Cubs

With playoffs looming, is Jon Lester back where he needs to be?

If Jon Lester is going to continue the recent tradition of taking the ball for every Game 1 of a Cubs postseason series, he's in a good spot.

The veteran southpaw tossed five shutout innings Saturday in a 9-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field in his final tune-up before the playoffs. 

That now makes just one earned run on nine hits and a pair of walks in 11 innings over the last week for Lester, a far cry from the 14 earned runs he gave up in 21.1 innings in his first four starts since returning from the disabled list on Sept. 2.

Lester struck out seven Reds and walked none, using 75 pitches to get through the five innings, a total Cubs manager Joe Maddon believes is a "theoretically perfect" number.

So is Lester back to where he needs to be?

"I feel good," he said. "The last two have been a lot better as far as being able to repeat and command the baseball and throw those different pitches. Kinda got back to throwing a lot more fastballs. But obviously, the teams and the guys that you face dictate that as well with what you're trying to do.

"It feels good to be crisp. ... Good to have good command. Mixed in all our pitches and threw some pitches in different counts that we normally don't throw. So it was good. Had some weak contact. They hit a couple balls hard, but guys made some good plays on'em, so that was good."

The Cubs are still mulling over who their Game 1 starter is Friday in Washington D.C., but it appears as if Lester and Kyle Hendricks are the two options with Maddon already confirming Jake Arrieta would be pushed back and Jose Quintana joining Arrieta in Wednesday's simulated game.

"I don't make those decisions," Lester said. "I told somebody the other day, if they so choose to make me Game 1, obviously that's a huge honor, a huge responsibility to put on your shoulders and go out there and try to get your team off to the best start.

"But if I'm in any of the other games, go out there and compete, just like I would any other start."

Maddon said there are still a "couple moving parts" to nail down before the Cubs make their final decision.

"I hope it's not complex. I don't like complex; I just like simplex," Maddon said, smirking.

Lester finishes the season with a 4.33 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, his worst yearly totals since 2012 (4.82 ERA, 1.38 WHIP). 2017 also marked only the second time over the last decade Lester has not reached the 200-inning plateau in a season.

But even for a guy who has a career 2.63 ERA in 133.2 postseason innings spanning 22 games, Lester admits he has some anxiety before every start.

Whether he goes Game 1 or Game 2 next weekend in D.C., he'll have Sunday through Thursday to go through his normal between-starts routine.

"I don't really get anxious until the day of," Lester said. "I think I'm so engrossed in my routine and what I'm doing and what I'm trying to prepare for.

"And then when you get to that day, it's kinda 'OK, I don't know what to do.' And then I have to pitch. That's when the anxiety and the nervousness kicks in."