Cubs still highly confident in Lester

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BY BRIAN SANDALOW

For the Sun-Times

The Jon Lester the Cubs saw in May is the one they signed for six years and $155 million. He was 4-1 with a 1.76 ERA and struck out 37 while walking 12. On May 16, he provided one of the season’s most memorable moments, striking out Andrew McCutchen looking with two outs and two on to end a seventh-inning threat by the Pirates, pumping his fist as he left the mound at a loud and emotional Wrigley Field.

Since the calendar turned to June, Lester hasn’t gotten those kinds of results. He has lost both of his starts and has thrown only 9 „ innings. True, he has been the victim of some mediocre defense, but he has allowed 18 hits and 11 earned runs this month for the Cubs, who defeated the Cincinnati Reds 4-3 on Saturday night after a lengthy rain delay. Starlin Castro’s single drove in Kris Bryant with the winning run in the ninth.

While the Cubs would like Lester to turn that around starting Sunday night, they aren’t concerned about him and his long-term prognosis.

“As his season wears on, you’re going to see him get like really hot, and really shut down,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s going to happen at the right time.”

Lester’s track record indicates that’s true. He wasn’t one of baseball’s most coveted free agents for no reason last winter, and the Cubs weren’t the only team -willing to give Lester the money he got.

And it’s not as if they believe he isn’t throwing well.

“I think his May was getting back on track,” David Ross said. “He hadn’t had the results he wants the last two starts, but his stuff’s fine.”

Lester agrees.

“A couple pitches here and there that weren’t executed, but for the most part I feel like I’ve thrown the ball better my last two starts, as far as feel, than May,” Lester said. “Sometimes, balls when they get hit, they’re just not at people or just out of reaches of guys, and that’s the way it goes.”

There is certainly some validity to that. The batting average on balls in play (BABIP) against Lester is .344 this season. That would be a career high if it holds. He has a ground-ball rate of 47.9 percent, which is in line with his career mark of 46.9 percent.

That said, Lester isn’t working the innings he wants or the Cubs need, and that’s how he gauges success He knows what his role and responsibility is for the Cubs, and part of that means working a lot of -innings.

“I’m not going deep into games, and that to me is the frustrating part,” Lester said. “You’re going to give up runs. Nobody at the end of the year has a zero ERA, so you’re going to have those when you give up runs and have bad games and all that. You give your team a chance and give your bullpen a break and do all that stuff. That’s when I feel like I value my starts more, when you go deeper into games.

“At the end of the year, I look at that. I don’t look at earned-run average or strikeouts or anything like that. I look at innings.”

Perhaps most importantly, anybody who was asked said Lester is healthy and past the dead-arm issues that plagued him late in spring training and affected his first few weeks with the Cubs.

“At the beginning of the year, I was a little bit … kind of defended the beginning because of the spring training, then he came on pretty good,” Maddon said. “If you have a couple bad outings, it doesn’t bother me in the least. If the guy’s good and he’s not -injured, I’m OK.”

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