Cubs expect Jon Lester’s first good start to come soon


Cubs expect Jon Lester’s first good start to come soon

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.”

[MORE: Jon Lester, Cubs can’t overcome Padres in rubber match loss]

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 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.”

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

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.”

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Cole Hamels' dominant start to his Cubs career continued on Friday in stellar fashion, and with some considerable help from his infield.

The 34-year-old veteran not only pitched seven innings of five-hit ball without allowing a run, but induced five ground ball double plays. The Cubs finished with a staggering seven double plays in a 1-0 win at the Pirates on Friday.

The last time the Cubs turned five double plays was in 1985. 

All five hits Hamels gave up were groundball singles. The 16 groundballs induced is the most for a Cubs pitcher this year.

After Hamels exited after seven innings, the Cubs got double plays in the eighth, on a line drive double play with Jorge De La Rosa on the mound, and ninth, on a groundball induced by Jesse Chavez to end the game.

Hamels was initially brought in to provide depth to a struggling rotation and ease the pain of Yu Darvish being unavailable. But Hamels has now started an honest debate over who should be the Cubs' starter in Game 1 of the postseason. He has been otherworldly since joining the Cubs, with an 0.72 ERA, three wins and one no-decision (the Cubs won and he had nine strikeouts). 

The 1-0 win over the Pirates gives the Cubs more breathing room in the NL Central. The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday, pushing the Cubs lead to 4.5 games in the division.

And the Hamels hot-streak comes at an excellent time for the North Siders, who took in Jon Lester's gem of an outing on Thursday, where he went six innings with no earned runs and eight strikeouts in a win against the Pirates. The Cubs starting pitching seems to be turning the corner, and with three straight series against sub-.500 teams following their series in Pittsburgh, this could be the beginning of a great run of outings that carries the Cubs confidently into the postseason.

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season.