Going into Saturday’s start, Jon Lester was throwing cutters (30.8%) and four-seam fastballs (30%) for 60.8% of his pitches this season, mixing in a changeup (17.6%), sinker (13.7%), and curveball (8.0%) in his first year with the Washington Nationals after signing a 1-year/$5M deal with the club this winter, which was similar to his pitch mix in 2020 in Chicago, but in his 16th major league season, opposing hitters had a .316 AVG on his cutter, and .391 AVG on his four-seam fastballs, up from .227 and .295, respectively, in his sixth season as a Cub last year.
What’s going on there?
“One, is falling behind and having to throw the four-seamer,” Davey Martinez said in a Zoom call before Lester started the second of three with the San Francisco Giants in Oracle Park on Saturday.
“And it’s in, a lot of it has been in to right-handed hitters, so we talked a lot the last four or five days about location and about working ahead.”
Lester expressed his frustration with the fact that he was putting himself in bad spots after he gave up six hits, four walks, and five runs (two earned) in just 3 1⁄3 IP against San Diego’s Padres in Petco Park earlier this week.
“I mean, that’s really it, just keep putting myself in bad situations, bad counts. I don’t have the stuff like I used to to pitch around those situations,” Lester said, “so you have to kind of pick and choose your spots to try to fight back into some counts, and I felt like I fell behind some of their big guys and then didn’t want to give in, and had some bases open, which then puts you in a bigger situations, and when you do execute a pitch you’ve thrown enough pitches where it doesn’t really matter, so just continue to beat myself and hopefully I can make the adjustment and figure this stuff out.”
What was his manager, who was with Lester in Chicago before they both ended up in D.C. together this season, looking for as the southpaw wrapped up his first half of 2021 against the Giants on Saturday afternoon?
“For him to attack the strike zone, keep the ball down, use his two-seamer, his changeup and pitch on both sides of the plate,” Martinez said. “But he’s got to attack the strike zone, and get ahead of hitters. When he does that he’s really good. Heck, he’s Jon Lester. The guy’s got a lot experience, a lot of wins under his belt, so I’m hoping that he goes out there and gives us the innings that we need. We need him to go 5-6-7 innings today. Our bullpen has been pitching a lot as we all know, so it would be nice if he could go out there and give us 6-7 innings.”
Lester gave the Nationals just 2 2⁄3 innings, and he left the mound with the club in an 8-0 hole, struggling again, but with a bunch of soft contact, two walks, and some misplays in the field hurting him and leading to an abbreviated outing in which he threw 80 pitches, with 46 for strikes.
Lester gave up a one-out walk, single, and had a runner reach on a dropped fly ball to the warning track in left-center by Gerardo Parra in the bottom of the first, loading the bases with Giants before a liner to left by Donovan Solano brought in the first run, 1-0. Parra got the next one hit his way, taking a fly ball off the top of the wall, but it was good for a sac fly by catcher Joey Bart, 2-0.
After an infield single loaded the bases back up, a swinging bunt by Thairo Estrada died in the grass on the left side as another run scored, 3-0 after one.
Darin Ruf hit a ground-rule double off the track and over the wall on a 2-2 sinker in the first at bat of the third, and he moved up when Solano reached on an error by Starlin Castro at third base, then scored on an RBI single to center by Brandon Crawford, 4-0. It was 5-0 after a jam-shot to center by Bart, and 6-0 on another infield single by Estrada. Austin Slater added to the lead with another jam shot on a 2-2 fastball inside that he powered out to left, 7-0.
Mike Yastrzemski added a bases-loaded sac fly to make it 8-0 before Martinez came out to pull his starter.
So what do you take away from a start when you weren’t hit very hard, had some soft liners, and weak rollers and several misplays cause the damage?
“Yeah, I mean, it kind of is what it is,” Lester said after the Nationals’ 10-4 loss.
“It doesn’t really matter how hard they hit it, it’s still a hit, still runs, kind of same song and dance as the last couple here. Maybe a little reset button and get ready for the second half.”
“It was tough, but his pitch count got way up there. We had to do something,” Martinez said of pulling Lester when he did.
“They didn’t hit the ball very hard off him,” the manager continued. “But you know, again, he fell behind a couple times, he didn’t walk as many guys today, but when you fall behind and you have to throw strikes those things do happen. I’ve seen Jon Lester a lot sharper, he wasn’t as sharp today, but once again they didn’t hit the ball very hard off him throughout the — I think they had one ball that Ruf hit that was really hit hard, sharp to right-center field, other than that, a bunch of infield hits, a bunch of balls that our outfielders couldn’t get to.”
Lester did have a five-start stretch between May 29th and June 19th in which he put up a 2.55 ERA, seven walks, 17 Ks, and a .267/.315/.436 line against in 24 2⁄3 IP, so it’s still there, and he can still compete at this level, but the results haven’t been there in the last few.
“He’s definitely frustrated,” Martinez told reporters, “but like I said, he’s a veteran guy and I believe in him, we all believe in him. He talked to [Pitching Coach Jim] Hickey throughout the game, they’ll come up with a plan, I know he’s going to get some time off now because of the All-Star break, and when he comes back, we need him. We said it all along, we need him to go out there and give us five or six innings every outing.”
That doesn’t sound like the skipper has any plans to make a chance in the rotation.
“He’s going to pitch. Like I said, I’ve known him for years and he hasn’t pitched — other than the last couple starts, he’s been pitching well, he’s been keeping us in ballgames. so we need him to find himself again and we’re going to get him back out there when we get back.”
“Unfortunately a pretty bad stretch right now,” Lester said. “It seems like I can’t minimize the bad, you know, like that’s the frustrating part is I’m okay with the hits and the runs and that sort of thing, but just consistently 2-and-something, 3-and-something innings is just, like I’ve said before, putting the team in a bad position. You always try to find some positives in there, try to go back and watch starts that were positive, but at the end of the day, you’ve got figure out a way to have results.”