The last time left-hander Jon Lester pitched for the Cubs on a Sunday night at Wrigley Field, nothing was complete.
The unfinished bleachers were covered by tarps, and the right-field video board wasn’t erected. The bathroom situation became a national joke and a nightmare for some unfortunate bladders, leading to the installation of unsightly but welcome porta-potties. Lester also wasn’t a finished product. He was still recovering from a dead arm and lasted only 41⁄3 innings while giving up three runs in a loss to the Cardinals.
Since that Opening Night game, Wrigley Field has taken shape. The left- and center-field bleachers opened May 11, and the right-field seats opened Thursday. The right-field video board is also up and running, and though work continues at Wrigley, the century-old stadium has taken significant steps toward modernity.
“It’s so nice to have everything back together,” manager Joe Maddon said before the game Sunday.
Whether that’s true of Lester is something of an open question, but he made a case that he has everything together against Cincinnati. Lester went seven innings, gave up one run and five hits and struck out four. The bullpen held the Reds scoreless the rest of the way before Starlin Castro singled home Chris Coghlan with the winning run in the 11th inning for a 2-1 victory.
“Tonight was better,” Lester said. “Tonight was back to being me. Got a lot of ground balls, kept our infield active early.”
Lester was coming off two unsuccessful outings that followed one of the best months of his career. After going 4-1 in May with a 1.76 ERA, Lester worked 91⁄3 innings in two starts in June, giving up 11 earned runs and 18 hits.
The problem, Maddon said, wasn’t velocity.
“The velocity’s normal,” Maddon said. “I just think it’s overall, like execution of the pitch. Whether it’s that or his cutter, I think his curveball has been really good, actually. I just think it’s an overall executing the pitch.”
Catcher David Ross gave a similar assessment. Ross also was asked whether being the $155 million man who was signed to lead the staff during this Cubs renaissance was having an effect on Lester’s recent results.
“I think maybe earlier on that was a bigger deal than now,” Ross said. “Early on, I think he was trying a little too hard in the season, and he wasn’t ready yet. I think he was a little behind without pitching as much as he could in spring training.
“It took him the first month. I think he was getting back on track, and he was putting a little too much pressure on himself.”
Of course, pressure is part of what Lester signed up for. He’s the established ace, the guy who has won the World Series and taken the ball for his team’s biggest games.
Sunday wasn’t quite on that level, but the Cubs needed a big night from Lester. The bullpen has been stretched, and the starters have failed to go deep into games.
“Lester, outstanding performance,” Maddon said.
“Jon was really, really good tonight. Really had a great fastball. The cutter was there, curveball when he wanted to.”