Jon Lester didn’t last long in his start against the Tampa Bay Rays on the road last week in Tropicana Field, throwing 91 pitches in just 3 2⁄3 innings pitched, over which he gave up a total of just four hits and one earned run.
He did walk four batters in that outing, a season-high, and with the high pitch count, the Nationals went to the bullpen early in what ended up a 3-1 loss.
“His pitch count shot up on him,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Uncharacteristic. He was behind a lot of hitters, but I thought he battled really well. He gave us everything he had.
“Just ... his pitch count got up high and we just had to get him out at that moment.”
“Just a lot of balls,” Lester said when asked about his pitch count soaring against the Rays.
“Just for whatever reason couldn’t find the strike zone, with really anything. Fell behind counts, and once you kind of fall behind, you have to figure out a way to get back in the counts and just wasn’t able to do that.”
Fast forward a week, and Lester last night tossed 5 1⁄3 innings on 86 pitches, giving up six hits, one walk, and two earned runs in what ended up 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Jon Lester’s Line: 5.1 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 2 Ks, 86 P, 54 S, 11/2 GO/FO.
Lester worked around a single in the first, gave up a home run on a 2-2 cutter that didn’t get in enough on Pirates’ shortstop Kevin Newman in the second, stranded a one-out double in the third, and a one-out single in the fourth, and retired the side in order in the fifth.
He gave up a leadoff double in the sixth, which came around to score, but after he was out of the game, after having recorded one out in the top of the inning.
After throwing 60 pitches in the first three innings, a six-pitch fourth and a 12-pitch fifth set him up to go back out for the sixth for just the fourth time in nine starts so far this season.
“I don’t know what it is about here recently, or I guess just this year, but the old 1-2-3 inning has kind of been elusive for me this year, whether I put myself into it with a walk or just giving up a hit, you know,” Lester said when he spoke on a Zoom call after the Nationals’ win, “ ... so I was able to get — what was it — I think one that kind of really put me back into it, I think it was like a six-pitch inning, seven-pitch inning, so that was huge just to get me back to kind of neutral there, and then come back out in the sixth and give up the leadoff double, which puts you right back in that position of grinding.
“Hopefully we can kind of figure that out and whether it’s a pitch mix or just not executing, I don’t know what, but we’ll figure it out and hopefully get a few more of those innings under my belt.”
Lester mixed in five pitches in the outing, with a fairly even distribution of the four-seamer (29%), changeup (23%), cutter (23%), sinker (19%), and curveball (6%), which is something he’s struggled to do with some pitches more or less effective in previous outings, leading him to lean on his four-seamer (36%) and cutter (27.3%) more. But last night, he had all his pitches working.
“He had all four pitches working. His changeup was good, curveball was good, his cutter was really sharp tonight, it was a good pitch for him.”
“Yeah, I mean, obviously I face these guys a lot,” Lester said of the Pirates, who he faced often over the six years he was in the Chicago Cubs’ rotation seeing Pittsburgh all of the time as a divisional rival, “so there’s not really a whole to kind of really hide from them. I’ve been beaten by them by being stubborn and trying to pitch in with the fastball, cutter a little too much. We really just tried to mix that sinker and that changeup away and threw a few four-seamers into there to maybe get them guessing as far as to which way the ball is going to go. The cutter wasn’t as big of a pitch tonight, just because they are kind of so geared up in off of me.
“Obviously the home run, which I thought was a pretty good pitch, I don’t know how he kept that fair, but — and curveball still a work in progress, so we’re grinding along with that. But threw some decent ones with that tonight. So, yeah, it’s just a matter of familiarity and trying to go against that grain a little bit.”
Lester kept the Nationals in the game, holding the Pirates to just the two runs, and his one-time Cubs teammate, Kyle Schwarber, came through with a big home run in the seventh.
“He keeps us in the ballgame, he really does,” Martinez said of Lester’s work, for which he received no decision, leaving him (0-2) on the year.
“Hopefully in his next start we’ll get that first win for him as a Nat, but he’s doing everything he can to keep us in the game and give us a chance to win.”
“I mean, as long as we win the game I don’t really care,” Lester said when asked about still not earning his first curly-W nine starts into his 1-year/$5M deal with the Nationals. “I think that’s the biggest thing. As long as I’m able to keep the guys close and give them a chance, and hopefully put the relievers in the best situations possible, and at the end of the day a W is a W regardless, you know, about the starting pitching side of it. At the end of the day, we got to win ballgames and I don’t really care how it happens.”