Cubs once again rely on Lester to set tone

Veteran lefty opened NLDS with win, has fared well against Dodgers

October 14th, 2016

CHICAGO -- With their come-from-behind victory to finish off the Giants in San Francisco, the Cubs not only earned themselves a three-day period to recharge, but they also avoided having to roll over their rotation.

And so, instead of starting a win-or-go-home game Thursday, rested and waited and readied for another Game 1 assignment to add to his already extensive postseason resume. This one will come Saturday, when the Cubs and Dodgers open the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field (8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT).

:: NLCS: Dodgers vs. Cubs coverage ::

"Obviously for me, it's a great honor, especially with the staff that we have," Lester said of drawing the start opposite Los Angeles righty . "It's a huge honor, especially for an organization like this, to get the ball again and try to go out and give us a good start, like last time, and give us a chance to win."

The left-hander has become well-acquainted with the October stage over his 11-year career -- and thrived on it. Since his first playoff appearance in 2007, Lester leads all pitchers with 106 postseason innings. Over that stretch, he ranks third with 15 starts, third with seven wins and sixth with a 2.63 ERA (min. 40 innings).

And this particular spot is one that Lester knows remarkably well. Over the past four years, he has started the first game of a postseason series six times. Add in the American League Wild Card Game start he drew with Oakland in 2014 and his contributions in Boston's '08 and '09 playoff runs, and Lester has been tapped for a series-opening start nine times.

It's a resume that adds to the confidence the Cubs have in sending their regular-season ace to the mound to set the tone for the best-of-seven series.

"Having this experience definitely matters, especially as a starting pitcher," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's going to walk out there, [and] he's going to be very comfortable in that moment, actually inspired by that, I believe. And I want to believe that the rest of the group grasped a little bit of courage from that fearless nature that he demonstrates as a starting pitcher in the playoffs."

The Cubs utilized Lester's performance in Game 1 of the NLDS as a springboard in that series. Lester scattered five hits without allowing a run over eight innings to buy time for 's game-winning home run.

The Dodgers understand well the challenge Lester will present. In a June start against them at Wrigley Field, Lester threw a four-hit complete game in which he struck out 10 and walked none. He then went to Dodger Stadium in August and twirled six shutout innings.

This matchup looks just as lopsided on paper, as the Dodgers ranked last in the Majors with a .214 average, .291 on-base percentage and .333 slugging percentage against left-handed pitchers during the regular season. As for Lester, he has recorded a quality start in all 16 of his home appearances (including the postseason) this year.

"We'll see what they do and we'll make adjustments off that as we go," Lester said. "Like I keep saying, it's that fine cat-and-mouse game of being a pitcher. We know this is going to be a long series, so hopefully we can get it going in the right direction [Saturday]."