LOS ANGELES — The Jon-Lester-has-the-yips story really gained momentum on “Sunday Night Baseball,” ESPN setting the agenda for Cubs-Cardinals during the 2015 season opener.
Almost five months later — and back in the national showcase as a legitimate playoff contender — the Cubs still don’t have any easy answers or a long-term fix.
David Ross still looks like an obvious part of any solution, and the personal catcher’s absence was noted during Saturday’s 5-2 loss at Dodger Stadium. With Ross on the family medical emergency list, the Dodgers stole four bases off Lester and Miguel Montero, who also got called for catcher’s interference.
Lester and Ross have worked together so long that they almost have their own language. Montero, a two-time All-Star, admitted that “I was a little bit lost” with some of the signs. Manager Joe Maddon had to visit the mound during the fourth inning to get everyone on the same page and reinforce how certain messages would be relayed from the dugout. During his postgame media session, Maddon said it looked like Montero was rushing his throws. When a reporter mentioned that observation, Montero gave an honest answer.
“I’ve got to rush,” Montero said. “There’s not much I can do. I try to do my best. When you know they’re going to go and you still have to make a perfect throw to maybe throw the guy out, as a catcher, you just try to do your best. And just try to be as quick as possible. There’s not much you can do.”
Ross can’t play forever. He is 38 years old and has one more season left on his contract (at $2.5 million for 2016). His outgoing personality and leadership skills make him look like a future manager.
If the Cubs have any plans to get Lester more comfortable throwing to someone else — or find another way to get Montero’s bat in a playoff game — it sounds like it will probably have to wait.
“You know me,” Maddon said, “I’m just more concerned about short-term right now.
“Long-term, you can talk about spring trainings and conversations and different work that you can do to hopefully get the issue resolved over the next year or so.
“For right now, let’s get David back. Let’s get David back there with him and just play it from there. That’s my only concern right now. Honestly, I haven’t even considered beyond that.”
Lester’s issues throwing over to first base and controlling the running game didn’t stop him from earning two World Series rings with the Red Sox and getting that six-year, $155 million contract after an intense bidding war.
Lester has been a very good pitcher in the first season of that megadeal, going 8-10 with a 3.59 ERA while getting little run support, giving this rebuilding project some credibility and setting a professional tone inside the clubhouse.
“I pretty much followed his plan, which I did agree (with) on most of the hitters,” Montero said. “Obviously, we probably haven’t worked enough together to be 100-percent confident in what I call, which is OK. It’s understandable. For the most part, we worked pretty (well together). I think we were on the same page, for the most part.”
It’s not like this happened overnight. Maddon saw it up close while managing the Rays in the American League East.
“We were aware of all of that,” Maddon said. “You still got to hit the guy. There’s different nuances of the whole thing that even if a guy gets on, even if you were to steal, it just depends on the number of outs, who’s hitting, the different things you can do to prevent a run, plus Jonny’s abilities.
“Like Dwight Gooden, when he pitched for the Mets, it was stolen base after stolen base against the guy. But let’s go ahead and drive them in. That’s another issue. So I know it’s out there, obviously, prominently. To this point, I thought we’d done a pretty good job of dealing with it.
“We’ll get David back here. We’ll get it all straightened out.”