On the surface, Jon Lester turned in another sub-optimal performance for a guy who signed a six-year, $155 million contract in the offseason.
The left-hander lasted 5 1/3 innings in the Cubs' 5-2 loss to San Diego Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field, allowing three runs on six hits with two walks and four strikeouts. But Lester, catcher David Ross and manager Joe Maddon observed some encouraging signs and figure the former Red Sox ace’s first strong start is just around the corner.
“He made a lot of progress today, so it was a good day,” Maddon said. “He sets high standards for himself and I understand that, I really do appreciate that. He was better, next time out, you should see him beginning to put it all together. That would have been the conclusion of spring training for him today.”
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Lester — who missed time in spring training with a dead arm — threw his fastball between 92 and 96 miles per hour and mixed his pitched well, throwing 36 fastballs, 26 cutters, 13 sinkers, 11 changeups and 10 curveballs, according to BrooksBaseball.net. He induced eight groundouts against only two flyouts, and San Diego’s damage would’ve been limited to Will Middlebrooks’ two-run homer — which Ross took the blame for, saying he should’ve called for an outside pitch — if not for Will Venable’s jam-shot single off Brian Schlitter in the sixth.
While Lester was positive about those results, he was frustrated he wasn’t able to make it through the sixth inning. The left-hander threw 97 pitches, 57 for strikes, as San Diego worked enough deep counts to keep him from staying in the game as long as he wanted. The first three innings taxed him the most, as Lester needed 55 pitches to work through those.
“It’s just kind of the nature that I have always tried to deal with and we’ll try to minimize those,” Lester said, referring to Padres hitters fouling off plenty of pitches. “But I can’t go out there and try to miss foul balls or miss bats. I have to keep attacking and that was better today and just keep going with where we’re at right now and keep rolling downhill on that.”
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The first three starts to Lester’s Chicago career haven’t been anything special: 15 2/3 innings, 24 hits and a 6.89 ERA. He hasn’t worked past the sixth inning in any of his starts — this after he threw more than six innings in 23 of his 32 starts between Boston and Oakland last year. He wasn’t able to deliver a lengthy outing on Sunday with the Cubs’ bullpen needing a rest following Saturday’s 11-inning game.
The 31-year-old Lester’s track record and sterling reputation earned him that six-year megacontract from the Cubs in the offseason, and it’s also part of the reason why Maddon & Co. don’t have many long-term worries about him. Ross hasn’t seen Lester’s frustration affect his pitching during these early-season struggles, which is what you’d expect from a veteran who knows not to read too much into three starts when the velocity and action is there on his pitches.
“I’m accountable for my actions and my actions right now are not where they need to be and that will change,” Lester said. “I’ve done this for a pretty long time and I understand where we’re at. Now it’s a matter of making those in-game adjustments when I need to. Today was a lot better.”