LOS ANGELES – Don’t think the older guys can’t show some youthful exuberance, too.
Jon Lester proved that against one of the best young players in baseball in an emotion-charged sequence on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium.
With his team up 1-0 in the third inning the pitcher stared down MVP candidate Corey Seager with a runner on second and two outs. Earlier in the at-bat Lester was upset at home plate umpire Alfonso Marquez for missing what looked like a third strike.
But he calmed his emotions down to focus on Seager, a 22-year old rising star at shortstop hoping for a major postseason moment. He would not get it.
Lester fooled him with a pitch low and outside to complete the strikeout he thought he got earlier. Immediately he did a little hop in the air and a couple of yells toward the plate as the inning came to an end.
“I was just happy to get out of that inning more than anything,” said Lester of the reaction. “I play this game with emotion, and if it rubs people the wrong way, oh well.”
That probably won’t be for the 32-year old pitcher who is throwing like it’s his mid-20s in Boston again. Two years after signing a $155 million dollar deal to come to Chicago, Lester is making the investment in a bright Cubs’ future pay off this October.
“He’s been amazing. Nothing short of amazing,” said first baseman Anthony Rizzo of Thursday’s starter. “That’s what aces do.”
It’s exactly what he’s been doing during arguably his best season in Major League Baseball.
Game 4 of the National League Championship was another addition to that as the pitcher yielded just one run and five hits while striking out six batters in an 8-4 Cubs victory at Dodger Stadium. Over 108 pitches he managed to hold the Dodgers in check before the suddenly resurgent Cubs’ offense finally broke it open as the Cubs take a 3-2 lead in the NLCS.
“That’s what he does. He’s a big-game pitcher,” said catcher David Ross, who was behind the plate for Lester’s second victory of the 2016 postseason. “He’s got a lot on his resume and we expect big things out of him when he takes the bump and he never disappoints. The guy is a true competitor in every sense of the word and battled out there and made great pitches when he had to and I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Ross isn’t lying considering that Thursday was the ninth playoff game of Lester’s that he has caught. When together in Boston and Chicago their team has a 6-3 record with the pair as the battery – including a pair of World Series victories in 2013.
This was arguably the pair’s most important game with the Cubs considering this was the first of a three-game series for the pennant after the teams split the first two. Despite walking the first batter he faced Lester kept the Dodgers mostly in check for the evening, allowing just one run in the fourth inning on an infield hit to Adrian Gonzalez.
In his final three innings, he surrendered just two hits and was barely challenged by Los Angeles hitters whom he has held to just two runs in 13 innings of work in the NLCS.
“We’ve got a really good relationship and I’m able to read him well and we’ve been doing this for a little while together now. Just try to keep things in perspective and find out where his focus is sometimes out there,” said Ross of his strategy with Lester in Game 4. “Make sure he’s focused on the right thing. We’ve got a really good defense behind him. We’ve gotten a lot thrown at us all year, so we’re prepared for it all. So he just needs to make his pitches and he did a great job of that tonight.
“So he just needs to make his pitches and he did a great job of that tonight.”
Lester’s performance is a snapshot of his solid playoff run which he’s got a 0.86 era over three games. On top of that, he finished the regular season with a personal best 19 wins as opposed to five losses with a 2.44 ERA, making him a strong contender for the Cy Young Award.
Yet that wasn’t the only reason the Cubs dished out the money to bring his left arm to Chicago. It was for nights like this to get the team close to something they haven’t qualified for in 71 years and won in 108 – the World Series.
In the end, that is all that Lester wants.
“I think the biggest thing for us is a lot of us, we all have kind of the same mindset. We don’t really care, we’re out there just playing hard and trying to make it to tomorrow,” said Lester. “I think that goes back to day one with Joe, back last year. Hey, let’s grind out every day and then see what happens, and then show up the next day and do the exact same thing.”
Don’t worry that Jon might get a little more excited than his teammates while making that happen.