'Nothing fazes this guy': Lester stifles Tribe

August 12th, 2020

David Ross could not help the memories from coming back as he walked around Progressive Field on Tuesday. Four years later, he could still picture giving his speech in the visitors' weight room and the raucous celebration that followed.

When Ross walked into the visiting manager's office as the skipper of the Cubs, his mind's eye saw former manager Joe Maddon calling him in and explaining his role for Game 7 of the World Series in Cleveland. Ross would enter the game when took over on the mound.

"There's definitely some memories here," Ross said before the Cubs' 7-1 win over the Indians on Tuesday night. "It's good to be back."

Things have changed a lot for Chicago since 2016, and are seemingly evolving by the day in this volatile and unique '20 campaign. Lester is not the same pitcher who took the mound against the Tribe back then, Ross is his manager now and both are continuously adapting to changing circumstances.

Logistics alone have been an obstacle this year.

Lester was supposed to take the mound for the Cubs on Friday, but the North Siders had their weekend series in St. Louis postponed due to the Cardinals working through a series of positive COVID-19 tests within the team. So, Lester adapted. He threw a normal bullpen session Saturday and flew to Cleveland on Tuesday morning.

"I have to say," Lester said, "it's the first time since probably Triple-A that I've flown the day of pitching, so that was a little weird for me."

No matter, Lester beat the Tribe with six strong innings on Tuesday, leading the Cubs to their seventh win in eight games and an 11-3 record on the young season.

"When you kind of let off the gas or the mindset," Lester said, "I think that's when it can get you in trouble. I didn't do any more, I didn't do any less. I just did my normal in-between deal. I did feel a little bit rusty out there."

Maybe it was that rust that helped Cleveland put two runners aboard with two outs in the first, before Lester escaped with a strikeout of slugger Franmil Reyes. The 36-year-old left-hander settled in from there, allowing only two baserunners in a stretch of 16 batters between the first and sixth frames.

Lester leaned heavily on his two most reliable pitches, firing 29 cutters and 29 four-seamers. His third-most used weapon was the changeup, which generated three whiffs and got the attention of Indians manager Terry Francona (Lester's former skipper in Boston).

"He's a different Lester than maybe we've seen ... years ago," Francona said. "He cuts the ball in on the righties and he throws a changeup away. You can’t hit both. We're kind of in that mode right now where we’re trying to hit everything."

The changeup was another bit of adapting on Lester's part.

During Spring Training, Lester actually felt his curveball was the best of his offspeed options. After the three-month shutdown, the lefty returned for Summer Camp and found that the changeup was operating more effectively. So, three starts into this campaign, Lester has rolled with it.

"The changeup and the curveball sometimes flip-flop," Lester said. "So, you kind of have to ride that wave. I'm riding that right now with the change and it kind of played into the game plan tonight with these guys."

With his performance, Lester improved to 2-0 with a 1.06 ERA through three starts, in which he has allowed just seven hits in 17 innings.

The unexpected four-day break threw a wrench into Lester's routine, but he looked undeterred in Cleveland.

"Nothing fazes this guy," Ross said. "He's the ultimate competitor. He's going to figure out a way to win, to beat you, and he's going to give it everything he's possibly got."

The hiatus could have slowed Chicago's lineup, but it rattled off a five-run sixth -- powered by Jason Heyward's three-run homer -- and ended the Tribe's 17-game streak of no more than four runs relinquished.

"That was probably the most impressive part," Lester said, "was just the energy that guys had coming in today."

Part of that energy has been self-generated by the players, who have been rowdy in the dugout throughout the first 14 games. They were howling when worked an 11-pitch at-bat in the second and screaming when roped a double into the right-field corner in the third.

In this strange season, the Cubs have placed an importance on the vocal component. They want to pitch and hit and shout their way back to the World Series, creating more memories for years down the road.

"Everybody in that room is used to playing, really, the full season, eight months," Lester said. "So, you've got to pack a lot of emotions into 60 games. And hopefully it works out for the best in the end. It's kind of cool. It's kind of cool to have this pressure on you from Day 1."