ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Even in the good times, Jon Lester doesn’t really have great body language, trying to channel his emotions, use that competitive anger and stay focused on the next pitch, so there was no way for him to hide his frustrations this time.
Lester handed the ball to manager Joe Maddon on Wednesday night at Tropicana Field and trudged back toward the visiting dugout with his head down and his team down six runs in the fifth inning of an 8-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays that left the Cubs searching for answers.
What’s wrong with Lester? That question snapped the Cubs out of a seven-game winning streak, the talk about playoff rotations and the computer simulations that project the defending World Series champs as a 90-something percent lock to make the postseason again.
The good news for the Cubs is the Milwaukee Brewers failed to gain ground heading into the four-game showdown that begins Thursday night at Miller Park. The magic number to clinch the National League Central is eight after Milwaukee’s 6-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But it’s difficult to see the Cubs going on a long October run when Lester – a three-time World Series champion and the Game 1 starter in all three playoff rounds last year – looks this lost. Since coming off the disabled list – the Cubs termed it left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue – Lester has made four September starts vs. non-contenders and given up 27 hits and 12 walks in 21.1 innings.
“We’re not going to go make excuses and say that’s why I didn’t throw the ball well,” Lester said. “Physically, it’s September. You’re going to have ups and downs. I feel fine. There’s no lingering effects from anything. No, there’s nothing physically wrong.”
Are you convinced Lester is 100 percent healthy?
“He’s not saying anything,” Maddon said. “I don’t see any grimace and I don’t see any like hitch in the giddy-up. I don’t see anything. Since he’s come back, he’s had some wins, but none of them have been necessarily Jon Lester sharp.”
At a time when the $155 million ace is supposed to be building toward October, Lester didn’t have any rhythm – Steven Souza Jr. launched a 92-mph fastball over the fence in left-center field in the first inning – or the stuff to finish off the Rays (zero strikeouts, 23 batters faced).
Lester did his John Lackey impression in the second inning, screaming, stomping and staring when Brad Miller chopped a ball that bounced past first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s glove and into right field for a 2-0 lead.
The Rays have enough history with Lester after their battles against the Boston Red Sox in the American League East and appeared to try to get in his head. Peter Bourjos dropped a perfect bunt, Kevin Kiermaier knocked another RBI single up the middle and Lester escaped only when second baseman Javier Baez started an inning-ending double play on the other side of the bag.
By the fifth inning, Lester was hesitating and making two wobbly throws while Souza stole second and third base. Lester then drilled Evan Longoria’s left foot with a pitch and walked Logan Morrison to load the bases. Wilson Ramos finally knocked out Lester after 86 pitches with a two-run single into right field.
“Obviously, there is some concern,” Maddon said. “I don’t have any reason to give you – other than he had a tough night – and I don’t know why. It just looked different from the side, because we’re normally used to seeing sharp-cornered pitches and a little bit better velocity with everything. It just wasn’t there.”
Lester now has only two regular-season starts left to find it and fix this.
“I’m not worried about it,” Lester said. “When you pitch a long time, and you play this game a long time, you’re going to have the ups and downs. Anybody can have one good year. It’s a matter of going out there and consistently doing it.
“You got to take the good with the bad. We’ll make an adjustment and figure it out. The good thing is it’s not physical. It’s just a matter of getting back to what has been working for me in the past and making those adjustments.”