Once the Washington Nationals got starter Jon Lester back in camp, following surgery to remove one of four parathyroid glands, manager Davey Martinez talked about how they’d handle the veteran lefty as they built him up for the start of the regular season on April 1, though, as a back-end starter in D.C., he likely won’t throw until a few days into the season.
“I feel like, he’s a little bit ahead of the game right now, because his body feels so good, but we don’t want to put a timeline on him when it comes to going on the mound,” the skipper said earlier this month.
“We want to make sure that he is totally healthy, because he was in a good place before he had the surgery. He was throwing the ball really well, so we want to make sure we continue that, and when he comes back nothing changes mechanically, and he’s able to get on the mound without worrying about any other issues.”
Lester, 37, signed a 1-year/$5M deal with the Nationals this winter, and he said upon getting back to West Palm Beach following the procedure, that it was something he wanted to get done sooner than later, but the fact that he was able to get it done early in Spring Training, he thought, would allow time to build up for the regular season.
“I felt like this was something selfishly that I needed to do, not only for my health, but to hopefully help this team win and pitch well,” he said.
His role as a back-end starter behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, he said, also allowed him to do what needed to be done, with the comfort of knowing they would pick him up if necessary.
“I think too you have the three guys in front of you, it’s like, okay, if I miss one they’ll be able to pick me up,” Lester said, “but that being said I do pride myself on making all my starts, so that’s what we’re going to strive for.”
Having worked in a sort-of-sim-game in his previous outing before going up against the New York Mets in his 2021 Grapefruit League debut yesterday, Lester’s manager said, and having thrown a total of 40 pitches in that sim game, the next step would be some limited action in a Grapefruit League game.
“He says he feels real good,” Martinez said earlier this week.
“We’ll see how [far] he can go. We definitely want to get him two innings, I figure stretch him to get into that third inning, we’ll see if we can do that.”
Updating reporters before Thursday’s game, the manager said the plan was still the same.
“I’m excited about it, one, that he’s back out on the mound and competing. That’s what he loves to do,” Martinez said.
“Secondly, it’s just to kind of watch his body and see how he is going to react first time facing another team. His adrenaline is going to be pumping.
“He’s a guy that throws a lot of strikes. He’s always around the plate, so we’ll keep an eye on that stuff.
“And like I said before with all these other guys, it’s just watching his mechanics and seeing where he’s at.”
“But he’s a veteran guy. He’s another one who understands what he wants to do out there, so we’ll just keep an eye on him and let him get — hopefully get to 35-40 pitches and see how it goes.”
It went reasonably well.
In his first inning of work, Lester gave up a 2-out walk on 3-2 pitch to J.D. Davis he thought was good for strike three, then an RBI double by James McCann on a first-pitch changeup, 1-0 NY after one.
After a 23-pitch first inning, he retired the side in order in an eight-pitch second, picking up a strikeout with an 0-2 cutter to Brandon Drury for out No. 3 and finishing up two innings of work on 31 pitches overall.
That was it for Lester in a relatively brief initial outing.
“I thought he did really well,” Martinez said after what ended up a 3-1 win over the Nationals’ divisional rivals. “He threw strikes, and that’s what we know about Jon. His changeup was really good. His cutter was good. So, I was very pleased. The good news is he came out of the game and he felt really good.”
“Felt good. Felt good to not face our own guys,” Lester said in his own post-game Zoom call with reporters.
“Get in kind of a little bit more game atmosphere. It’s nice to see fans in the stands. I know it’s been a thing this spring, but I haven’t gotten to experience it yet.
“That was nice. Physically felt good. Kind of build from here physically, I think. The stuff, felt like I had times where it was good, and other times maybe a little flat on a couple of the pitches.
“For the most part, like I said, first time was good to get up and down a couple times too.”
Martinez stopped the start when he did, after talking about maybe getting Lester out for the third, because he thought the southpaw did enough.
“I was very pleased,” the manager said. “He came out, he felt good. It was hot today, he really was, so we wanted to get him through that second inning as we did.”
Is there still enough time to get the lefty ready for the start of the regular season?
“Yeah, I think so,” Lester said, with time for another couple outings this spring.
“I think on the teams I’ve been on in the past,” he added, “I know the first month you’re really not allowed to go kind of deep into that pitch count, you’re still kind of building.
“Maybe not the full first month, but maybe the first couple weeks of the month.
“Now it becomes important to try to win ballgames and save your bullpen and all that, so I think we’ll be able to get there.
“Today was probably — what? — a little over 30 or so, and I think I have three more, so yeah, I think we’ll be in a good position.
“That first one may be hindered by some pitches, or a pitch count, but after that it should be relatively normal and going from there.”
“As of right now,” Martinez said, “we’ll see how he gets up tomorrow, but I think he’s on the right track. We’ll build him up to 75-80 pitches here in a couple more starts, and then after that it’s the season, so we’ll see how he feels tomorrow and go from there.”