As adversity goes in Jon Lester’s life, these first few months with the Cubs are nothing.
But in a pitching career that has involved two World Series championships and three All-Star games, there’s been nothing quite like these first few months with the Cubs, either.
“There’s a little bit of everything in there,” he said of a first half that ended Saturday with a 5-1 loss to the White Sox, despite retiring 17 of 18 from the fourth batter of the first until the seventh.
“I’ll be the first one to tell you I haven’t been throwing the ball [my] best, as I’ve been able to in the past,” he said. “But I feel like I’ve been OK to the point where I look up at the stats a little bit and kind of wonder what’s going on.”
His 4-8 record and 3.59 ERA tell only a fraction of the story of a seven-month odyssey that began with manager Joe Maddon standing in a San Diego hotel lobby around midnight at the winter meetings, declaring he’d “won the lottery” with Lester’s decision to sign with the Cubs.
But other than making all his starts this year, Lester, 31, hasn’t come close to showing yet that he was worth the six-year, $155 million investment – though his impressive May and his last three starts suggest the potential.
To be fair, it’s only 18 starts into the deal. On the other hand, the front end is supposed to be the more predictable, less risky part of these kind of deals.
“He just might be coming into his own this season right now,” Maddon said. “He’s had a lot going on: new city, new league, a lot of adjustments to be made. Maybe he’s getting to the point now where it’s finally becoming more comfortable.”
Lester’s track record suggests a likelihood of a strong second half.
Until then, the travails and oddities included a “dead-arm” period in spring training that first was downplayed, then used as the reason behind his miserable April.
He had “yips” issues in April: After it was revealed he hadn’t thrown to first base since 2013, he air-mailed one against the Reds for a two-base error on national TV and then scrapped the throws to first again.
He’s worked on it regularly since, said Maddon, but spent more time mitigating the need to throw over again by slide-stepping and altering his timing with men on base.
He admitted at the end of a 4-1, 1.76 May that the nature of the big contract – and all the responsibility that came with it – might have caused him to press to do too much. “You definitely don’t want to be one of those guys where at the end of it you look at it as a bust,” he said then.
But as soon as he got hot in May, he struggled again out of the chute in June, and then admitted later in the month the new league has been adjustment for him.
Saturday, Lester seemed in a more firm and decisive mindset.
“Just excuses,” he said of all those alleged adjustments and contract pressures. “It’s just excuses. I will never use that as any fallback or anything like that. The game doesn’t change whether you’re pitching in the AL or the NL. Yeah, you have a pitcher as opposed to the DH. But a fastball down and away located does the same thing in the National League as it does in the American League.”
Lester certainly is not afraid or timid in the face of changes or challenges. He is a cancer survivor, a champion, and, for now, perhaps, the Cubs’ best hope for sustained success through the second half.
“I’m not worried about getting on a roll or anything,” said Lester, whose two runs allowed in the first Saturday were his first allowed in three July starts. “I feel like I’ve thrown the ball pretty well. I just have to worry about my next start.”
Maddon said the more recent issues in June were about inconsistency.
“That’s why you always hear the term, `it’s a long year,’ “ said Maddon, who noted more confidence in the big left-hander lately. “And then all of a suden guys like that find it, and they can get on a severe roll. And by the end of the season the numbers are outrageous.”
Maddon still believes he’s a lottery winner in this whole thing.
“We have half a season left here,” Maddon said. Let’s see more of what we saw [the last two starts], because it can get really interesting.”