In the Cubs’ biggest game of the season, Jon Lester was completely on board with being pulled after only six innings and 90 pitches. In fact, to an extent, it was his own idea.
Upon returning to the Cubs’ dugout after David Ross caught Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor stealing to end the sixth, Lester told pitching coach Chris Bosio that he had been “grinding for the last couple innings.” Lester was told he would pitch batter to batter if he came back out in the seventh, but the 32-year-old left-hander figured it’d be better to hand the game over to the bullpen in a clean inning. So when Maddon informed him he wouldn't return for the seventh inning, he understood the decision.
“Why let me go out and face a guy — if I give up a hit or a walk or whatever, you're going to pull me anyway, and now you put (the bullpen) in a situation,” Lester said. “So I left it up to Joe, and Joe made a decision, and that was the decision. I'm happy it worked out for us.”
For Lester, it was far more about the stressful nature of having to perfectly execute every pitch he threw facing a 3-1 series deficit rather than the total count he had.
Lester was effective over those 90 pitches, though, allowing two runs on four hits with no walks and five strikeouts. Jose Ramirez blasted a second inning home run, but came on a well-placed fastball on the low and inside corner (in other words, Lester just got beat on a good pitch).
Before the 2016 postseason, Lester averaged 105.5 pitches in his previous 14 playoff starts and never threw fewer than 91. He’s only thrown more than 100 pitches once in the 2016 playoffs — in a relatively stress-free evening in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series — and is averaging about 92 pitches per start. So on the surface, it seemed a little curious that Maddon would pull his grizzled ace for rookie C.J. Edwards in the seventh to face Mike Napoli, Carlos Santana and Jose Ramirez, a trio of hitters that combined to blast 79 home runs in the regular season.
Lester’s grind, though, certainly was apparent in his final two frames. The fifth inning was a stressful one, as Carlos Santana launched a leadoff double and found himself on third base with one out after Jose Ramirez’s groundout. Lester struck out Brandon Guyer before getting Roberto Perez to ground out to end the threat.
The sixth inning was even more strenuous, as Rajai Davis singled, stole second and scored on Lindor’s line drive single to center. Lester got out of it thanks to what could be the final play of Ross’ career, a 2-4 caught stealing of Lindor.
Instead of pushing things, Lester was honest with his coaching staff about where he was mentally and physically. That goes as another example of how the Cubs have banded together in their efforts to bring a championship to Clark and Addison for the first time since 1908.
So instead of a me-first mindset to take care of things himself, Lester was willing to hand the game over to the Cubs’ bullpen, which thanks to Aroldis Chapman’s magnificent 2 1/3 scoreless innings sealed a season-saving victory.
“You're just grinding from pitch one,” Lester said. “You're trying to make the perfect pitch every time, and at the same time still be aggressive.
“So, yeah, it's a grind. I mean, that's makes (the postseason) fun at the same time. Because I know, hey, I've got to be locked in in order to get through this lineup a couple times. So I'm just fortunate enough to get through that a couple times with just a couple runs and still keep our team in the lead there.”