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More fielding woes for Cubs’ Lester in otherwise strong outing

Jon Lester pitching Sunday

MESA, Ariz. – By yip or by chip, Jon Lester remains one of the most intriguing stories in Cubs camp this spring.

Two days after he talked to the Sun-Times about recent revelations in a new book of a dormant bone chip in his elbow, the more immediate issue of his fielding struggles reared again in a Cactus League game against the Royals on Sunday.

But manager Joe Maddon seems convinced that the way Lester has faced the public scrutiny with calm and frankness all spring bodes well, regardless of any measurable progress on the field.

“I think that’s a really good indicator that he’s going to have a great year,” Maddon said.

How well Lester actually has pitched this spring has something do to with that, too: “He’s throwing the ball as well as I’ve ever seen him,” Maddon said.

As much as Lester isn’t hiding from the media on all matters of fielding and bone chips this spring, he certainly won’t be able to hide from National League base runners trying to exploit his weakness when they’re on the bases or batters trying to force him to field bunts.

“It’s just a matter of mechanically doing the right things and remembering to do the right things mechanically,” he said. “I’ll just continue to work on it.”

Lester retired the first six batters in his five-inning start Sunday and navigated around enough traffic to allow just two runs (one earned) and leave with the lead.

But in the Royals’ fifth, he allowed a bunt to roll past him to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, whose rushed throw sailed past first for an error that put runners at second and third. And on a tapper near the mound by the next batter, Lester tossed a soft throw high and wide of first for another error that loaded the bases with none out.

“Obviously, not what I wanted to do,” said Lester, who blamed it on the fact he didn’t move his feet like he should have on the play.

That made the run that scored on an ensuing double play grounder unearned.

The Royals also got aggressive on the bases in the fourth. Paulo Orlando took second easily on a delayed steal (then consequently scored on a ground-rule double), and Reymond Fuentes baited a throw with a huge secondary lead off second and wound up on third when David Ross threw behind him. He struck out the next two batters to end the inning.

Lester, who did not throw to a base to hold a runner, continues to put in extra daily work on the fielding and throwing. He said he thinks he’s found a step-off move to first that works for him.

“That’s probably going to be the best one as far as those leads, and then mix in some slide steps,” he said, “and Rossy throws the ball really well, and [Miguel Montero] throws the ball really well. So if I give them a chance with the slide step and a decent lead, I think we’ve got a good formula.”

Said Maddon: “I love the fact that he is attacking this head on. That’s the only way to get over it. If there is a road to recovery, I think we’re on it right now.”

More than that, Maddon is impressed with a more comfortable-looking Lester a year after their first spring together.

“Last year coming into this situation, trying to be the savior of the staff, whatever, and all the expectations attached to it – I think he probably felt that a little bit early on and eventually got through it,” the manager said.

Maddon, staff, execs, teammates and media all have picked up on a more relaxed, settled-in version of Lester this spring.

“Absolutely,” said Lester, whose $155 million contract made him the focus of attention and expectations last spring. “Being in the kind of situation I was in last year and all that, yeah, obviously it’s a little bit easier to come in [this year]. You spend six, seven, eight months with these guys, you obviously feel more comfortable around them. That’s definitely eased the tension for me personally.”