The shorthand version of Jon Lester’s first half-season with the Cubbies: $155 million; dead arm; the yips; 0-for-66.
At least that’s how it felt sometimes…Lester dealing with the weight of that big contract…getting shut down in spring training…being picked apart by ESPN on Opening Night for not throwing over to first base…and finally notching his first hit in the big leagues.
It’s not that Lester has been a head case or a lost cause or a huge disappointment. It’s just that Theo Epstein’s front office had waited years to sign a marquee free agent and overpay a No. 1 starter, and even Lester will admit he hasn’t pitched like an ace yet.
The White Sox ambushed Lester on Saturday afternoon, scoring two runs only three hitters into the game and forcing him to throw 25 pitches. And that felt like game over with the way Chris Sale has been pitching and this lineup has been hitting. The biggest crowd at Wrigley Field so far this season (41,596) sat through the rain and a 5-1 loss that almost seemed predictable.
Lester has admitted to maybe trying too hard to make a good impression in April (6.23 ERA), and having to learn the National League after spending his entire career with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland A’s, and making the adjustments to a new city and a media market that sees him through the lens of that megadeal.
“Just excuses,” Lester said. “It doesn’t matter. It’s the same thing. It’s nine innings. You have to get three outs in an inning. It’s baseball. It’s just an excuse. I won’t ever use that as any fallback or anything like that.
“The game doesn’t change, whether you’re pitching in the AL or the NL. Yeah, you have a pitcher as opposed to a DH. But other than that, it’s all the same. Fastballs down-and-away located does the same thing as it does in the American League.”
Lester’s half-season could be summed up against an underachieving White Sox lineup. The lefty settled down and cruised through the middle of the game, striking out the side in the sixth inning.
But Kris Bryant’s wild throwing error from third base contributed to a three-run seventh inning. Lester finished with eight strikeouts against zero walks and still gave up five runs, four earned, in seven innings.
Lester is now 4-8 with a 3.59 ERA and 109 strikeouts through 110-plus innings. He hasn’t won a game since May 16, though the Cubs have scored three runs total across his last six starts. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the St. Louis Cardinals on July 6 — and the Cubs still lost 6-0.
“There’s some good in there, there’s some bad,” Lester said. “There’s a little bit of everything. Obviously, I’ll be the first one to tell you guys I haven’t thrown the ball (as well as) I’ve been able to in the past. I’ve had some spurts here and there.
“I had a really good May (1.76 ERA), a terrible June (5.74 ERA). But I feel like I’ve been OK since then. I feel like I’ve been OK to the point where I look up at the stats a little bit and kind of wonder what’s going on.”
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To be clear, Lester doesn’t come across as defensive or overmatched. He’s usually refreshingly honest. At times, he’s looked absolutely dominant on the mound. His professionalism and championship pedigree brings needed credibility into the clubhouse and this overall rebuilding project.
The Cubs (46-40) still want more than that right now, because they know the history of 31-year-old pitchers on long-term deals and feel like they have the chance to do some damage this year.
“His stuff was just inconsistent,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’d be the first guy to tell you that. But that’s why you always hear the term: ‘It’s a long year.’ All of a sudden, guys like that find it and they can get on a severe roll. And then by the end of the season, the numbers are outrageous. Let’s just see how it plays.”