Jon Lester knows his body better than anyone.
That’s the line Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy consistently used as the 36-year-old southpaw worked to catch up to the rest of the starting rotation. If Hottovy was going to place that kind of faith in pitcher, Lester was as safe a bet as anyone, even during an unprecedented season.
Then in Sunday's intrasquad scrimmage, Lester’s performance through 2.1 innings rewarded Hottovy’s trust in the veteran.
“He did really good,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said of Lester on Monday. “He was commanding all of his pitches. … Yesterday was only a two-inning outing, but from what I saw he’s looking in good shape.”
In Lester’s first intrasquad game of Summer Camp, he struck out four of the first five batters he faced. He was originally only scheduled to throw two innings, but he kept his pitch count so low that he remained in to start the third. He stepped off the mound after 28 pitches. Lester had only allowed one hit, and even that was dribbler.
“He’s Jon Lester and has had such a good career for a reason,” Hottovy said, “because he’s able to repeat his delivery so well. You see Jon Lester from eight years ago, it’s really similar. One thing we’ve talked about and worked on just delivery-wise is being more athletic and getting back into that rhythm and some of that flow.”
On Sunday, Hottovy was pleased to see Lester “repeat that delivery.”
Hottovy would rather think in terms of pitch-count than innings. But barring unforeseen circumstances, he expects Lester to be ready to throw about five innings by the time the regular season begins.
The Cubs have yet to announce their opening day starter or the order of their rotation.
“We might have a pending test in two days and have to shuffle our entire schedule and rotation,” Hottovy said. “A lot of this is going to be how we get through this next week healthy, with the testing protocols in place. And then we can start really lining up what we want to do when it starts.”
Lester predicted that after Sunday’s intrasquad scrimmage, he’d “start building from there, kind of like a normal spring.”
In some ways, the ramp-up will be normal. Lester will spend the last couple weeks of Summer Camp on a five-day rotation schedule. But the process is condensed.
In Lester’s three Spring Training starts before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Cactus League, he averaged just over two innings per outing.
Now, he only has time for two more live pitching session -- an intrasquad scrimmage and potentially a Summer Camp game -- before the regular season.
Other pitchers were regularly throwing simulated innings during the shutdown, and the other four presumed members of the starting rotation threw multiple innings in intrasquad scrimmages the first weekend of Summer Camp. But Lester was on a different timetable.
“I figured that if I kept my body in shape and I kept my arm going that I would be fine when we got to this stage; it would just be a little slower,” Lester said Saturday. “And I feel like we’ve done that, and I feel like I’m in a good place.”
On Sunday he backed up that feeling.