In a season when so much has been made of money wasted on free-agent pitchers, Jon Lester offered a six-inning reminder Monday of why the Cubs believed he was worth $155 million after the 2014 season.
Lester looked shaky early but recovered on a 90-degree night with a stiff outbound wind, leading the Cubs past the Mets 7-4 in the series opener at Wrigley Field.
Along the way, he lined a two-out single to center for two runs and the lead in the third.
He picked a guy off first in the fifth (not a typo).
And on Lester’s final pitch of the night, Jose Reyes lined a shot back toward his face that Lester gloved as he fell to his backside on the mound.
“Luckily, Reyes hit the ball off the end of the bat, or I’d probably be dead,” Lester said.
Said manager Joe Maddon: “I don’t think Jon’s given enough credit for how good of an athlete he is.”
In fact, on this night, he did everything but earn his 15th win of the season, thanks to a tying home run after he left the game.
“He did it all,” said teammate Anthony Rizzo, last week’s National League Player of the Week, who had two doubles and a homer. “He pitched. He battled. I don’t know if he made an adjustment or just turned it up a notch. But he was awesome the last few innings.”
If Lester’s 27th start had any extra meaning on a late-August night against the lowly Mets, it was in his value as the rare good bet among pitchers signed to long-term free-agent deals. That resonates during a hang-in-there, wait-for-the-rotation season for the Cubs after they’d pinned their hopes hard to free-agent newcomers Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood.
A week earlier, Darvish, who signed a six-year deal in February, was shut down for the season because of recurring elbow issues. Chatwood (sore hip), who signed a three-year deal in December, has walked more than anyone else in the majors and walked five more Monday night in a minor-league rehab assignment for Class AAA Iowa.
Lester, who won two World Series with the Red Sox before signing with the Cubs, is nearly four years into a six-year deal that includes two All-Star selections, a Cy Young runner-up performance, a NLCS co-MVP award, nine postseason starts for the Cubs and the most coveted World Series ring in baseball history.
And with five more starts this season, he’ll have four straight seasons of 32 starts for the Cubs.
“I think the simplicity of his delivery and the repeatability of that and avoiding injury is a big part of what you’re seeing right now,” Maddon said. “His velocity has come back a little bit. His change is becoming more pertinent. He’s got the curveball. And the cutter — that comes and goes a little bit, but when that’s aces, that’s when he’s got a really good night going on.”
The Mets were sitting on the hard stuff with the wind blowing out, trying to “ambush” early in the game, Lester said.
“You go out there with Plan A, and sometimes you’ve got to adjust to Plan B,” he said.
And that wait-for-it rotation? With Cole Hamels added from the Rangers, Chatwood’s control problems subtracted and the Darvish drama finally over, the rotation has a 1.93 group ERA over the last 11 games — a huge part of the Cubs’ season-high six-game winning streak.
And Lester is pitching like he’s ready for whatever’s next.
“Tonight was good,” he said. “I wouldn’t say good from the start, but from about the third inning on it was good. We just figured it out.”