<
>

Jon Lester will start for Cubs on Opening Day for third time in four seasons

MESA, Ariz. -- For the third time in four seasons, Chicago Cubs lefty Jon Lester will start on Opening Day as manager Joe Maddon announced the decision before Lester's spring debut on Tuesday.

"Pretty cool," Lester said after pitching 1.2 innings against the White Sox. "Anytime the manager picks you to do that it's a huge honor. I'm excited. It's probably the earliest I've ever been told."

Like the rest of the team, Lester feels refreshed after a little bit longer offseason than last year, when the Cubs broke a 108-year championship drought. A season removed from the "hangover" he says the team is coming together quickly.

"Guys are opening up a little more," Lester said. "It's our fourth year together. I feel like I've gotten older and they've grown up."

He might be a year older, but Lester doesn't think he's over the hill -- even after a down year in 2017. He spent time on the disabled list, fell short of 200 innings and compiled a 4.33 ERA. Most of it can be chalked up to expending so much energy on winning the World Series in 2016.

"Last year was 'Hey, we need to slow down, we need to be ready more or less for May than April,'" Lester stated. "For a few of us, that put us behind the eight ball. I don't think we realized that until the end of the year."

Lester admits to having a little "chip on his shoulder" as 2018 kicks off. More than anything, he wants that 200 innings back. He missed out on that goal for just the second time in the past 11 seasons.

"Starters need to be more accountable and go deeper into games," Lester opined. "I don't think out of a No.1 or No. 2 guy, that 170 or 180 innings is enough. ... I think it's terrible for the game. I think it puts too much pressure on your bullpen. They're on call every night. I feel like there is a time and a place (for that). The playoffs are a different animal.

"The season is too long to rely on your starters to go five, maybe six. There are too many outs for those guys to get to have them fresh and ready to go."

As for being named Opening Day starter, it wasn't a hard decision for Maddon, who admitted early-season matchups were part of the equation. By pitching Opening Day against the Miami Marlins, Lester will miss the run-happy Milwaukee Brewers in the season's third series of the year. More than anything, Maddon simply believes in his workhorse and the leadership he's already shown in camp.

"There is an organic change in him that I'm loving," Maddon said. "He's feeling this leadership thing but he's not forcing it whatsoever. ... You grow into this spot and people want to follow you."

When told of Maddon's comments, Lester downplayed his effect and simply focused on his game. He thinks a rebound season is in order.

"I like my odds to have another good year," Lester said.