Jon Lester entered the All-Star Break on pace for career-worst numbers across the board, including a 5.54 ERA and 1.737 WHIP. He had allowed opposing hitters to put up an .895 OPS against him, the same OPS that Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa posted in the first half.
So when the All-Star Break arrived last week, Lester did the only thing he could: not think about baseball. He returned to the mound Monday night with a cleared head and dominated the scuffling Miami Marlins, blanking the Fish for seven innings with seven strikeouts. Lester also collected a pair of hits, one of which traveled 419 feet for a two-run homer.
“I think sometimes when you struggle, you look for things that aren’t there,” Lester told reporters on a Zoom call. “To get away and just forget about mechanics, throwing a baseball, working out, all that stuff — just get back to neutral — I think is always good for us. So that was where I was at, cleared my mind a little bit, went back to basics.”
The biggest problem for Lester this season — aside from turning his opponents into Correa — has been going deep into games. He averaged just four and a half innings per start in the first half, only once breaking the 100-pitch mark in an outing. That’s a stark contrast from the pitcher Lester has been throughout his career; the left-hander threw 200 or more innings in eight of nine seasons between 2008 and 2016.
But he returned to form Monday, albeit against one of the lighter-hitting offenses in baseball. Lester needed only 81 pitches to get through his seven frames. With the Nationals up 18-0 by the end of the seventh, there was no reason for manager Davey Martinez to push the 37-year-old any further.
“Just the way he was attacking the strike zone all day,” Martinez said when asked what impressed him the most about Lester’s outing. “I don’t think he threw more than 15 pitches an inning, which was awesome.
“He was throwing strike one all night long and pounding the strike zone, making his pitches with all his pitches: changeup, threw a couple curveballs that were really good, his cutter was good. Just really attacking the strike zone, awesome tonight.”
Lester has spent most of his career competing for World Series titles. He’s won three of them, two with the Boston Red Sox (2007, 2013) and another with the Chicago Cubs (2016). After joining a ballclub only two years removed from its own most recent championship, Lester recognized that he hasn’t been doing enough to keep his team in games.
“Obviously, everybody in that clubhouse wants to win,” Lester said. “We’re going out there every day trying to bust our butt to win. I haven’t done a very good job of that, of keeping our guys in ballgames. I feel like there have been some games that we should’ve won that I couldn’t get deeper in the game, which then exposes your bullpen. Any time you have to cover six innings, five innings with your bullpen, it makes it very difficult for those guys.”
With starters Joe Ross and Stephen Strasburg working their way back from the injured list, the Nationals will eventually have to make a tough roster decision. There will only be two spots available for Lester, Ross and Erick Fedde, and veteran experience only goes so far. Time isn’t on Lester’s side, but with a clear head and rested body he’s off to a strong start to the second half.