Cubs left-hander Jon Lester promised he would keep working on it, and there he was again before batting practice Tuesday, standing on the mound and throwing to crouching coach Mike Borzello at first base.
He made throw after perfect throw to Borzello as pitching coach Chris Bosio watched, suggesting the question: Why can’t he do that in a game?
And this one: What are Lester and the Cubs going to do about it if he can’t prove he can effectively throw to a base by the time they need him for a playoff opener?
“They’ve got a big problem to figure out,” said a longtime scout after seeing the Milwaukee Brewers run on Lester at will Thursday during a start that included his first pickoff throw in four months – a wide throw that sailed past first baseman Anthony Rizzo for an error.
Suddenly, a high-profile case of the yips for the highest-profile Cubs pitcher has reared its head again after four months of quieting down behind the work of personal catcher David Ross and the recent pitching dominance of Lester.
Lester vowed to improve and execute a throw in a game. Manager Joe Maddon has said repeatedly he’s more concerned that Lester maintain the kind of focus on pitching that has led to a 1.92 ERA since the start of July.
He gets his next chance Wednesday against the Detroit Tigers – a team that ranks fifth in the American League in steals, with two players in the AL’s top seven.
Lester, the Cubs’ $155 million free agent, has pitched like an ace much of the season and limited scoring damage even as teams have taken advantage on the bases.
But all three of his pickoff throws this season – his first throws in two years – have been off target, including two that went for errors. And he has allowed a major-league high 35 steals.
With Thursday’s video reminder, teams figure to test him and Ross more frequently, at least for a while. Maddon and general manager Jed Hoyer said they put a lot of faith in Ross’s running-game management.
“Jon does a number of different things well,” Bosio said of the veteran adept at varying times and getting the ball to Ross quickly. “But this is one of the things that he knows he needs to work on and we know he needs to work on it.
“It’s a work in progress.”
The biggest potential for big damage could come in playoff games, where games tend to be tighter and every 90 feet significant. Pitching for the Athletic in the American League wild-card game last year, Lester allowed three of the Royals’ six steals in a game the Royals eventually won.
“Potentially. But it’s a big deal in any game,” said Ross, who excels at throwing behind runners who stray carelessly and at throwing out would-be stealers even after they’ve taken big leads. “It’s just the spotlight’s going to be bigger [in October].
“The bottom line at the end of the day is as long as runs aren’t scoring, I don’t think anybody cares.
“And Jon’s not slow to the plate. He’s quick. And can be quicker.”
That’s his biggest saving grace in this equation – that and limiting the number of men on base in the first place when he’s pitching as well as he is now.
“It’s about damage control,” said Ross, who often used a modified (barely detectable) pitchout with certain runners. “Especially with two outs. I don’t care if they run all day with two outs. Guy’s got to get a hit.
“With his stuff guys in the box are sometimes overmatched. Mentally, I don’t want him to get distracted with the base runners when we have a pretty good chance of getting the hitter out at the plate.”
Ross expects after Thursday’s conspicuous error that teams like the Tigers and Indians on Monday might try to do what Milwaukee did (five steals, four in one inning).
“But as long as he keeps doing what he is doing over the last month,” Ross said, “we’re going to be just fine.”