Has Jon Lester turned a corner with the Cubs?
The $155-million ace wasn't willing to go that far after Friday night's outing against the Reds, but he and the Cubs saw some positive signs that could point to a turnaround.
Lester picked up a no-decision in the 11-inning 7-3 Cubs win, but did collect his first quality start with the new team, going six innings and allowing three runs on five hits and a walk. He struck out 10 while throwing 104 pitches, lowering his ERA (6.23) and WHIP (1.57) in the process.
That's a step up from his first three starts, in which he gave up 12 earned runs and 24 hits in 15.2 innings.
"His last two innings were his best," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "I keep saying - it's getting better, better, better. It's trending in the right direction. He felt really good. I think he had a lot of fun tonight, which is a good thing."
Lester got out to a rough start, surrendering a single to Reds speed demon Billy Hamilton to lead off the first inning. Hamilton immediately stole second, scooted to third on a wild pitch and then scored on a Joey Votto groundout.
It was Hamilton again in the third, who led off with another single, stole second and third and then scored on a Brandon Phillips groundout.
But Lester settled in after that, allowing only a solo run in the fourth - on a sacrifice fly by Cincinnati shortstop Zack Cozart - and retired the final nine hitters he faced.
"After about the second inning, I got in a little better rhythm," Lester said. "Kept some guys off the bases. That's been kind of the thing that's been plaguing me - just the continued baserunners.
"It was a lot better. Had a better feel for my cutter tonight. I'm learning. New league, new faces, new guys, kind of figuring it out as we go and keep adjusting."
Lester was sidelined for part of spring training with a "dead arm" period and Maddon believes that has played a factor in the southpaw's slow start. The Cubs manager also admitted Lester may have been feeling some pressure from the megadeal he signed as a free agent over the winter.
Lester said he has gotten back on the right track by focusing on the task at hand, instead of looking at the past start or the next outing coming up.
"It's a work in progress," he said. "It's a constant adjustment for me right now. We'll take what I did five days ago into today and what I did today into the next one and we'll just keep building.