In spite of his struggles in his recent outings, which saw Jon Lester put up a brutal 11.48 ERA in his last four starts and 13 1⁄3 innings pitched, over which he gave up 27 hits and 11 walks, with 25 runs, 17 earned, allowed, and opposing hitters posting a combined .409/.481/.682 line against him, Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez gave their 37-year-old southpaw a vote of confidence going into the All-Star break, telling reporters that the 16-year veteran would remain in Washington’s rotation in the second-half.
“Yeah, he’s going to pitch,” Martinez explained. “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.”
Summing up his struggles in this recent stretch, which followed a nice run in late-May to mid-June that saw him post a 2.55 ERA and a .267/.315/.436 line against over five outings and 24 2⁄3 IP, Lester said he was having trouble avoiding big innings when things get out of hand in his appearances.
“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,” he explained, “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.”
Last night in the series opener with the Miami Marlins, (who’d put up five hits, three walks, and seven earned runs in just 2 1⁄3 IP when Lester faced them in South Florida last month), the veteran found something.
Lester tossed seven scoreless on an efficient 81 pitches, striking out a season-high seven batters, and giving up six hits without walking anyone, while generating a total of seven ground ball outs.
He also hit a two-run home run, though he described that as, “... just a blind squirrel finding a nut.”
But on the mound, Lester was as good as he’s been this season. What did his manager like about what he saw from the starter?
“Just the way he was attacking the strike zone all day,” Martinez said. “I don’t think he threw more than 15 pitches an inning, which was awesome.”
“I think he had 15 or [fewer] pitches in each inning that he pitched and that was our goal tonight and he executed, man, and kudos to him, he did a great job,” rookie catcher Tres Barrera said, after working with Lester for the second time this season.
Lester didn’t throw more than 15 pitches in any of his seven innings on the mound, allowing him to go deep into the outing, which he’s struggled to do this season.
“He was throwing strike one all night long and pounding the strike zone,” Martinez added.
“Making his pitches with all his pitches. Changeup, threw a couple curveballs that were really good, his cutter was good, just really attacking the strike zone, awesome tonight.”
Lester pointed to the long rest over the All-Star break as at least part of the reason why he was able to put together such a solid outing.
“I think that’s it,” Lester said. “I think just getting away for a couple days. I think sometimes when you struggle you kind of look for things that aren’t there, and to kind of get away and just forget about mechanics, forget about throwing a baseball, working out, like all that stuff. Just kind of get back to neutral I think is always good for us, so that was kind of where I was at. Kind of cleared my mind a little bit, kind of went back to basics.”
“I told him after we took him out that that’s the guy that I’ve seen for many, many years,” his manager said.
“His stuff is still good, he just can’t be afraid to throw it and nibble, just attack the hitters, go after the hitters, and if they hit, they’ll hit it at somebody. You got to trust your defense, and he did that tonight.”
It also helped that he had a 4-0 lead after one and a 10-0 lead after two, which allowed him to attack Marlins’ hitters in what ended up an 18-1 win.
“Any time the guys go out and score [ten] runs in the first two innings, that obviously makes our jobs a lot easier,” Lester said.
“You don’t have to be as fine, you can attack a lot more, and that’s what kind of we did.”
“We know going in that this is going to be an aggressive team,” he explained when asked about the game plan, “... and you have to make pitches. I know down in Miami they had a really good game plan against me, and I kind of pigeonholed myself into their game plan and tonight we went out there with — I don’t want to say the same game plan — but we were just able to execute it a lot better, I was throwing strikes, had command of the arm side, used my curveball a little bit more, which has been better as we’ve gotten further into the season. I think the biggest thing is I was just able to throw strikes, get ahead, like I said before, when they give you a four-run lead in the first, you got to be able to attack, you can’t walk guys, I’d rather give up solo homers or four hits, five hits in a row, six hits in a row than walk guys. So, that helps ease your mind a little bit, I think the biggest thing is just clearing your head, having those four days, coming back and kind of getting back ready to work.”
“He was kicking on all cylinders,” Barrera said.
“We talked before the game and he just wanted to attack the zone, and he did that, good early contact and keep attacking.”
Was the back-to-basics approach, and keeping it simple in part because he and his catcher were still getting to know one another in just their second major league game together?
“We worked together in San [Francisco] that last start before the break,” Lester said of the 2 2⁄3-inning outing against the Giants in Oracle Park in which he allowed nine hits, three walks, and eight runs, three earned, in an 80-pitch outing.
“I threw to him in Spring Training quite a bit just in bullpens and stuff like that just because of my situation with coming back from surgery and all that, but you know we had a good game plan against San Francisco, obviously it didn’t work out, I didn’t execute, but today we really talked and just tried to, like I said, just get back to basics, establishing the strike zone, using everything, obviously I don’t throw as hard as I used to, so we have to mix in a lot more pitches than what I used to be able to do — especially that first time through the lineup. But he did a great job tonight, especially, I mean, he’s on the fly, he’s learning this stuff on the fly.
“We worked well tonight, communication was awesome, and we had good results, so that’s always an added bonus.”