Jon Lester hadn't been Jon Lester for a while.
The last time the high-priced free-agent left-hander won a game was May 16. He had an 0-3 record, his team had an 0-4 record in the previous four games he pitched. In his previous two starts, Lester had given up 11 runs in 9 1/3 innings.
That's why in Sunday's 2-1 extra-inning win over the Reds, it was refreshing to see the Cubs' big-money ace be himself again.
“The results were there," Lester said after the game. "We can all sit up here and say, hitters, ‘Swinging the bat well, just hitting the ball right at people.’ Pitchers, same thing. You feel like you make good pitches, but they find holes. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you don’t get outs.
"Tonight was better. Tonight was back to being me."
Sunday, Lester was the guy the Cubs thought he was going to be when they gave him that monstrous contract this offseason. He pretty much silenced the Reds over his seven innings of work, allowing just one run on five hits. He retired 20 of the 25 hitters he faced and squashed the limited uprisings.
Lester allowed just two base runners through the first five innings. The only real thorn in his side was Reds speedster Billy Hamilton. Hamilton reached on a single in the top of the third and stole his way to third base with two outs. For Lester, who's had well-documented struggles with keeping base runners at bay, Hamilton was untouchable on the basepaths. But the pitcher coaxed a groundout to end the threat and leave Hamilton at third base.
In the sixth, Hamilton led off with a double, and after another steal of third, he scored this time when Brandon Phillips singled him in. With a big inning looming, Lester's defense bailed him out. A Joey Votto double followed the Phillips hit, and Phillips attempted to score from first. But Chris Coghlan threw the ball in for Starlin Castro, who relayed on to David Ross, with the catcher applying a sensational tag on Phillips for the out at home. From there, Lester refocused and got a pair of flyouts to end another Reds threat.
It was a solid redemption after a pair of very un-Lester starts, losses to the Marlins and Tigers in which he was knocked around the yard.
“I think any time you have two starts like I did, you’re going to have some mental questions, you’re going to have some doubts," Lester said Sunday. "You’re going to have one of those, sitting there going, ‘OK, what am I doing wrong?’ You just have to kind of believe in what you’ve done, or what I’ve done, in the past and what’s kind of gotten me here. There’s a few mechanical things that we’ve been working on, just trying to have better direction, better line. I’m getting the ball to the side of the plate that I want to get it to. … Any time you have a couple bad ones, you always kind of sit back and go, ‘OK, what’s going on? What am I doing?’ … But as you get closer to your start, you kind of forget those things and worry about executing after that.”
Hamilton proved to be the only real problem for Lester on Sunday. The Cincinnati speedster swiped a career-high five bases, tying a Reds record. He stole third base three times.
Lester might not have been able to slow down Hamilton, but the pitcher admitted that that's a pretty impossible task.
“You don’t," Lester responded when asked how one contains Hamilton. "You worry about the hitter, plain and simple. How many times did (Edwin Jackson) pick over there? Two, three times, and he still stole second, stole third. A guy like that, the biggest thing is you try to keep the guys that are at the plate from driving him in. That’s what it comes down to. The guy’s speed — he outruns the baseball. I haven’t seen many guys do that.
"It doesn’t matter how quick you are to home plate, it doesn’t matter how many times you pick over to first, he flat-out outruns the baseball. Nothing you can do with that. You can’t defend it. You just hope he doesn’t get a great jump or slips or something and the catcher throws the ball right on the bag and he just happens to slide into the glove. A guy like that, you’ve got to worry about the hitter, you’ve got to worry about not giving up the basehit to those guys. He’s going to run around the bases. It is what it is.”
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But even with Hamilton creating havoc for Lester and the Cubs, the left-hander still managed to turn in a pretty sparkling outing. After a terrific May in which Lester posted a dazzling 1.76 ERA, June got off to a rocky start. But perhaps Sunday's performance was the one to get things back on track.
It was certainly a good game for the Cubs as a whole, getting their second walk-off win in as many days.
Lester's happy to be a part of this team, and if his goal is to lead the pitching rotation into October, outings like Sunday's will help make that a reality.
“Mentally focused. We had the two-and-a-half-hour rain delay last night. Guys came in and kept battling. We could’ve easily — especially with a young team not used to that stuff — could have cashed it in and shown up when the game started and got our butts kicked. But we kept battling," Lester said. "I keep saying it over and over, just to see these guys night in and night out battle. We have good, quality ABs. It seems like every night we keep our team in the ballgame as far as pitching. And our defense has gotten a lot better as the year’s gone on. Guys I think are just feeling more comfortable with where they’re at. But these guys have done a great job from top to bottom.”