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Lester earns right to start Opening Night

March 30, 2017

HOUSTON -- Jonathan Lester and Orval Overall will have something in common on Sunday night. Overall was the Cubs' Opening Day starter in 1909, the last year the franchise followed a World Series championship season. Lester will open the Cubs' defense of their championship when they face the Cardinals in

HOUSTON -- Jonathan Lester and Orval Overall will have something in common on Sunday night. Overall was the Cubs' Opening Day starter in 1909, the last year the franchise followed a World Series championship season. Lester will open the Cubs' defense of their championship when they face the Cardinals in St. Louis on ESPN at 7:35 p.m. CT.
"Opening Day always means something to me," Lester said. "That's obviously an honor to be named that guy, especially on this staff and in this organization. I've been fortunate enough to do it a couple times. It's never easy, but it's always fun."
It's not easy partly because of all the hoopla surrounding the game, he said.
"It's a weird time," the lefty said. "There's so much more going into that than starting Game 1 of the playoffs, because then you've had the whole season, you know where you're at, you know what's working, you've got your scouting reports. I feel that first one is always different. But it's also fun. There's a lot of different emotions going into it."
The biggest change for Lester is that his favorite catcher, David Ross, is now "Dancing With the Stars" following his retirement. Willson Contreras is the Cubs' regular catcher, and this spring, he's shadowed Lester. Contreras has caught not only Lester's Cactus League starts, but also his two Minor League games and every bullpen session.

Contreras asserted himself early in camp and told Ross he wanted to learn Lester's quirks on his own. The best way to do that?
"You just pitch," Lester said. "I'm still understanding how he calls the game. It goes both ways -- it's not just me sitting out there going, 'No, no, no, you're not doing anything right.' I'm learning from him, as well, and what he likes to do."
What Lester figured out quickly is that he needs to duck when runners try to steal on Contreras, whose throw to second almost has more velocity than the lefty's pitches.
Not many teams have a pitching staff strong enough in which the Major League ERA leader is the No. 5 starter, but that's the Cubs' rotation. Lester will start the opener and be followed by Jacob Arrieta, John Lackey, newcomer Brett Anderson and Kyle Hendricks, who topped the Majors with a 2.13 ERA. Lester finished second in the National League Cy Young Award balloting last year; Hendricks was third.

With all the talent, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said it was fairly easy to select Lester as the Opening Night starter.
"It has to go to Jon Lester based on the body of work," Maddon said. "We feel good about that."
In 2015, Lester was the new guy on the Cubs and eager to justify the six-year, $155 million contract he signed. He won 11 games and posted a 3.34 ERA. Last year, Lester was slotted into the No. 2 spot in the rotation behind Arrieta, who won the 2015 NL Cy Young Award.
Lester has some work to do to catch Overall, who started four consecutive Opening Days, beginning in 1907.
"We've accomplished what I came here to do," Lester said about winning the World Series. "That's the main reason why [Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein] wanted me to get here and why I wanted to come here. You do that and that makes you feel more comfortable. The hard part is, you don't get complacent. That's where you have to still do your work and put your time in to be ready to pitch."
There doesn't seem to be a change in attitude in Cubs camp from last year.
"It's hard to fix something that's not broke," Lester said. "It's pretty much the same as usual. ... That's our team goal again to win a World Series, as it is every year."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast.