Jon Lester continues to show how valuable he is to Cubs

Jon Lester continues to show how valuable he is to Cubs

ST. LOUIS — Only Jon Lester could get away with this.

Lester had just delivered pitch No. 99 on a 93-degree night in St. Louis with sweltering humidity.

As Cardinals outfielder Marcell Ozuna rounded first base and headed back to the bag after a base hit, Joe Maddon and Cubs trainer P.J. Mainville were headed out of the dugout to go talk to Lester.

But the Cubs ace and three-time World Series champ waved them off with his glove. 

With that, Maddon and Mainville spun around and headed right back to their posts in the third-base dugout.

Three pitches later, Lester had gotten through the sixth inning and had his quality start.

A moment like that signified the clout Lester carries within the Cubs clubhouse, but it also shows just how different this season has been for the 34-year-old after a rough 2017 campaign.

Lester still finished 13-8 last year and made 32 starts, but he posted his highest ERA (4.33) and WHIP (1.32) since 2012 and his lowest inning total (180.2) since he became a full-time member of a big-league rotation in 2008.

Now, Lester is making one hell of a case for the National League All-Star team, going 8-2 with a 2.38 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and a stabilizing factor in what has been a tumultuous year for the Cubs rotation.

"Yeah, [I feel] completely different," Lester said. "I don't know why, but just wasn't able to recover as well last year as I have in the past. This year, for whatever reason, able to throw my bullpens and take it into my starts.

"Just feel better physically, able to repeat my mechanics and feel strong out there. Just keep doing what I'm doing and hopefully ride it out."

Maddon believed Friday's outing was the best stuff Lester has displayed all year.

Lester didn't necessarily agree, but did concede that it was probably his best outing for his cutter and he loved the late movement he had on that pitch diving in on right-handed hitters.

Maddon also loved how Lester pitched around a couple of Cubs defensive miscues — Kris Bryant committed an error in the second inning and Addison Russell took too much time on a ground ball in the third inning, allowing Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha to reach on an infield single.

Both times, Lester worked through it without any issues and even came into the dugout to tell Bryant he was impressed with the Cubs third baseman keeping the hot-shot grounder in front of him, even if it was an error. If that ball gets by Bryant, the Cardinals have runners on second and third with two outs and it completely changes what Lester can do on the mound, worried about a basehit scoring two runs instead of one or a wild pitch gifting the opposition a free tally.

Maybe that interaction in the dugout helped give Bryant a little boost, as he ended his month-long homerless drought in his next at-bat the following half inning.

This is Year 4 of Lester's six-year, $155 million deal and he's been everything the Cubs have hoped for and more, from his performance on the mound to his impact in the clubhouse.

Where would they be without him this year?

While Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood have put pressure on the bullpen with short outings this season, Lester has pitched at least 6 innings in 6 straight games and has not had an outing shorter than 5 innings since Opening Day (3.1 innings).

"He just continues to trend in the right direction," Maddon said."

Home run ball continues to sting Cubs' starting pitching


Home run ball continues to sting Cubs' starting pitching

Cubs' starting pitchers have been on a roll recently, anchoring the team during its 30-day stretch without a day off. Over each of their last six starts (entering Wednesday), Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and José Quintana have been flat-out dominant.

Mike Montgomery has been stellar lately as well, allowing two runs or less in five of his last six starts. One common trend, though, is that Cubs' starting pitchers have been susceptible to the long ball as of late.

Hamels has allowed five home runs total in his last three starts, including two Wednesday night. The veteran left-hander surrendered a three-run blast in the first inning as well as a two-run shot in the sixth inning.

Lester has not allowed a home run since Aug. 27 against the Mets, but Hendricks has allowed one in two of his last three starts. Quintana allowed two solo homers in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Reds, while Montgomery has given up one in each of his last two starts.

Home runs by the oppposition haven't hurt the Cubs much recently, as they are 18-11 in their last 29 games. The pitching staff has been excellent down the stretch, outside of Wednesday's 9-0 loss.

Even then, though, the offense scored zero runs on one hit, so the three home runs that the pitching staff allowed ultimately did not matter.

Come October, though, it could be something to look out for, when one swing of the bat could change a game or series instantly.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are the Cubs on their way to a World Series?


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are the Cubs on their way to a World Series?

David Haugh, Justin Roman and Jason Goch join Mark Schanowski on the panel. The Cubs keep on rolling at the right time. Will their hot streak carry them to the World Series or will their banged-up bullpen be their downfall? The guys discuss when Mitch Trubisky will stop being a work in progress and Kendall Gill drops by to talk about Jimmy Butler’s trade demand.

Listen to the entire podcast here or in the embedded link below!