PEORIA, Ariz. – Don’t hit it to Jon Lester.
That might not exactly be the most reliable game plan. But it might be the Cubs’ best hope for avoiding problems on the infield in close games when Lester is pitching this year.
Especially after the Cubs’ $155 million left-hander revealed Thursday that he never has felt comfortable throwing to bases, going all the way back to high school, where he didn’t play an infield position when not pitching.
“It’s just different. For me it’s always been different,” said Lester after an awkward two innings in the field during his spring debut against the Seattle Mariners. “They tell you to throw the ball a certain way or to field the ball a certain way and then throw it from down here or up here. It’s just something that’s always been uncomfortable.”
After dealing with the issue much of his first season with the Cubs last year – allowing a major-league-high 44 stolen bases – the fielding part of the game reared its head again quickly Thursday during an ugly two innings that included 15 batters faced and six Mariner runs (three earned).
“It’s something that I’ve continued to work on, and I’ll continue to work on and just try to get better at it every day,” said Lester, who spends time every morning of camp on extra personal work throwing to bases and fielding. “And that’s all I can really do.”
What stood out amid all the base traffic Thursday were a 45-foot underhand throw to first for an out on a first-inning tapper, and a throwing error in the second on another ball hit to him.
On that one, the runner on second got caught too far off the bag but instead of making a quick 40-foot throw to second when the runner committed, Lester took two steps, triple-pumped and short-armed the ball into the ground for an error.
Another ball was hit sharply to his left later in the inning, caroming off his glove to another infielder.
Lester is one of the top starting pitchers in the game, and his career discomfort fielding his position and throwing to bases has not prevented him from making three All-Star teams and helping the Red Sox win two World Series.
But for a team inspiring World Series expectations from Lincoln Park to Las Vegas, a pitcher with the yips near the front end of the rotation could quickly become cause for concern in close games, in a close race, if opponents can exploit it.
“It’s something going back to the minor leagues and high school; it’s something that I’ve never been comfortable with,” Lester said. “I’m a bigger guy. I have a harder time with being in the infield. I never played the infield; I played the outfield. And everything is a lot different.”
He makes no excuses. And he improved some over the course of last season.
“I put in the work. I’m prepared,” Lester said. “I go out there and I give you everything I have. I’m prepared for the moment. It’s just a matter of executing the play.”
His personal catcher, David Ross, has been a major factor in mitigating the issue, working in sync with Lester, including disguised pitchouts and liberal use of back picks to keep runners close.
“He’s picked me up more last year than really any other year,” said Lester, who had Ross in Boston in 2013 and half of 2014. “The pick[off move] thing went from something I was really comfortable with to something I didn’t do for a long time, and now you’ve go to get back to doing it again.”
His first throw over to first in nearly two years was wide, and the second (during the same at-bat) sailed past Anthony Rizzo for an error in his second start of last season.
“Once people know about it, it makes it a little bit harder,” he said. “That got better at the end of the year for me. It will get better this year.”
That could be a big deal looking ahead at the final four years of Lester’s contract, with Ross retiring after this year.
“Regardless of who’s back there, it’s my job to be better at it, and it will be better,” said Lester, saying he’s already improving on reading runners’ leads. “The effort’s there. Obviously, the wherewithal is there. I know I have to be better at it.”