reach 65 RBIs before the break since Ernie Banks had 76 in 1960.
Contreras, 26, has hit safely in 12 of his past 13 games, and is batting .287 overall. He drove in a career-high seven runs on May 11, hitting two home runs, including a grand slam. The catcher has seven home runs and 34 RBIs this season.
"It took me by surprise," said Contreras, who got the news before Sunday's game. "I'm so glad and so happy to be selected by the fans. Being there means a lot to me. I have to be thankful to God for giving me the health. Thank the fans, thank my family for giving me support to be there. My first reaction -- I had no words to say, and I started crying when I went down to the cage. That's what I worked for. I've been working hard every single game and I play like it's my last one."
Last year, the Cubs had one All-Star in closer Wade Davis.
Lester, 34, also was named to the All-Star team in 2010, '11, '14 and '16. On Sunday, he gave up four runs over 6 1/3 innings against the Reds, and his ERA is now 2.45. He began Sunday ranked among the top three in ERA in the NL and he had the best ERA at home in the NL. The lefty has had to make some adjustments over the course of his career, now in its 13th season.
"The guy pitches," Maddon said. "He knows what he's doing out there. He has this calm way. I think a big part of the ascendance has been based on his fielding and ability to control the running game better. I think that's taken a little bit of a burden off him and he can just pitch now. He's a pitch-maker. He's old school.
"Jonny doesn't have that mid-90s stuff that he used to have but he knows what he's doing out there," Maddon said. "I think that's what you're seeing is a guy who really understands his craft."
And who recognizes talent. After Baez made a heads-up defensive play in a game against the Dodgers, which drew praise from Lester.
"He's probably my favorite player to watch," Lester said of Baez. "I've got to play with and in front of some really good infielders in my career and I think Javy has surpassed all those guys."
And now they're All-Stars.
On Tuesday, July 17, while watching the 2018 All-Star Game presented by Mastercard live on FOX, fans can submit their choices for the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player Award presented by Chevrolet with the 2018 All-Star Game MLB.com MVP Vote.
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