BY TONI GINNETTI
For the Sun-Times
It’s obvious to his manager, his catcher and his teammates that Jon Lester is getting better.
Though he remains winless in three starts, the best is coming, they say.
“I’d say it was his best start,’’ catcher David Ross said after Lester worked 5 „ innings Sunday against the Padres and gave up three runs, two on one bad pitch that Will Middlebrooks hit for a home run in the second inning. “He’s getting good action and depth. The cutter still isn’t there, but it’s getting there. The back-door cutter is coming around.
“The homer was a bad call by me, but I make mistakes, too. For me, he threw well.’’
Manager Joe Maddon thought so, too, predicting that despite the 5-2 loss, this outing would be the first of many when fans would see “how good he actually is.’’
“He’s getting sharper with everything,” Maddon said. “He was frustrated on certain pitches today, but I thought it was a nice step forward. He stayed in his delivery a little better, and it was definitely a step forward.’’
Disappointment is still evident in Lester’s demeanor after three pedestrian starts for his new team, which has lofty expectations for its six-year, $155 million investment.
His Opening Night start lasted only 4 „ innings in a 3-0 loss. His second start lasted six innings, but he gave up six runs and 10 hits.
“It feels better,’’ said Lester, who gave up six hits and two walks with four strikeouts Sunday. “The infield had a busy day, which is good. I don’t like to say it was one pitch that did me in, but I got the cutter in on Middlebrooks and paid for it.’’
Like most aces, Lester (0-2, 6.89 ERA) demands more from himself than those who play beside him.
“We’re talking to him all the time,’’ Maddon said. “He sets high standards for himself. I understand that and appreciate that. But he gave himself a chance to win today.’’
Ross, who caught Lester the last two years with the Red Sox, knows the lefty as well as anyone.
“He’s frustrated with himself but that’s just who he is,’’ he said, acknowledging that placing high expectations upon yourself “sometimes can backfire on you.’’
Lester doesn’t lack confidence.
“That’s not an issue,’’ starter Jake Arrieta said. “We all talk with each other about things as far as what we see. Sometimes it’s nice to get that outside viewpoint.’’
Lester had a lead after one inning thanks to two Padres errors that led to two unearned runs off former Cub Andrew Cashner (1-2). But Cashner allowed only two hits in the next five innings.
“I feel fine [physically]. I always feel fine,’’ Lester said. “It’s just a matter of executing pitches, and I did that more concisely today. Obviously the results aren’t there.
“We all go out there to try to win the game. That’s the result we want, and that’s not there yet. You want results in your game, but as a pitcher you have to separate that and evaluate. It was better today, but that doesn’t take away the frustration.
“But that will change. Internally we’ve talked and there are things that need to get better. That’s part of the game. It was better today, and we’ll keep going from there. I’ve done this for a pretty long time and understand where we’re at. Now it’s just a matter of making the adjustments we need to.’’