LOS ANGELES – This isn’t some WikiLeaks bombshell: Jon Lester has the yips. It must be in every scouting report by now, the reminder to get inside his head and make him feel uncomfortable, forcing him to field his position, throw to first base and become distracted with the running game.
It’s not a secret, since the Cubs have openly answered those questions for the last two years, a timeframe that has seen the beginning of Lester’s $155 million megadeal and back-to-back trips to the National League Championship Series.
It’s just so much easier said than done. The Los Angeles Dodgers got cute and tried to toy with Lester, and now they are one loss away from going home for the winter and wondering how good they could have been with another No. 1 starter to pair with Clayton Kershaw.
Lester did not look like someone you would want to mess with on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, channeling all that adrenaline into an 8-4 victory that gave the Cubs a 3-2 lead in this NLCS. A big Game 5 performance means the Cubs could clinch their first NL pennant in 71 years by beating Kershaw on Saturday night at Wrigley Field, which would set up an irresistible World Series matchup against the Cleveland Indians.
“I play this game with emotion,” Lester said. “And if it rubs people the wrong way, oh well.”
A Dodgers team that can’t handle left-handed pitching (major-league-worst .622 OPS during the regular season) didn’t have any other answers for Lester, who unloaded 108 pitches and allowed only one run across seven intense innings.
Lester’s first inning began with his only walk, throwing four straight balls to Kike Hernandez, who showed bunt and then danced and hopped off first base. Hernandez never scored and the diversionary tactics simply didn’t work.
“It is what it is,” Lester said. “People have been doing it all year. I’d prefer Adrian Gonzalez and Joc Pederson to try to bunt. They’re home-run guys. They hit 30 homers, so I’d rather them put the ball on the ground and let these guys try to field it and take my chances that way.”
Lester didn’t let one of his infielders grab the ball Pederson bunted toward the left side of the mound, making a one-hop throw to first base to end the second inning. Lester looked back at the home dugout and gave the Dodgers a death stare.
When Lester felt like he got squeezed and finally struck out Corey Seager swinging to end the third inning, he screamed, flexed his muscles and glared at umpire Alfonso Marquez behind the plate.
The Dodgers did manufacture a run in the fourth inning with Howie Kendrick’s double down the left-field line, headfirst slide to steal third base (verified on replay review) and a Gonzalez groundball. But the Cubs have so many ways to counteract anyone thinking about exploiting that weakness, from Lester’s quick delivery to personal catcher David Ross to changing tempos to the explosive stuff that made a Cy Young Award contender this year.
“They’re trying to find a way to beat one of the best pitchers in the game, and I don’t blame ‘em for that,” Ross said. “They were trying to rattle him a little bit. We’ve dealt with that all year, so it’s nothing new.
“I want them to bunt. I want them to give us free outs. That’s fine. We have great athletes in the infield. Guys are ready for it.
“Every out matters in the playoffs, every pitch matters. And so you give one away, that’s one you’re not getting back.”
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There is also something about October that brings out the best in Lester, a money player who’s allowed two runs in 13 innings during this NLCS, to go along with his 1-0 win over Johnny Cueto and the San Francisco Giants in the divisional round.
Lester (.064 career batting average) even did an over-the-top bat flip after flying out to left field in the seventh inning, moments after NLCS LVP Joe Blanton gave up the go-ahead, two-run homer to Addison Russell, one of the dynamic young talents Theo Epstein’s baseball-operations group once sold the big-name free agent.
The Cubs caught fire last year and won 97 games, but 2016 was really supposed to be The Year where The Plan came together. When Lester made his recruiting trip to Chicago to check out a last-place team just before Thanksgiving 2014, he kept telling Epstein: “They’re going to burn this city down again when we win the World Series.”
Lester missed being on that 2004 team that forever changed the Boston Red Sox by two years, earning World Series rings in 2007 and 2013. Now the Cubs are on the verge of making history – and there will be no running from that.