WASHINGTON – Would you pitch to Bryce Harper? Jon Lester doesn’t have to answer that hypothetical question now, but it won’t be an abstract concept if the Cubs and Washington Nationals continue on this collision course toward October.
Lester’s turn in the rotation didn’t come up during last month’s four-game sweep at Wrigley Field – where the Cubs walked Harper 13 times – and he won’t face Washington during this marquee three-game series at Nationals Park.
While Harper’s OPS has dipped almost 100 points since he landed in Chicago in early May, Lester is heating up, named the National League’s player of the week after throwing 15 scoreless innings – with 16 strikeouts and zero walks – in beating the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves.
“It depends on the game situation,” Lester said Monday. “He’s the MVP. You always have to respect that. I don’t think that’s a matter of backing down or not taking the challenge. But at that time of year, it’s a matter of pitching smart. I feel like we didn’t do that last year with Murphy.”
That would be Daniel Murphy – the Mr. October who kept crushing the ball while the New York Mets swept the Cubs out of the NL championship series. Murphy is now hitting cleanup behind Harper – instead of Ryan Zimmerman – a lineup switch Nationals manager Dusty Baker made during the next series after the Cubs treated Harper like Barry Bonds. Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark told reporters the Cubs played “scared baseball” while Baker compared it to “Hack-a-Shaq.”
“(Murphy) beat us that (playoff) series,” Lester said, “and we didn’t recognize that early enough to make the next guy beat us.
“That’s not wussing out on anything or not taking the challenge. That’s just being smart and understanding the game and trying to make the next guy prove that he can do it.”
Lester took on the challenge of joining a last-place team and a franchise that hasn’t won a World Series in more than a century, the Cubs betting $155 million on his left arm, big-game experience and sense of purpose.
Lester looks more relaxed in Year 2 of that megadeal, going 8-3 with a 1.89 ERA through 13 starts and looking like someone the Nationals wouldn’t want to face in October.
“Absolutely, you always kind of look around,” Lester said. “You look at the divisions and who’s leading and all that stuff. But right now, we still have a long ways to go.
“I wouldn’t count out the Mets in that division, especially with their pitching staff. And then it always comes down to health, whoever is the healthiest at the end of the year.
“There’s really nobody in that (Washington) lineup that I haven’t faced (before). We’ll have reports and we’ll have plans and all that stuff, so if I do get to face them later on down the road, then we’ll have an idea of what we’re trying to do.”