Jon Lester worked his way back following surgery to remove one of our parathyroid glands this spring, after he’d felt sluggish and didn’t have the energy he thought he should, but in the days before the season opener, he and ten other players were placed on the COVID-IL, and the second delay in his build-up for the season kept him out of action in the majors for most of the month of April.
This afternoon, in advance of the start of the Nationals’ three-game set with Miami’s Marlins, the 37-year-old, 15-year veteran was reinstated, and announced as the starter in what would be the first outing of his 16th season in the majors.
He got up to six innings and 90 pitches in his final simulated outing before taking the hill in the majors, but Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez said he would be watching the lefty closely as he started for the first time in a Nationals uniform.
“We’ll definitely keep an eye on him. It’s his first outing of the year, so we’ll keep an eye on him,” Martinez told reporters in his pregame Zoom call.
“We’ll hopefully — the biggest thing with him is to throw strikes, he’s a strike thrower.
“We’ll definitely keep an eye on his fastball location, his curveball, and his cutter, and we’ll go from there. I expect him to go out there and go as long as he can.”
Martinez, who knows Lester well from the time the two spent together with the Chicago Cubs between 2015-17, was excited to get the southpaw going in his first season in D.C. after signing a 1-year/$5M free agent deal this winter.
“I’m very excited. We joked around on the phone yesterday about he made me wait so long already to get him out there, so I’m excited for him to go out there,” Martinez said.
“One thing I know about [Lester] is that he’s a heck of a competitor. I mean, you talk about [Max] Scherzer going out there and competing, this guy is probably one of the best that I’ve seen out there as far as competing. The way he goes out there and takes the ball and never wants to come out of the game and wants to do well for his teammates.
“He’s somebody that we missed so far this whole year, because he’s one of those guys in that clubhouse that keep everybody going.
“We’re really excited to have him back today, like I said, we deemed that he’s ready to go and he’s super-excited to pitch here.”
Lester tossed five scoreless on 70 pitches, working out of some jams, with some help from his defense, and putting together a solid outing in his 2021 debut, in which he gave up five hits, struck out one, and walked a couple batters, both intentional walks.
Jon Lester’s Line: 5.0 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 70 P, 46 S, 8/3 GO/FO.
Lester’s former teammate with the Cubs, Kyle Schwarber, won it in the 10th, with a walk-off bomb that put the Nationals up 2-1 after the Marlins scored a run in the top of the inning.
Lester wasn’t surprised that Schwarber came through with a big hit.
“No, I always feel like he hits so well when I pitch,” Lester said. “It’s probably because he messed something up out there in left field, but we won’t go there.”
He was joking.
“That’s a running joke between us,” Lester explained.” I know Schwarbs, the big thing with him is he’s giving you 110% regardless of who’s out there every day. He’ll run through that wall, literally run through the wall for you if he can.
“He’s such a competitor that any time he’s up there, obviously tonight in the 10th, to get that W is huge. But any time — he can always do that, he can go bridge, and that was obviously big for us. A struggle tonight, so it was good. I love seeing Schwarbs go deep obviously if I’m pitching. If I’m not pitching it’s a good thing for us.”
Lester’s manager liked what he saw from the southpaw in his initial outing with his new club.
“He threw the ball well,” Martinez said. “He gave us five shutout innings, which is what we needed. Our bullpen was well-rested. It was one of those nights where it was cold, windy, I thought he did a great job, like I said, he gave us five scoreless innings, and I thought that was good enough.”
While he’s lost some velocity over the years, Lester knows how to pitch with what he has now, and his manager said he did what was expected while on the mound.
“He kept the ball down, which we talked about a lot with him coming in here, even this spring. Just get the ball down and use both sides of the plate, and he did that really well.”
While he isn’t completely where he wants to be, stuff-wise, Lester was happy with the results he got overall.
“There were some hard-hit balls tonight, but at the same time we got some weak contact in there as well, which I’ll build off of, but something to build off of. Like I said, the stuff wasn’t quite there, but we were able to navigate.
“Alex [Avila] doing a great job back there of navigating me through that whole thing.”
When he got through five, Martinez thought that was good enough for the first time out this season.
“He wanted to go back out. I’m not going to lie to you, you know. But that’s the kind of guy he is.”
Lester said it was just an important step for him to get out there in a big league game and setting.
“I think for me it’s getting out there, it’s getting my feet under me and kind of building off of tonight. I think any time you can get in a big league game you can start evaluating for what [your pitches] are as opposed to trying to nitpick things when you’re down in a situation that doesn’t really have any — I guess any results — you can roll the inning any time you want, there’s no accountability I guess is what I’m trying to say. To be here it makes things where you can analyze a little bit more.”
“Jon was Jon,” Schwarber said after the walk-off win.
“I’ve seen it for five years now, going on six, and he’s been doing it for way longer than I’ve seen him doing it. The guy is an ultimate professional.
“I know that he was itching to get back out here and get on the mound and contribute to getting some wins out here. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get the job done for him there, and get him that first W under his best, but the guy pitched one hell of a ballgame.”