PHILADELPHIA -- Jon Lester put his stamp on the Chicago Cubs' latest road trip as the team’s resident fashion advisor. With input from strength and conditioning coach Tim Buss, Lester is the guy who conceived those snazzy NBA warmup outfits with the nicknames on the back that the Cubs are wearing with so much pride this week in Philadelphia.
Lester’s personal model features the designation “Left-Hander" in red letters across the back. The Steve Carlton-esque simplicity of the nickname reflects Lester’s status as a revered veteran in the Chicago clubhouse.
But even nine-figure pitchers with World Series rings and All-Star pedigrees know their limits. After throwing 95 pitches over eight shutout innings against the Philadelphia Phillies, Lester would have been entitled to lobby manager Joe Maddon to go out for the ninth. He refrained from arguing too much because he’s respectful of the decision-making hierarchy and knows a futile pursuit when he sees one.
“I told Joe I was fine (to go back out there). But I also told him that he’s the manager," Lester said Monday night. “I’ve tried before with him, but I think I’ve won maybe once in two years. When he shakes my hand, I know it’s pretty much done, so there’s no point in arguing. Like I’ve always said, the manager makes those decisions. The players don’t."
The Chicago bullpen made things a little too interesting when Justin Grimm and Hector Rondon combined to turn a 6-0 lead into a 6-4 squirmer. But the Cubs held on to win the series opener, improve their record to 40-16 and begin a nine-game swing through Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington on an upbeat note.
The Cubs became the fastest team to reach 40 victories since the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who rode rookie of the year and MVP performances from Ichiro Suzuki to 116 victories and an American League West title before losing to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series.
The Cubs should have known it would be a fun night at the yard when they arrived at Citizens Bank Park to perfect weather and the sight of Charles Barkley swapping stories and yukking it up with Maddon in the visiting manager’s office. Barkley took the frivolity to another level when he stepped in the cage for a couple of swings before the Cubs took batting practice.
Spoiler alert: He’s no Madison Bumgarner.
“I was trying to compare it to the golf swings I’ve seen him take in the past, and I feel like the baseball swing will come around faster than the golf swing," Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward said.
The guys at the top of the Chicago batting order might have been more inspired by Sir Charles than they let on. Dexter Fowler, Heyward, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo went a combined 10-for-18 in the Nos. 1 through 4 spots, and the Cubs took a 1-0 lead in the first inning on doubles by Fowler and Bryant. Chicago now has a 25-3 record when the Cubs score first this season.
Heyward, who is gradually looking more comfortable at the plate as the weather heats up, launched a two-run homer off Adam Morgan in the fourth. Even Lester swung the bat with authority, recording a double, a run scored and a long flyout to the opposite field. Not bad for a guy who is hitting .080 (2-for-25) this season.
In his last start, Lester twirled a four-hit complete game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Maddon opted to pull him after eight innings Monday because Lester threw 113 pitches against L.A., and the manager figured he had enough cushion to save the veteran a little wear and tear on a humid night.
“There’s two things you’re looking at there," Maddon said. “Is the shutout that important? That would be a personal goal as opposed to a team goal. The team goal for me was to not have Jon throw many more pitches after 113 his last time out -- and have him spiffy the next time he goes out. It was really an easy decision there."
The only downer of the evening for the Cubs: Jorge Soler, who had been picking it up offensively of late, suffered a hamstring injury while sprinting down the line on a base hit and will undergo an MRI on Tuesday. If the injury necessitates a trip to the disabled list, the Cubs could dip into the Triple-A Iowa roster and bring up Albert Almora or Matt Murton, both of whom are hitting above .320. The ability of Bryant and Ben Zobrist to play the outfield gives the Cubs the freedom to go in several directions if Soler is out a while.
“You hate to see anybody getting hurt, but now of all times, when Jorge is coming around to being Jorge," Heyward said. “It’s frustrating. It was just a hustle play and it happened, and it sucks."
In the overall scheme of things, Soler’s injury is probably just another blip for a Chicago team that keeps on rolling. From their travel garb to their gaudy record, the Cubs are raising spiffy to a whole new level.