It’s a question the team desperately needs an answer to before October rolls around. When the leaves begin to change colors, Lester is usually building toward his best stuff. But this year, the three-time World Series champion -- and bulldog of the Cubs’ rotation -- is struggling mightily. His latest loss was a bad one: 8-1 to the Rays, as he gave up seven runs in 4⅓ innings. His ERA since the All-Star break is a lofty 5.11 after Wednesday’s outing.
“Today was lack of command all the way around,” a frustrated Lester said. “Almost had too much movement on my sinker early on. Didn’t have command for it. Just have to figure out a way.”
Lester gave up eight hits and issued three walks without striking out a batter. It doesn’t take a pitching coach to understand that he isn’t fooling anyone right now, though this isn’t an issue of health or velocity, according to Lester and his statistics. According to ESPN Stats & Information, his fastball has averaged about 91 mph the entire season. Although he had a stint on the disabled list during the second half, he insists that he is healthy.
“We’re not going to make excuses and say that’s why I didn’t throw the ball well,” he said. “Physically, it’s September. You’re going to have ups and downs. I feel fine. There are no lingering effects from anything. There’s nothing physically wrong.”
So what is going on? We can identify the issues but not why they’re happening. The opposition is hitting .300 this season with a .480 slugging percentage against Lester on at-bats that end with his fastball. That’s up from .229/.378 last season. If his velocity is the same, it must be his location that is the problem. He grooved several pitches Wednesday, including one in the first inning that Steven Souza hit for a home run.
“I don’t know,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It was unfamiliar. Stuff-wise, command-wise, it was just an unfamiliar night from Jon.”
Command of the fastball is where it starts for most pitchers, and it’s usually where Maddon points when things go south, so perhaps some fine-tuning of that pitch is in order. But Lester didn’t like the feel of most of his pitches on Wednesday, which led to the question about whether he can put his finger on what’s going on.
“If I could, it wouldn’t happen,” Lester responded.
“I’m not worried about it. I’ve had good seasons, and I’ve had a couple bad ones. When you pitch a long time, you’re going to have those ups and downs. With that, you have to take the good with the bad. We’ll make an adjustment and figure it out. The good thing is it’s not physical. It’s a matter of getting back to what’s working for me in the past.”
Although the Cubs played a clunker of a game, the night wasn’t a complete loss, as the Milwaukee Brewers blew a late lead and fell to the Pittsburgh Pirates. That allowed the Cubs to remain 3.5 games ahead of the Brewers in the NL Central standings. The teams square off in a four-game series beginning on Thursday, with the Cubs still in command of their fate and more likely to make the postseason than not.
If so, where does Lester fit in? If last year is any indication, the Cubs have set up their rotation for him to start Game 1, but because of the break between the regular season and the League Division Series, they can make a change at any time. Everyone will have enough rest. Lester’s track record should give him the opportunity to find his game in his final two starts before the Cubs make any October decisions. But first thing first, they have to figure out why he isn't the Jon Lester who finished second in Cy Young voting last season.
“Since he’s come back [from the DL], he’s had some wins, but none of them have necessarily been Jon Lester sharp,” Maddon said. “I’m OK with lesser [velocity] numbers. It’s about the command because he is so good at throwing a strike when he wants to. … Ball out of the hand right now is not really where he wants it to be.”
Lester himself isn’t where he wants to be as the Cubs, along with their fans, look for answers. Can they find them in time? Can Lester?