Jon Lester wasn’t taking a break when he didn’t accompany his teammates on a one-hour bus ride from Mesa to Surprise, Ariz., on March 14.
The Cubs left-hander, in search of rekindling the effectiveness he lost some in 2017, faced a group of Triple-A Reno batters on one of the minor-league fields at the Diamondbacks’ spring training complex.
Whether it was pitching in front of a crowd of 15,000 at Sloan Park or in front of fewer than 100 minor-league players, staffers, scouts and family members, Lester’s goal last spring was simple — finding the proper arm angle to regain the success against right-handed batters that eluded him somewhat in 2017 and raised concern about his effectiveness entering the final three years of his six-year, $155 million contract.
“I didn’t care about the velocity,” Lester said. “I didn’t care if I was throwing 83 or 88 mph in spring training as long as my angle was right. We were able to get good results. That was a big thing going into our bullpens and starts — to get that angle back.”
The work has paid off handsomely for Lester, 34, who hopes to snap the Cubs’ two-game losing streak Friday night in the opener of a three-game series against the Cardinals at warm Busch Stadium.
Through his first 13 starts, Lester has limited right-handed hitters to a .209 batting average — 66 points lower than last season, when Lester battled an array of problems. The spring training commitment has contributed to a 7-2 record and 2.22 ERA that could earn him his fifth All-Star Game selection and help him reach the 200-inning mark that has been the norm for most of his career as a full-time starter.
And as a bonus, his velocity occasionally returns to the 94-mph range, which can appear faster because of his 6-foot-4 frame and full arm extension.
“That’s kind of a byproduct of having that clean line (to home plate),” pitching coach Jim Hickey said. “The ball leaves his hand clean and has that finish to it. Even if the velocity says 90 mph instead of 93, (the ball) gets on you when he does have that clean delivery.”
Said Lester: “It has been nice to see a couple of those higher numbers. When I was younger, I would hit those numbers more frequently. It’s always nice to know they’re there.”
Whether it was fatigue from the 2016 World Series or poor mechanics that led to a 4.33 ERA and failing to reach 200 innings last year for the first time since 2011, Lester knew he had to find a way to pitch inside effectively against right-handers.
“When I did get it in there, it was flat,” Lester recalled. “I just felt like I was behind all year.”
Catcher Willson Contreras concurred with Lester’s assessment and devoted his spring starts to helping him accomplish his goal with the mindset of not getting consumed with velocity.
“He’s more consistent at this point than he was as this point last year,” Contreras said.
This marks only the third time in the last nine seasons that Lester hasn’t been a teammate of John Lackey, 39, who remains an unsigned free agent.
But some of Lackey’s wisdom has rubbed off on Lester in a positive manner, such as staying in a routine between starts.
“Throwing not as hard (as in the past) helps because it’s not like I’m going to throw this one by a batter in a big situation and get beat by a fastball,” Lester said. “It’s more about location over stuff. That was the big thing I learned from him.
“Throughout his career and mine, you learn you don’t have that extra gear anymore.”
Lester has managed to pitch well despite having three starts pushed back by at least one day because of rain, thanks in part to Lackey’s example.
“No matter what the situation is — whether it’s Game 7 of the World Series, opening day or a game in June — you keep that same routine, which is a safety blanket,” Lester said. “No matter what the surroundings are, I’ll be ready.”