CHICAGO – On Wednesday, October 1st, 2008, he was bestowed with the honor that signals the arrival of any pitcher in Major League Baseball.
That night, Game 1 of the American League Division Series in Anaheim, Terry Francona gave the ball to Jon Lester to start the opening contest for Red Sox. It was the coming of age for the young lefty who was in his third season in the majors and had already contributed to a World Series title the year before.
“That’s a cool step,” said Lester of getting the Game 1 start in the playoffs. “The torch was kinda passed to me to do that.”
He carried it during those playoffs, the ALDS in 2009, another World Series title run in 2013 with the Red Sox and then the American League Wild Card game during a brief stop in Oakland in 2014. While he didn’t start the NL version of that game in 2015 with the Cubs, he was the first guy on the mound for the Cubs in the NLDS and NLCS that followed.
Three-straight series wins in 2016 en route to a World Series title were all started by Lester as well.
Nine-years and 11 Game 1 starts later, it’s Lester who is now doing the torch-passing in 2017.
Wednesday’s decision by Joe Maddon puts Kyle Hendricks, not the veteran lefty, on the mound to start the NLDS against the Nationals Friday night at Nationals Park. Lester gets Game 2, taking a figurative back seat for at least one night in the Cubs’ rotation.
As someone who appreciated the honor, however, Lester couldn’t have been happier when discussing the opportunity for his younger counterpart on Wednesday.
“Obviously he deserved it,” said Lester of Hendricks, who was 3-1 in his last seven starts with an even 2.00 ERA. “It’s a huge honor to pitch Game 1 in any series. I’m happy for him, this is kinda that next step. It’s a fun step to have.”
Lester is right about Hendricks, who has ascended to the top of the Cubs rotation over the past year with his methodical pitching style. It wasn’t as successful as his near Cy Young campaign in 2016, when he led the NL with a 2.13 ERA and went 16-8 with a pennant-clinching victory in Game 6 of the NLCS, but Hendricks showed steady improvement in the second half after a hand injury in June.
While his ERA finished at 3.03, he had that down to 2.19 in the 13 second half starts to re-establish himself as a shutdown starter. A nagging hamstring to Jake Arrieta, who had a strong second half of his own, along with Lester’s own injury in the second half, cleared the way for the torch to make its way to Hendricks.
“He was probably a guy who threw the ball the best on our staff, from start to finish last year, including playoffs, and nobody talks about him,” said Lester of Hendricks. “I don’t think people know what he did in the NLCS. He should have won two games, he gave up a solo homer to Adrian Gonzalez and lost 1-0. He’s been our solid guy that kinda just hangs out in the background and goes out there and does his job.
“I’m more than thrilled for him. I’m excited for him to get on that stage and perform well.”
Hendricks watched Lester do that well in 2016, going 2-1 in his three Game 1 starts in which he never allowed more than three runs and shutout the Giants in the NLDS opener at Wrigley Field. It’s that example set on the mound, beyond any sort of pep talk or advice, that the new Game 1 starter will take to the mound with him at 6:31 PM central time on Friday at Nationals Park.
“The advice I gained from these older guys, especially Jon, is more watching them,” said Hendricks on Wednesday. “Watching them in the years previous, how they’ve handled these games. Day in and day out, the work that they do, it’s no difference for them when they go into these type of games.
“The atmosphere is going to play and with your adrenaline, you won’t have any problem getting up for it.”
Lester won’t either, even though he’ll be checking out this Game 1 from the dugout.
“At some point somebody’s got to take it over,” said Lester. “I’m really, really happy for him.”
Just as someone was for him.