People who think a pitcher’s record is of utmost importance probably don’t like Jon Lester very much. And I’d have to imagine someone who knows nothing about baseball would’ve have had a pretty low opinion of him after seeing a scorecard of today’s game, too. I mean, it’s easy to jump to erroneous conclusions after seeing K, K, K next to a guy’s name. Thankfully, I don’t have to deal with any of those folks here.
Despite entering Wednesday’s game with a 3.32 ERA, 3.10 xFIP, and 3.00 FIP, Lester has often been treated like Dr. Frankepstein’s monster by the townsfolk who had expected him to pitch shutouts every time he took the bump. I mean, for that kind of money, you’d expect the guy to at least have a no-hitter or two by now. But the bum couldn’t even get through two thirds of an inning in his most recent outing before losing the no-no.
Of course, he did strike out 7 of the first 9 batters he faced and had 9 K’s through the 4th inning en route to a total of 14 that was the most by a Cubs pitcher since Mark Prior fanned two more than than in 2004. It was also the first time since 1914 that a Cubs lefty has totaled so many strikeouts. I know what you’re thinking: surely someone like Chris Rusin, Jamie Moyer, or Terry Mulholland must have racked up at least that many. But you’d be wrong.
I can’t speak for the rosters of the first several decades of the 20th century, but I know there seemed to be a conscious effort to avoid lefty starters during the late 90’s. You want a fun activity that will have you alternating between laughter and incredulity? Google “Cubs roster 199[insert pretty much any number here]” and peruse the pitching staffs. I suppose at some point my kids will one day play a game in which they try to name the most random Cubs players from this era, but man, those 90’s teams are replete with obscurity.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, Lester. Intended to be the leader of a resurgent team, the big contract he was given in the offseason has put a target on the avid hunter’s back. That’s why, after a few rough starts and an overblown focus on his inability to throw over to first to hold runners, some Cubs fans started to look at the de facto ace as though he had just killed Cecil the lion. Then again, that’s par for the course when you get paid a boatload of money to throw a ball in Chicago. I wonder if Lester’s an anti-vaxxer too.
But this isn’t the veteran hurler’s first rodeo and he’s not about to be fazed by a little bad press and a few catcalls. No, he appears to be impervious, immune even, to the pressure that comes with the paycheck. To wit, Lester has done his best work here in July after limping through five June starts in which he went 0-3 and allowed 17 earned runs. His ERA in June was a bloated 5.74, though his 3.74 FIP and 3.53 xFIP indicate that some breaks went his way. Even so, everyone was happy to turn the page in the calendar.
Lester went at least 7 innings in each of his six July starts, compiling a 1.66 ERA with a 1.62 FIP and an xFIP of 2.29; and that’s including the 4 earned run game against the Sox. He struck out 50 men — 50, if it was 1 — against just 5 walks and allowed only a single home run, and that to the blistering Carlos Gonzalez. I don’t care how you feel about advanced metrics, you have to see that Lester was doing more than enough to earn wins for his team. Yet he was still only able to scratch out 2 W’s as the Cubs limped to a 3-3 record in his starts. One of those wins came Wednesday afternoon.
It might sound a bit odd to say that a random game against a bad team in late July is a big deal, but the way the Cubs have been playing lately absolutely makes it so. Had Lester fallen apart and cost the Cubs the rubber game against the Rockies, things could have gotten really out of hand. There was a palpable sense of latent anger after the Phillies series, almost as though the residents of Cubville had locked themselves in their homes and were getting turnt on a mixture of sizzurp and distilled chagrin, prepping molotov cocktails of angst all the while.
Yes, there was a more than a bit of disquietude heading into Wednesday. But with his best start in pinstripes, Lester helped to calm the jangly nerves like a nice, warm cup of chamomile tea with a side of Xanax. Funny thing about Cubs fans though: we can never seem to stay happy for very long. In order to further placate the rabble, this team is going to need to take care of business up in Milwaukee over the next four games. After that, things get a little tougher.
After passing through the Cheddar Curtain for a long weekend, the Cubs travel to Pittsburgh for three games and then return to Wrigley to host the Giants, the team they’re chasing for the second Wild Card spot for another four-gamer. I say without a trace of bombast that these next 11 games will be huge when it comes to determining whether the Cubs are serious contenders or whether they’ll simply fade to black down the stretch.
If Jon Lester can continue to pitch like he has of late though, there might yet be a little color in the picture for this team. And maybe in the cheeks of those screaming about how overpaid their “ace” is as well.