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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.

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Washington Nationals’ Juan Soto (left shoulder) goes on 10-day injured list

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The Washington Nationals placed star outfielder Juan Soto on the 10-day injured list with a strained left shoulder, the team announced Tuesday afternoon.

Soto, 22, will have to sit out at least the next seven games; the Nationals have three off days during his IL stint.

The team recalled outfielder Yadiel Hernandez from their alternate site to replace Soto on the roster.

Soto is hitting .300 in 14 games this season.

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Slumping New York Yankees shake up lineup against Atlanta Braves

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NEW YORK — New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone made three changes to the starting lineup of his slumping team against Atlanta on Tuesday night, inserting first baseman Mike Ford and left fielder Mike Tauchman and giving Brett Gardner his second start this season in center field.

DJ LeMahieu moved back to second base from first, and center fielder Aaron Hicks, left fielder Clint Frazier and second baseman Rougned Odor moved to the bench.

New York has lost five straight games, dropping to 5-10 for its worst start since 1997.

The switch-hitting Hicks was batting .160, including 3 for 32 vs. right-handers, Frazier was hitting .167 with no RBI and Odor was batting .125.

Ford was to make his season debut. He was recalled from the alternate training site and took the roster spot of Jay Bruce, who hit .118 and retired Sunday.

Jameson Taillon started for the Yankees, who were starting a stretch of games on 13 consecutive days. Charlie Morton started for Atlanta.

Boone said he might give Hicks another day off Wednesday.

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Infielder Neil Walker retires after 12 MLB seasons

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Veteran infielder Neil Walker announced his retirement Tuesday after 12 major league seasons.

Born in Pittsburgh, he played his first seven seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates before playing for the New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Yankees, Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies over his final five seasons.

Walker, 35, made his announcement on Twitter, writing, “thank you to everyone that helped me in my journey to live out my childhood dream of being a Major Leaguer, I loved & cherished every day.”

The Pirates selected Walker with the 11th-overall pick of the 2004 draft and he went on to hit 93 home runs with 418 RBIs while slashing .272/.338/.431 in 836 games. His best major league season came in 2014 when he hit .271 and set career bests with 23 home runs and 76 RBIs, earning a Silver Slugger award. His 23 home runs broke Bill Mazeroski’s franchise record for home runs in a season by a second baseman.

Walker played for the Phillies during the 2020 pandemic shortened season, appearing in 18 games.

Overall, Walker finishes his major league career with 149 home runs and 609 RBIs and a slash line of .267/.338/.426.



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