The return of Jon Lester seemed like a fitting way to finish a three-game set with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team the southpaw dominated in the 2016 NLCS, winning co-MVP of that series and willing the Chicago Cubs into the World Series.
For his career prior to play on Thursday, Lester had amassed a 3.35 regular season ERA against the Dodgers, a number put together over nine starts and 53.2 innings. Last year alone, Lester shined even brighter against Los Angeles, posting a 1.50 ERA across two outings and 12 innings, numbers he looked to carry over into his start on Thursday afternoon.
Lester’s marks against the Dodgers aside, the big left-hander has looked like the best version of himself early in the 2019 campaign. Back-to-back six inning performances to kick-off the season for Lester silenced what ever rumors still swirled about the veteran wearing down with age.
At 35 years old, Lester represents one half of the elder statesman group in the Cubs’ starting rotation with Cole Hamels, two guys who entered the season as Hall of Frame probables.
For 11 straight seasons, Lester has made at least 30 starts, with four of those seasons coming on the North Side of Chicago. While the 2015 campaign saw Lester post his highest WAR as a member of the Cubs at 4.8, 2016 was by far his better season as the southpaw finished second in the National League Cy Young voting.
His 2.44 ERA during that magical season for the Cubs was the lowest of the veteran’s career while his 24.8 percent strikeout rate and 6.5 percent walk rate were both better than his career averages. In addition, Lester allowed a hard contact rate of just 26.8 percent, a number that has risen in each of the last two seasons.
Perhaps because of that rise in hard contact, Lester backed up what was arguably the best season of his career with a 4.33 ERA across 180.2 innings during the 2017 season. What was a solid strikeout rate of almost 25 percent in ’16 fell to 23.6 percent in ’17 as his walk rate spiked to 7.9 percent, a figure that inched over his career average for the first time since his days with the Boston Red Sox.
Like we have seen Lester do many times with the Cubs when he takes the mound, the southpaw made slight adjustments during the off-season heading in 2018, understanding that is pitch mix would have to change as he continued to age into his mid-30’s.
Despite further decreasing peripheral numbers in 2018, Lester battled through and posted a very solid campaign. In a rotation that featured two ineffective pitchers last season, Lester was the rock that kept the Cubs on-track and provided a leader for the other starters to look toward. Even with a 19.6 percent strikeout rate and 8.4 percent walk rate, Lester posted a 3.32 ERA across 181.2 innings.
To make matters worse, Lester’s hard contact increased to 31.9 percent, a number that was five percentage points higher than what he posted in 2016. Because of those lackluster numbers, Lester turned in a 4.39 FIP, a mark that sat over a run higher than his ERA, suggesting luck and a good defense helped the aging veteran post those solid numbers.
Perhaps leaning on his defense more than ever, Lester finished ninth in the NL Cy Young voting last season, showing his doubters that he still has a lot left in the tank as he enters year five of a six-year, $155 million pact with the Cubs.
As touched on above, Lester started the season in typical fashion, posting a solid outing on Opening Day in Texas against the Rangers. In a 12-4 win, Lester fanned just three Ranger batters over six innings but limited them to four hits and two earned runs while inducing 12 fly balls on 98 pitches.
Lester’s second outing of the year was very similar as he held the Atlanta Braves to two earned runs over six frames, allowing six hits and striking out seven. Rolling into the Cubs’ home opener on April 8, Lester was once again proving to be a pitch-to-contact pitcher late in his career. Over his opening 12 innings, the southpaw had retired just 10 batters via strikeout while walking five and getting a total of 21 fly ball outs.
For his career, Lester owns a 33.4 percent fly ball rate while sporting a 46.2 percent ground ball mark and solid 20.4 percent line-drive rate. Prior to play on Thursday, however, Lester has seen his ground ball rate bottom out at 35.9 percent (lowest since 2007) while his line-drive mark has ticked up to 30.8 percent, better than 10 percentage points higher than his career average.
Nevertheless, Lester has once again been getting results despite diminishing numbers. Early in the home opener more than two weeks ago, though, Lester seemed to be on a track to right those numbers as he jumped out to a quick start against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In two innings of work, Lester had already struck out four opposing batters and looked to have good carry on a fastball that was topping out at 93 MPH. Vintage Lester was on display for only those two frames, unfortunately, when his left hamstring tightened up running the bases in the home half of the frame.
With what he assured the media was more of a cramp than anything, Lester hit the injured list for only the second time as a member of the Cubs, missing two and a half weeks before being activated before Thursday’s series finale with the Dodgers.
After missing two starts, it was possible Lester would be rusty in his first game action since April 8, especially against a Dodgers lineup that drew six free passes against Hamels a night prior. Fortunately for Lester and the Cubs, Los Angeles seemed to be in more of a swing mode on Thursday, an idea that was backed up by a 3-0 pop-fly off the bat of David Freese in the first inning.
That pop-fly ended an 11-pitch frame for the southpaw hurler, as Lester quickly racked up three strikeouts over his first two innings. With two coming of the looking variety, any notion that Lester would be rusty and struggle with his command went out of the window.
Instead, the veteran limited a very good Dodger lineup to just one hit over his first three innings, inducing two fly balls and another three ground ball outs.
As the third inning gave way to the fourth frame, however, the Dodgers began getting increasingly good whacks off the Cubs’ left-hander. Justin Turner the got the inning underway with a sharp line-drive to Kyle Schwarber in left. While the youngster was able to glove the ball, it was the first really solid contact by the visiting club on Thursday.
Just two batters later, Cody Bellinger ripped a double into right field, a ball that exited the bat at 105.9 MPH and gave the Dodgers their first runner in scoring position. Lester quickly dispatched A.J. Pollock with a swinging strikeout for his fifth punch-out of the evening.
Even with the strikeout to end the Dodgers’ threat in the fourth, L.A. was able to continue their solid contact off Lester in the fifth frame. Alex Verdugo kicked off the inning with a ringing triple into the right-center field gap, a 99.1 MPH rocket that came off the bat at 16 degree for a xBA of .570.
Chris Taylor didn’t allow Verdugo’s base hit to be wasted as he drilled a ground ball toward Javier Baez at shortstop. Off the bat at 104.6 MPH with a xBA of just .630, Taylor’s ground ball ate the normally sure-handed Baez up at short, allowing Verdugo to trot home and give the Dodgers a 1-0 lead in the fifth.
On the replay, Baez can be seen checking the runner before ensuring the ball was in his mitt, a mistake that proved to be costly on Thursday.
Despite the run being unearned, it would prove to be the go-ahead run as the two teams combined for just three tallies.
Following Taylor’s ground ball, Lester issued a single before getting a 4-6-3 double play off the bat of Ross Stripling, the opposing pitcher. Another ground ball ended the frame and Lester’s outing as the left-hander exited down a run but feeling good about his first start back from injury.
All told, Lester threw 79 pitches, right in-line with the 75-80 mark Joe Maddon set forth before the game. Of those offerings, Lester tossed 33 four-seam fastballs, 16 change-ups and another 17 curve-balls, inducing a total of eight swinging strikes on those three pitches. To go along with that, Lester added 14 called strikes on the day, including eight with his four-seam fastball.
Seeing Lester top out at 92.7 MPH with his fastball is a good sign that the lefty’s hamstring is healthy, something also backed up by his effectiveness against a solid Dodger lineup.
Lester’s final like looked like this: five innings, four hits, one earned run, zero walks and five strikeouts on the aforementioned 79 pitches. Of those offerings, 54 were strikes as Lester was in command of his stuff for much of the day, lowering his season ERA to 2.37.
Offensively, the Cubs could only muster one run after back-to-back seven-run performances against the Dodgers. With Stripling dealing, the Cubs’ best shot at plating a run came in the half home of the second inning. Back-to-back one out singles with Willson Contreras and Jason Heyward gave the Cubs runners at first and third for Schwarber.
On a chopper back to the mound, Stripling was able to field the ball and fire to his catcher who started a 1-2-5 rundown of Contreras who had worked himself halfway up the third base line.
Now with two outs and the pitcher due, Stripling could see the light at the end of the tunnel as he struck Lester out to end the frame.
After their run-scoring chance in the second, the Cubs were not able to do very much else. In the fifth frame, they stranded a runner on third base after a lead-off double while a 4-3 double play off the bat of Ben Zobirst ended a mini-rally in the seventh.
While the Cubs could not collect a hit with runners in scoring position on Thursday, Albert Almora was able to launch a ball off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen with two outs in the ninth inning. Despite Almora’s first home run of the season, it proved to be to little too late as David Bote struck out to end the contest.
For the game, the Cubs went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position, leaving eight runners on base and dropping the contest 2-1 despite out-hitting the Dodgers 7-4.
With the loss, the Cubs fall to 12-11 while the Dodgers improve to 16-11 on the season.
Next Up for the Cubs
The Cubs will begin a three-game series with the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday at 8:40 pm at Chase Field. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be right-hander Kyle Hendricks (1-3, 3.54 ERA). Oddly enough, Hendricks’ last outing came on April 19 against the Diamondbacks, a start in which the hurler amassed his best numbers of the season.
Across seven innings, Hendricks allowed just three hits while garnering 11 strikeouts versus just two walks without yielding an earned run. For his efforts, Hendricks cut his season ERA from 5.40 to where it stands now at 3.54.
Opposing Hendricks on the mound Friday will be southpaw Robbie Ray (0-1, 3.95 ERA). Ray, whose last start came against the Cubs on April 21, pitched well enough to get the victory, but could only watch from the dugout as David Bote walked his club off with an RBI single in the ninth inning.
Over six innings of work, the left-hander allowed just one earned run on four hits while striking out four batters versus one walk.
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