The changeup dropped out of the strike zone on the inside third of the plate, disjointing Luis Urías’ swing. His hands pulled across the plate rather than through the plane of the pitch, without a hope for contact.
Jon Lester, who’d just delivered the strikeout pitch, was off the mound and striding toward the dugout as Urías took his bat in his right hand and slammed it into the batter’s box.
In the span of a week, Lester had gone from frustrated to frustrater. In the Cubs’ 1-0 loss at Milwaukee Friday, Lester threw six scoreless innings.
“Tonight, he looked like he was himself,” Cubs manager David Ross said, “and was able just to compete freely.”
After Lester’s last start, Ross was concerned about the pitcher that he’d played with for years.
“Its a lonely place out there on the mound when you don’t feel like you’re on top of your game,” Ross said, “and especially with the resume Jon has.”
The results of Lester’s previous two starts threw a question-mark into the Cubs’ already shorthanded rotation – Lester allowed 10 runs in his last two starts combined. But more concerning were his comments last week.
“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “And when the frustration comes in, obviously there’s not a lot of confidence.”
That didn’t seem to be a problem for Lester on Friday. Just in time for the stretch run of the season and a trip to the playoffs, Lester snapped back. It was his second scoreless performance of the year, beating his previous high of five shutout innings. Lester also recorded a season-high eight strikeouts.
Even Milwaukee’s hits were on good pitches. Avisaíl García got his hands inside a low fastball on the inside third of the plate for a single in the first inning. Later, García and Orlando Arcia reached out of the strike zone to poke outside curveballs into the outfield. And that was it.
Strikeouts were much more common against an in-control Lester. He stuck out Christian Yelich three times, all three swinging, and each on a different pitch. He inspired demonstrations of frustration on strike three, with Urías slamming his bat into the ground and Jacob Nottingham letting out a yell and balling his left hand into a fist.
The most emotion Lester showed was the last strikeout of the fifth inning, as he pitched out of a jam with two runners on and one out.
“It feels like this season I’ll get into situations and not pitch out of them,” Lester said. “It was nice to pitch out of some jams and match zeros with the guy across the way.”
Part of his frustration last week stemmed from watching his work in between starts fail to translate in game. This time around, he focused on recreating the feeling he had in Spring Training when he felt at his best mechanically. What did his release feel like then? His landing? They worked backwards from there.
“Technology’s so great,” Lester said, “but at the same time you can almost dive too much into it, and you’re pulling at straws.”
So, he took a step back.