Lester's cutter getting hit hard in past two starts

May 24th, 2019

CHICAGO -- Following his start for the Cubs on Thursday, was unable to pinpoint the exact issue that has hindered him from looking like himself on the mound of late. The veteran left-hander was asked if it was a mechanical problem or one pitch that was going awry.

"Everything," Lester replied. "The way the ball's coming out. Just standing on the mound feels wrong right now. Something doesn't feel right. We'll figure it out. I've been here before. I'm just not making good pitches."

Prior to Friday's series opener against the Reds, Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said Thursday's four-inning start from Lester was just one of those outings when the in-game adjustments did not happen as swiftly as necessary. Hottovy also noted that Lester -- like many pitchers -- is in that part of the season where routines collide with the rigors of the schedule.

"We had so many off-days early," Hottovy said. "This is the first real stretch of five days, start, five days, start, five days, start. So, you kind of get into that workload. We've had guys throwing a lot of innings already, so workload's been heavy. Now, we're in that five-day window. So, one thing we have to manage is the amount of work between starts and what we can work on."

Looking specifically at Thursday's performance, in which Lester allowed seven runs (four earned) on seven hits, Hottovy pointed to the left-hander's cut fastball.

"Jon just didn't have the same feel for his cutter that he has had," Hottovy said. "And that's been such a big pitch for him. But, mechanically, there were some things that we talked about during the game, little adjustments we were trying to make. It was just one of those days where he wasn't able to make them as fast as he'd like."

Over his first seven starts this season, Lester spun a 1.16 ERA with 39 strikeouts and eight walks in 38 2/3 innings. Within that, opposing hitters had a .132 batting average (7-for-53), .283 slugging percentage and an 83.6 mph average exit velocity against his cutter, per Statcast. Over his past two outings, in which Lester has a 9.72 ERA in 8 1/3 innings, opponents posted a .615 average (8-for-13), 1.077 slugging percentage and a 98.2 mph exit velocity on his cutter.

"Am I worried about him going forward? No, absolutely not," Hottovy said. "We know what we need to work on, and it's just about him getting back off the mound."

Worth noting
• Prior to Friday's game, the Cubs recalled right-hander from Triple-A Iowa to add a fresh arm to a fatigued Chicago bullpen. In order to clear a spot on the staff, the Cubs optioned righty Rowan Wick to Iowa. Wick worked the fifth inning of Thursday's 9-7 loss to the Phillies. He struck out one and gave up one run with the help of an infield hit and a bloop ground-rule double.

"He threw hard, threw strikes," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "The one thing he didn't really feel early on was his curveball, which is really a good pitch for him. And that just could've been first time out, a little bit of nerves, and that's fine. But I thought he represented himself well. I told him so. For me, from the side, I thought he was in control of his emotions. He went right after the hitters. It was unfortunate how they scored their run, but I kind of liked it."

• Rookie entered Friday having appeared in 28 games for the Cubs this year mostly as a pinch-hitter. Zagunis carried a .257 average and a .676 OPS in 39 plate appearances into the weekend series against the Reds, with his last 13 games consisting of pinch-hit assignments. Maddon said he has debated whether Zagunis, who has not started since April 26, would be better served getting regular at-bats at Triple-A.

"I've had those discussions with [the front office], absolutely," Maddon said. "I am concerned with that. However, he handles it so well that he makes me not be as concerned. But, yes, he's too young to sit this long. He needs more consistent at-bats to be part of his development, too."

• Maddon has liked what he's seen from left fielder so far out of the leadoff spot. Through eight games atop the order entering Friday, Schwarber had a .267/.368/.567 slash line with two homers, six walks, six RBIs, eight hits and eight runs scored. The slugger then led off the bottom of the first against Anthony DeSclafani with a home run to right, the first leadoff homer of his career.

"If you look at his overall abilities as they stand right now," Maddon said, "for me, that's a perfect spot for him, especially in our lineup. He's made some adjustments recently. He's more mature as a hitter. He's understanding how to get better. All those things are involved. So, I like it."

• Maddon said the Cubs are still deciding whether Willson Contreras or Victor Caratini will be behind the plate for Yu Darvish on Saturday. Darvish has not been paired with Contreras since April 20. Since then, Taylor Davis (now at Triple-A) or Caratini have caught the pitcher.