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Jon Lester slowly finding his way with Cubs

CHICAGO -- Jon Lester is heading in the right direction, not that the projected Chicago Cubs ace sees that development entirely as a positive.

Signed to a six-year, $155 million deal in the offseason, Lester wasn't planning on a gradual transition to the top of the Cubs' starting staff. Yet that is how it has turned out following three starts that have been less than what was expected.

The latest came against the San Diego Padres on Sunday, when Lester couldn't protect an early lead and the offense failed to support him in a 5-2 defeat.

Lester lasted just 5⅓ innings, throwing 97 pitches as he fell to 0-2. His next chance for his first Cubs victory will come next weekend at Cincinnati.

"I don't like to evaluate things that way in terms of being almost there or not almost there, whatever, but it was better," Lester said. "The infield had a busy day, which was good. If you want to break it down -- I don't want to say it was one pitch that did me in -- but I didn't execute the cutter in to [Will] Middlebrooks, and he made me pay for it."

The Cubs had taken a 2-0 lead in the first inning on RBI singles from Jorge Soler and Chris Coghlan, although the porous Padres defense was as much to blame with two errors in the opening frame.

A half-inning later, the Padres tied it on Middlebrooks' towering drive. San Diego went ahead for good in the sixth when Will Venable hit an RBI single off Brian Schlitter, but the run was charged to Lester, who gave up a walk and a single to open the inning.

"He's getting better; he's getting a little bit sharper with everything," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Lester. "You could see he was still frustrated on certain pitches today. I thought this one or the next one, you're going to really see him getting back to normal.

"It was a nice step forward today -- some better cutters in the latter part of the game, some curveball strikes, some changeups that were effective; fastball velocity was pretty much normal."

Maddon trusts that his projected top pitcher will find his way very soon, so conversations with Lester have been more of the pep-talk variety rather than venturing too far into what he is doing wrong mechanically.

"We're talking to him all the time, and he made a lot of progress today, so it was a good day," Maddon said. "He sets high standards for himself and I understand that. I really do appreciate that. He was better. Next time out, you should see him beginning to put it all together. That would have been the conclusion of spring training for him today."

Lester went through a dead-arm period during spring training but did not mention it once Sunday, so he clearly isn't using it as an excuse.

He continues to ride the teeter-totter that alternates from frustration to optimism, and Sunday gave him more reason to rest on the optimistic side.

"There is always frustration," he said. "Your ultimate goal is to win the game, but as a pitcher you have to sit back and separate that and evaluate. It was better, but that doesn't take away the frustration and that doesn't take away from doing my job. Like I said last time, I'm kind of the loose end of the chain of the five right now. That'll change. That will be better. That will tighten up, and I will be more like myself and go deeper in the ballgames."

The Cubs can feel good knowing that if their loose chain in the rotation is somebody with the track record of Lester, then that bodes well for the future when he starts to figure it out.

Once Lester starts getting opponents to consistently beat his cut fastball into the ground, he expects to deliver the kind of results that earned him his megadeal in the first place.

"The cutter's still not all the way there from the stretch, but it came around from the windup, I thought," catcher David Ross said. "The breaking ball, he flipped in for strikes a lot better, used some good changeups to guys, commanded the two-seamer and four-seamer away and then we went in. We didn't go in much today, but the backdoor cutter's coming around."

While seeing the progress, Lester still doesn't want to get too far ahead of himself.

"Like I've always said, I'm accountable for my actions and my actions right now are not where they need to be, and that will change," he said. "I've done this for a pretty long time and I understand where we're at. Now it's a matter of making those in-game adjustments when I need to.

"Today was a lot better. I didn't execute, obviously, the homer pitch. That kills you. Any time the ball leaves the ballpark, that's never good. So, yeah, keep grinding. I'm not going anywhere. Show up tomorrow, get back to work good, bad or indifferent, and look forward to the next one."