'Vintage' Lester arrives as October looms

September 12th, 2020

The pitch that Cubs lefty delivered to Keston Hiura in the fifth inning on Friday night appeared destined for the strike zone's outer edge. The Brewers’ second baseman began his swing, but then the changeup faded away, eluding the end of the bat.

Lester stared in and let out a howl after the strikeout ended the inning and stranded a runner on third base. While the Cubs ended with a 1-0 loss in walk-off fashion at Miller Park, this was vintage Lester going toe to toe with Brewers ace Brandon Woodruff.

"He looked like he was himself," Cubs manager David Ross said of Lester.

And it came at a great time for Chicago, which has needed more from its rotation and its veteran leader as the days are crossed off and October looms. and have carried the staff, which otherwise has been beset with inconsistency and injuries.

Neither Lester nor Woodruff factored into the decision on Friday night, but they engaged in a classic duel. Woodruff piled up a dozen strikeouts over seven frames of one-hit ball. Lester struck out a season-high eight over six shutout innings, scattering three hits.

Following the game -- won on a walk-off sacrifice fly from Ryan Braun in the ninth inning -- Lester and Woodruff raved about the other.

"That dude's stuff is incredible," Lester said. "He should be a fixture in baseball as a dominant pitcher for a long time."

"Vintage Jon," said Woodruff. "He was throwing that cutter, mixing it up, getting strikes and getting ahead. Getting weak contact -- that's his game."

That is indeed Lester's game, but it had gone missing in recent weeks.

This showing came after Lester posted a 9.26 ERA over his past five turns for Chicago, which holds a three-game lead in the National League Central standings. After his outing on Sunday against the Cardinals, Lester even admitted that his confidence was wavering.

"You're going to have [bad] games," Lester said. "But when it's back to back to back to back, it's just, you just want to beat your head against the wall. You're always searching for answers."

Ross, who still to this day has caught more of Lester's career innings than anyone, knew the veteran was at a mental low point.

"I was worried about him," Ross said. "I've had multiple friends call and text that they were just worried about where his head space was. ... When you feel like that, and you don't know what to do or where to go, it's just very – ‘frustrating’ is not even the word.

"It just kind of beats you down, because that's a lonely place out there on the mound when you don't feel like you're on top of your game, especially with the resume that Jon has and how well he's done over his career. Getting hit around is not something he's used to."

All of that said, Cubs catcher expressed before Friday's game that this was really more about Lester's delivery than anything else.

"No, it's not about confidence," Contreras said. "It's just about mechanical issues. That's what I'm seeing."

Contreras noted that Lester had been flying open early in his delivery and "pushing" his pitches. Ross recently pointed out that the lefty has not been burying his cutter inside to righties. Between outings, Lester focused on those areas, and more, with pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and catching coach Mike Borzello.

Lester truly felt like he found something.

"I just needed to figure out what was going on," Lester said. "I don't want to say we reinvented the wheel or we found some magical cure or anything, but the adjustments that we did make in my bullpen, the stuff just translated better."

Look no further than Lester's battles with slugger Christian Yelich to find evidence of his dominance on this evening.

The 36-year-old southpaw struck Yelich out swinging three times -- once each on his sinker, cutter and curveball. It marked the first time that Yelich struck out swinging three times against the same pitcher in one game since July 20, 2014, when he did so versus Tim Lincecum.

Lester pounded the righties inside with the cutter, located his four-seamer well, flashed some impressive curveballs and changeups, and walked off the mound with 16 swinging strikes. That was a season high and tied his best mark (done twice) in the 2019 campaign.

Cubs center fielder said he told Lester this week that the lefty would be "just like normal Jonny" again soon enough.

"It was fantastic," Happ said. "He worked out of some jams, showed some emotion there in the middle. And you know he comes ready to go for the playoffs.”