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Cubs 6, White Sox 5: Jon Lester seems ready for Opening Day

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The Cubs lefthander looked sharp in his first spring outing.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

MESA, ArizonaJon Lester was named the Cubs’ Opening Day starter Tuesday, to the surprise of few, and then he went out and threw almost two solid innings, when originally he was scheduled for just one. That was just a small part of the Cubs’ 6-5 win over the White Sox, so let’s get right to it.

Lester struck out three White Sox, issued a pair of walks and until Nicky Delmonico squared him up with two out and one on in the second inning, it looked like Lester would finish off two innings. As it was, he threw 31 pitches and would have gotten out of it with no runs charged to him, except Daury Torrez, over from the minor-league camp, gave up an RBI single to Yolmer Sanchez.

Before all that, Ian Happ hit his second leadoff homer of the spring:

Happ also doubled. Small sample size, but he seems to be taking to the leadoff spot. It’s early, but as of now I’d think Joe Maddon will wind up using Happ as a leadoff hitter, at least against righthanders.

That homer started off a four-run inning off Sox righthander Carson Fulmer, who was the Sox’ first-round pick in 2015 — chosen one pick before the Cubs took Happ. This is a stark reminder of how Theo & Co.’s draft strategy has paid off. Focusing on hitters has brought several excellent hitters to the major leagues as Cubs, including Happ, who finished eighth in Rookie of the Year voting last year. Meanwhile, Fulmer has made 15 appearances (five starts) with a 5.40 ERA and 1.371 WHIP and it’s still not clear that he’ll make the Sox rotation this year.

So focusing on hitters in the draft and trading for pitchers or signing them as free agents has worked for the Cubs. That’s not to say that the Cubs shouldn’t be developing their own pitchers, and there are some that are beginning to come through the system. But as a draft strategy, this is clearly working for the Cubs.

A two-run homer off Dario Alvarez in the third, hit by Matt Davidson, made it 4-3 while Sox middle relief from Hector Santiago shut down the Cubs for three innings. The Cubs plated two in the fifth, one on a double by Willson Contreras [VIDEO]:

And the second on an RBI single by Victor Caratini.

The Sox scored a pair off Dillon Maples, who had some trouble with command, issuing a pair of walks. This has been Maples’ issue most of his career and he’ll have time to work on it at Iowa to begin the season, I’m pretty sure.

Then it was up to the minor leaguers to finish it off, which they did, helped in pat by a slick double play in the eighth, and Taylor Davis throwing out pinch-runner Adam Engel in the ninth. Oscar De La Cruz picked up the save, for whatever that’s worth. We also saw old friend Chris Volstad throw the eighth for the Sox. Volstad, who made six appearances for the Sox (two starts) late last year, is trying again to make their staff. Believe it or not, he’s only 31.

Regarding the pace of play, which I mentioned in yesterday’s recap, it was awful again in this one. Yes, granted there were 21 hits and nine walks in this game, but it still just felt slow.

I spent a little time during this game, at various intervals, timing the gap between pitches when the bases were empty. It didn’t seem pitchers were dawdling, not too much, and the batters in general were in the batter’s box ready to go — except in the ninth inning, when one Sox batter asked for, and was granted, time out when De La Cruz was already in his motion. Umpires aren’t really supposed to do that.

Anyway, my conclusion is: Players aren’t deliberately slowing the pace down. However — neither do they seem to be doing anything to pick up the pace of play, either. We’ll see if this picks up later in the spring.

We still have yet to see the following relievers who will be part of the Opening Day bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Justin Grimm and Mike Montgomery. Montgomery will piggyback with Kyle Hendricks in Wednesday’s game; will we see the others soon?

And regarding the rest of the rotation:

It seems pretty obvious that Tyler Chatwood will be the No. 5 starter, and it would make sense to not have Jose Quintana as No. 2, in order to split up the two lefthanders. So it’s really a question of whether Yu Darvish or Hendricks follows Lester in the season’s second game. There’s still plenty of time to make adjustments, and all of the starters should have five more outings (six total, for the three who have yet to start), so all of them should be going six innings by their final spring outing.

Attendance watch: 10,769 paid to see this one. That’s the second game in a row more than 4,000 below a sellout. Total attendance for three games: 35,611, an average of 11,870. This year is shaping up as the smallest Cubs spring total attendance since back when they were in HoHoKam Park.

There are a number of factors here: cool weather, the very early start to the spring schedule, and high ticket prices.

Wednesday’s game against the Athletics at 2:05 p.m. CT will be carried online at cubs.com — no TV Wednesday afternoon.