'Pretty special': Lester deals, HRs in blowout

July 20th, 2021

WASHINGTON -- had been looking for answers. His past two starts had lasted a combined six innings, and something had to change in the second half of his 16th season.

Step 1: Throw seven scoreless innings.

Step 2: Wallop a home run for good measure.

Lester did it all in the Nats’ 18-1 victory over the Marlins on Monday at Nationals Park. The veteran southpaw tossed his longest outing since July 27, 2019, as a member of the Cubs. Lester allowed six hits and fanned seven off an efficient 81 pitches (59 strikes). In comparison, he used 80 pitches to get through 2 2/3 innings in his last start on July 10 in San Francisco. Lester improved to 3-4 on the season and tallied career win No. 196.

“I told him after we took him out, that’s the guy that I’ve seen for many, many years,” manager Dave Martinez, who previously worked with Lester on the Cubs, said. “His stuff is still good. He just can’t be afraid to throw it and nibble. Just attack the hitters … and he did that tonight.”

Lester had pitched to a 2-4 record and a 5.54 ERA in the first half of the season. Six of his 14 starts had lasted four innings or less, and his strikeout per nine innings rate dropped to 6.0. But Lester clearly looked reinvigorated as he came back from the All-Star break with eight days of rest in between starts.

“I think sometimes when you struggle, you kind of look for things that aren’t there,” Lester said. “To kind of get away and just forget about mechanics, forget about throwing a baseball, working out, all that stuff, just kind of get back to neutral, I think it’s always good for us. So that was kind of where I was at, kind of cleared my mind a little bit, kind of went back to basics.”

Lester may have turned even more heads with his work at the plate, where a line-drive single to right field in the second inning was just a preview of what he had in store. In the fifth, he rocked a Statcast-projected 419-foot home run to center field off a 92.5 mph fastball from David Hess. His family was in the stands to watch the not-so-common occurrence.

“Just a blind squirrel finding a nut, I guess,” Lester said. “I don’t know how other pitchers hit, but I’m probably the idiot that guesses along like I would pitch guys. I figured he would throw me a heater and try to be on time. I got it and fortunately didn’t miss it. Pretty cool moment.”

It was Lester’s fourth career home run, and his fourth and fifth hits of the season.

“Why do you think I pinch-hit him all the time?” Martinez said with a laugh.

Lester (37 years, 193 days old) became the oldest pitcher to hit a homer since Bartolo Colon (42 years, 349 days) on May 7, 2016. He also was the first Nationals pitcher to go yard since Stephen Strasburg on July 18, 2019. His blast was one foot shy of tying Strasburg’s 420-foot record for a Nats pitcher.

“It’s pretty special,” Lester said. “I try not to go up there and screw up, is really all I’m trying to do. … I’ve got to play this game a long time, I’ve got to be a part of a lot of cool teams and [I’m] very, very fortunate for that. Just happy to help out.”

On a night when Washington set a new season mark for most runs scored in a game, Lester was one of many swinging a hot bat. Juan Soto went yard twice, bringing his post-Home Run Derby total to five in his past four games. Josh Bell hit his longest dinger as a member of the Nats (446 feet), Tres Barrera belted his first Major League home run and Trea Turner clocked his 18th homer of the season. The Nationals’ six home runs set a single-game high this year.

“When a starter can get three or four at-bats, that’s a pretty good day for us,” said Martinez.