On Thursday evening, Jon Lester had one mission. Right the ship after a stretch of bad starts had began to derail an All-Star-caliber season. Prior to the All-Star break, Lester was the owner of a sub-3.00 ERA while holding opponents to a mere .223 batting average with a .363 slugging percentage and .304 on-base percentage.
Despite those solid marks, the more advanced numbers suggested regression was in store for the veteran southpaw. A lackluster 19.1 percent first half strikeout rate and 33.2 percent hard contact percentage drove a sky-high FIP of 4.36 for Lester and foretold the coming struggles of the left-hander.
Prior to his start on Thursday afternoon against the Pittsburgh Pirates which resulted in a 1-0 victory, Lester was sporting a second half ERA of 10.32, a number fueled by his 13.50 ERA in the month of August. That lofty ERA was backed by a second half strikeout rate of 15.3 percent, a slight decline from his already low first half number. To go along with that, Lester had posted a 9.9 percent walk rate since the All-Star break, a rather solid number, but elevated from his first half mark.
With all the bad thoughts that come with a rough stretch in the back of his mind on Thursday as he took the mound, Lester was able to persevere and turn in the kind of sparkling outing Cubs fans have grown accustomed to seeing from the big left-hander.
To start the game, it seemed like Lester would continue to give up plenty of hard contact, allowing a solid lead-off single off the bat of Corey Dickerson. Entering play, Lester’s hard contact percentage in the second half (41 percent) was actually higher than the elevated mark he posted in the first half of play. Despite that and the fact opposing batters were slashing .360/.439/.766 off Lester in this half of play, the southpaw was able to largely shut down the Pirates’ lineup on Thursday.
Following Dickerson’s lead-off single, Lester was able to get the Pirates’ two-hole hitter to bounce into a 5-4-3 double play, eliminating the early threat from the home team. After the double play, Lester retired Pittsburgh’s three-hole hitter with a strikeout for his first of evening, and the first of four straight punch-outs for the left-hander.
In the third, Adeiny Hechavarria logged a one-out single into left field but was not moved any further as Lester struck Ivan Nova, the opposing pitcher, and Dickerson to finish the frame. Already with six strikeouts through three innings, Lester looked much sharper on Thursday than he had in previous starts. Unlike some of his recent outings, Lester was able to locate his fastball, getting called strikes on both his four-seam and cut-fastballs at the bottom of the strikeout. Additionally, Lester got a far amount of swinging strikes while flashing a nice change-up at times during his start.
With the Pirates unable to do much against Lester in the third inning, they sent the heart of their order up to face the southpaw in the fourth. Despite that, Lester sat down two through four, logging another strikeout and getting two ground outs.
Overall, Lester’s start on Thursday was a breath of fresh air for a starting rotation that has recorded a 5.41 ERA since the All-Star break. Coupled with that lofty ERA, the Cubs’ starting staff ranks tenth in the majors in innings pitched since the break, not doing a tired bullpen any favors. Lester, however, did his part against the Pirates, spinning six very solid innings on Thursday night in Pittsburgh. The left-hander’s final line looked like this: six innings, five hits, zero earned runs, zero walks and eight strikeouts on 92 pitches. Lester’s eight strikeouts tied his season high that was set back on May 18 in a start against the Cincinnati Reds.
On the offensive side of things, this was the type of game where the Cubs were able to do just enough to secure the win. Over the last month, the Cubs’ offense owns the 17th best wRC+ in baseball while at the same time logging the sixth lowest ISO (.140) in the game. That, combined with their middle-of-the-road batting average, explains why the Cubs have yet to go on a run in the second half like they have in each of the last two seasons.
On Thursday, the Cubs’ offense continued its struggles a day after pushing across eight runs on 13 hits. In the first, the red-hot David Bote came within inches of giving the Cubs an early 2-0 lead. Following a Jason Heyward single, Bote charged a ball deep into the left-center field gap that was caught on the warning track by Dickerson.
Later, in the second frame, Willson Contreras did his best Bote impression, sending a ball to the warning track in center field just to fall short of a home run by mere feet.
Despite that hard contact, the Cubs’ best chance to score in the early going came in the third inning when Javier Baez and Heyward strung together back-to-back two-out singles. Those knocks, however, were wasted as Bote flew out to the right fielder, ending the threat.
With all of their hard contact and that run-scoring chance in the third inning, the Cubs’ lone run came in the fourth inning. Ahead in the count 2-0, Ian Happ smacked an Ivan Nova change-up mid-way up the bleachers in right-center field. That home run was Happ’s 13th of the year and ended a long power-outage by the switch-hitting outfielder. Prior to that long-ball, Happ had not hit a home run since July 19.
Staked to a 1-0 lead, Lester was able to quietly shut down the Pirates in the home halfs of the fourth, fifth and sixth, putting the finishing touches on his aforementioned bounce-back start.
After Lester was pulled, the Cubs’ bullpen continued their outstanding performance as a group. Entering play, the Cubs’ bullpen owned the fourth best ERA (3.32) in the majors, a number that only continued to decrease on Thursday as they logged three innings of scoreless baseball to preserve the win for Lester.
With the win, the Cubs improve to 70-50 while the Pirates fall to 61-61 on the season.
Next Up For The Cubs
The Cubs will continue their four-game set with the Pirates on Friday, August 17 at 6:05 p.m. at PNC Park. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be Cole Hamels (7-9, 4.22 ERA). Hamels has been an All-Star-caliber pitcher since joining the Cubs’ rotation following a trade with the Texas Rangers. Three starts into his Cubs’ career, the southpaw is sporting a 1.00 ERA, having allowed just two earned runs over 18 innings. In that same amount of innings, Hamels has struck out 20 batters and walked just four, helping to bolster a rotation that has lacked in both areas this season.
Opposing Hamels on the mound Friday will be Trevor Williams (10-8, 3.66 ERA). Williams has been a totally different pitcher since posting a 5.32 ERA in the month of June. Across 31.1 innings spanning July and two starts in August, the right-hander owns a 2.01 ERA with just 14 strikeouts and 11 walks.
Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: Fake Teams