Jon Lester is Thinking About it

Lester on the mound. (Jonathan Williams, Getty Images.)

When Jon Lester fields a ball, you can almost see the cogs in his head furiously churning as he transitions from MLB pitcher to scared 8 year old — oh man, okay, we’ll get this into the glove now and, okay, don’t mess this up now, just toss it on over to the first baseman over there —as he fights a 3 year of so case of the yips. This is a guy who’d rather throw his own glove with the ball still in it rather than make a simple toss.

An out’s an out. (via mlb.com)

If there was a simple way to describe Jon Lester, it’d be: he’s in his own head. Yogi Berra said that “baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical,” and for Lester, that math seems to check out. Lester basically made the Cubs bring in his own catcher last year — the lovable David Ross — for his own comfort on the mound. And after his first year in Chicago, Lester admitted that the pressure of signing a huge contract and being anointed the ace of the staff got to him, and threw him off his game for much of the season. He’s always seemingly overthinking things.

So it was somewhat odd to see Lester, on Sunday, throwing a no-hitter through six and a third innings against a formidable Pirates lineup. The umpire’s strike zone was little lenient on the edges of the plate, allowing Lester to show off his control and nail the corners for strikeouts, and the Pirates just couldn’t muster a hit off of him.

But what was Lester thinking? He’d already thrown a no-hitter, in 2008, so it wasn’t a new feeling for him. He told reporters after the game that, because of Wrigley Field’s large scoreboards, he couldn’t ignore his no-hitter; so you know he was thinking about getting his own no-hitter, just weeks after Jake Arrieta had thrown one. That’s the exact thing you’re not supposed to do in a no-hitter; none of your teammates are supposed to talk about it, the broadcasters aren’t supposed to jinx it, it is supposed to be ignored while it happens. To think of it, to acknowledge it, is to theoretically lose the focus necessary for it. And yet, there Lester was, knowing it was happening and just doing it.

Lester lost his no-hitter in the seventh, and then gave up a run soon after. It was easy to see coming; he was at 100 pitches in the seventh inning, not the kind of efficiency needed to pitch a complete game (unlike his counterpart for the day, Gerrit Cole, who threw 95 pitches over 8 shutout innings to get the win). It probably fatigue, and not self-pressure, that did Lester in. Probably. After that first hit, Lester briefly lost his command, hanging a fastball over the plate and giving up a double, and then was pulled, ultimately receiving a loss after a sterling afternoon of 2 hit, 1 earned run pitching. He was disappointed after the game, as is expected, but just had to tip his proverbial hat to Cole, who had outdone him that day. Cole, Lester said, “just threw the ball … not a lot but he threw the ball better than I did.” Just his luck that day, though it seems to happen to Lester repeatedly.

It’s not fair to say that Lester was bad last season (and postseason); he seemed to have a sort of cosmic misfortune to lack run support, either losing well-pitched games or not having the offense step up if he faltered .If the Cubs want to make it to the World Series this year (yes, actually, really!), their pitching will have to take them — as they discovered in last year’s NLCS, as the Mets were able to mostly shut down the Cubs’ bats and had little trouble against the starters, Lester included. Lester is the lynchpin of the staff between God-mode Arrieta and the solid back half of John Lackey, Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel. Arrieta can win a game for you any time he steps on the mound; the other guys have started hot this season, but they are far from sure things, especially as the season wears on and the pressure mounts. Lester has the ability to win games by himself, but it doesn’t always come together for him. So far this season, his two losses have come in games where he’s given up only 1 run (his near no-no and a 2–0 loss to the Rockies) and he got a no decision in a game in which he gave up 1 run and struck out 10 over 7 innings, leaving the game just before the Cubs broke a 1–1 tie. With a couple different swings of the Cubs’ bats, we could be looking at a 7–0 pitcher right now, the same record as Arrieta; as it stands Lester is ‘only’ 4–2 right now, with a sparkling 1.88 ERA. Come October, the Cubs will need to rely on Lester to swing series for the Cubs, and he’ll need to rely on them to get him some runs, to break the sort of malaise that hangs over him, that of the highly paid pitcher not always getting his results.

It’s a high wire act that Lester’s pulling, on the one hand a dominating pitcher, on the other, a fragile confidence, racked by overthinking. We speak often, especially in baseball, of a player not being eaten up by the pressure of the moment. To just do something instead of being paralyzed by the stakes. Coming through in the clutch. When you watch Lester pitch, you are watching someone who must be thinking through the moment, not blocking it out. Twice this season, Lester has loaded the bases with no outs, only to find his way out, striking out batters with panache and forcing weak pop ups or grounders. They were both high pressure situations, self created, and yet he held up. And his yips, so far, haven’t been a problem this season, as he’s figured out how to pitch and field around his mental block, even if it looks weird. We might be seeing a pitcher, slowly, and against conventional thought, thinking too much but managing to thrive.

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