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Lester attacks fielding and throwing problems in simulated game

Jon Lester

MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester picked off a guy.

It may not sound like much. And it wasn’t even in a real game.

But after a year of scrutiny of his fielding issues and throwing yips on pickoff moves and bunts since he signed with the Cubs, it was a sign of progress for the left-hander Tuesday during a five-inning simulated game against minor-leaguers.

“This is obviously something I can’t run from,” said Lester, who picked off Dan Vogelbach as the runner was taking a walking lead off first in the second inning. “This is not something you can hide.”

In fact, hiding it wouldn’t be a healthy option even if it could be done, said manager Joe Maddon – who has folded Lester’s very public base-throwing issues into his “Embrace the target” theme for the season.

“You don’t give up on it. You talk about it,” the manager said. “You attack those particular items. You avoid avoidance.”

The pitching part was fine again Tuesday, but the fielding and infield throws definitely proved again to be a work in progress.

The pickoff of Vogelbach was his first throw to first in the game.

“That was huge for me,” said Lester, who didn’t make another throw to first until an errant toss near the end of the fourth.

He then made the fifth inning almost all about fielding and holding base runners.

The Cubs started the fifth with a runner at first, and Lester’s first throw over was wide and to the screen for an error.

Lester then sent the runner back to first, repeatedly, to keep working on the move. He threw over six times total in the inning – three good ones, three not.

“A lot of positives today,” Lester said. “I know it probably to the outsider doesn’t look like it, but there were a lot of positives. I made a lot of mistakes, but I’ll definitely take the good with the bad.”

Before the fifth, he had a 45-foot underhand toss to first for an out in the third, and after fielding a bunt in the fourth tried to turn a double play but buried a 20-foot throw into the grass that bounced to the shortstop for a lucky out.

He said he got caught in between on that throw because catcher David Ross was yelling “four” to try for an out at the plate.

“It’s an open conversation,” Maddon said of Lester’s work-in-progress fielding for the pitcher whose issues admittedly go back to high school days. “I know he’s been open about it, too, which is good. We’ve just got to keep working through it.

“At some point you have that breakthrough moment,” the manager said, “and the epiphany occurs. And all of a sudden it becomes a lot easier to do those things. … I thought we did a nice job last year of controlling it. I’m not concerned about it.”

Lester said he anticipates less of an epiphany than a happy medium in which he’s able to manage the weakness in his game as well as he did for several seasons in Boston.

With the move to the National League after eight seasons in the A.L., infield throwing has become more pronounced, said Lester, who allowed more stolen bases (44) than any other pitcher in baseball last season.

“I think if we try to cut what happened last year in half, I probably couldn’t be more pleased,” he said. “That’s definitely my goal, to continue to work on it and minimize the damage as best I can.”

The simulated game, which Lester said was scheduled even before his shaky first Cactus League start five days earlier, followed a game against the Mariners in which he made several mistakes during two innings of heavy traffic.

He’s scheduled to return to the big-league diamond for his next start, Sunday against the Royals.

“It’s obviously out there; everybody knows,” said Lester, who spends extra personal work every day on the fielding and throwing. “I continually try to tackle it every day and get better at it. That’s all that I can do.

“And hopefully that’s something my teammates can believe in, that I’m putting my work in every day and trying to get better at it and making Rossy’s job a lot easier and making our team’s job a lot easier, and not just worrying about guys running all over the place.”