Left-hander Jon Lester has been the leader of the Cubs’ rotation since signing with the club before the 2015 season. He has been a model of consistency and a key to their success over the last half-decade.
The Cubs underwent a changing of the guard this season as the team turned to Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks to lead the front end of the rotation and shifted their workhorse, Lester, to the back of the rotation.
Lester has shown that he can thrive in his current role. He continued his hot start to the shortened regular season with another impressive performance in the Cubs’ 7-1 victory Tuesday over the Indians.
It had been nine days between starts for Lester, but the long layoff wasn’t an issue. He kept the ball down, limiting damage and letting his defense do the heavy lifting.
“I mean, that’s not easy,” manager David Ross said about Lester’s rest. “I think, one, it just shows what a pro he is. You could tell he was just not quite as sharp as he would want to be out of the stretch, but he battled tonight. He made big pitches.”
Lester worked his cutter in tandem with his changeup, which he threw more this outing than in his first two starts — a decision that produced nine ground balls and bad contact. The average exit velocity against Lester’s changeup was only 82.2 mph, according to Baseball Savant.
“I think going into spring training, my curveball was better,’’ Lester said. ‘‘I had a better feel for it. For whatever reason, coming back from all this stuff, I’ve just had a better feel for my changeup. Tonight, other than the one I threw 12 feet and bounced off [Francisco] Lindor, I felt like that was probably the best curveball I’ve had up to this point.”
Lester produced a season-high eight swings and misses against Cleveland, including four with his cutter. He hadn’t gotten more than three before this outing.
Even for a pitcher not known for his swing-and-miss stuff anymore, being able to miss a barrel can only help as he navigates lineups.
“I think we all go through stretches where obviously every fastball, your sinker and your cutter, those three right there usually stay right around the same,” Lester said. “The changeup and the curveball sometimes flip-flop, so you’re gonna have to ride that wave. Riding that right now with the change, and it kind of played into the game plan tonight with these guys.”
Lester suffered minimal damage and ran into his only real trouble in the sixth inning.
After hitting Lindor with the curveball, Lester was close to getting out of the inning unscathed before Franmil Reyes’ two-out RBI double broke up the shutout.
The offense helped Lester out as it put up a five-run sixth inning to give him some breathing room.
Right fielder Jason Heyward (3-for-4) capped the inning with a three-run blast to give the Cubs a six-run lead.
The rotation has been the catalyst for the Cubs in 2020, and with Lester’s latest, it has now had a quality start in seven of its last eight outings.
Lester earned his second consecutive victory and had his third straight start allowing four hits or fewer. He went six innings, allowing one run and three hits. Lester struck out four, walked two and lowered his ERA to 1.06.
“He’s the ultimate competitor,” Ross said. “He’s going to figure out a way to win, to beat you, and he’s going to give it everything he’s got. There’s never a question or a doubt with the work he puts in, the focus he has, the preparation.”