Jon Lester was cruising through the first 10 outs of Thursday’s game, striking out four and getting another four outs via the grounder. His offense had staked him to a 3-0 lead on the strength of a pair of home runs, both of which came against all-world southpaw Clayton Kershaw. Kyle Schwarber’s bomb was the first Kershaw had surrendered to a lefty this season, and it came on the first pitch.
That felt like a sign, as did Kris Bryant going oppo for a two-run shot in the 3rd inning. The early going had a similar feeling to Game 6 of the 2016 NLCS, with the Cubs jumping all over a hittable Kershaw and imposing their will on the Dodgers.
Then things chilled for the visitors, not coincidentally as the result of a 98.4 mph David Freese liner that ricocheted off of Lester to fall safely for an infield single. Unlike Daniel Day Lewis, the pitcher wanted no attention paid to his left foot, waving Joe Maddon and trainer Nick Frangella off before they could check him out.
“It’s sore now. It hurt at the time, but it is what it is,” Lester said after the game. “It didn’t affect the way I threw the ball after that.”
Lester then got back to the mound and promptly gave up four frozen ropes, including a pair of two-run homers, before coaxing a grounder to end the inning on a double play. He opened the 5th inning in very promising fashion, striking out the first two batters, but then gave up a single to Justin Turner before you-know-who tagged him again.
This time, Mr. Freese pounded a first-pitch cutter into the seats for another two-run homer, the Dodgers’ third of the evening against Lester. He would give up another single and then walk a batter before getting another strikeout, his seventh of the game, exiting with six earned runs allowed on nine hits and an ERA that had crept up to 4.08.
So….we've been told we miscounted the amount of 2-R HRs for the Dodgers – they've only actually hit 3 tonight; it just feels like it's been 7 or 8
— Cubs Talk (@NBCSCubs) June 14, 2019
Taking a liner off the foot may not have directly impacted Lester’s performance, but the “lucky” hit by Freese did all the Dodgers to stick their collective foot in the door. As good as Lester has been over the course of his career, and throughout much of this season, he simply doesn’t have the margin for error that he once did.
When he’s on, he’s still money. When he’s off, however…well, you know. The cutter wasn’t as obviously bad as it had been during a recently series of performances that may have been the worst three-game stretch of Lester’s career, but the issue was its inability to get outs. That pitch resulted in all three singles in that string of five consecutive hits in the 4th inning, with the fastball giving up both homers.
The cutter was then put in play for the single and homer in the 5th inning, runs that effectively ended the Cubs’ chances based on how they fared after their own two big hits. You can just see the effects of the cutter’s ineffectiveness in the chart below. Lester’s ERA spiked from an MLB-leading 1.16 to a more pedestrian 3.59 over those three aforementioned starts and has continued on that trend despite a stellar outing against the Angels.
This shouldn’t be cause for panic since Lester has had similar stretches in the past and has been able to right the ship. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t plenty of reason for at least mild concern because that would be foolish. Lester is, after all, 35 years old and doesn’t have the raw stuff he once possessed. The Dodgers are also really darn good, so there’s that.
Lester still has plenty of gas left in the tank and he can absolutely be a formidable member of the Cubs’ rotation through at least the remainder of his guaranteed term (2020). He’s just no longer the front-line stopper and shouldn’t be viewed as such, unless you’re looking to be disappointed. As long as the grizzled southpaw can hold down the middle of the rotation, that’s really all the Cubs need from him.
Now let’s just hope he reads this and gets pissed off enough to fuel a vintage run of lights-out starts.