LOS ANGELES — Cubs ace Jon Lester owns perhaps the most scrutinized scouting report in all of baseball. When throwing to the plate, he’s a skilled surgeon. When throwing to first base, he’s Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn.
Lester’s well-publicized yips have become as large a part of his profile as postseason brilliance.
The Cubs have mostly minimized those throwing issues by surrounding Lester with a sure-handed defense. Yet the Dodgers made good on their promise to test Lester on Thursday night in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series.
With the best-of-seven series tied at two games apiece, any edge could prove to be a difference-maker. So the Dodgers were not bashful. The leadoff hitter in each of the first three innings showed bunt.
When Kiké Hernandez led off the game with a four-pitch walk — the first time Lester had done that in four years — he danced off first as if the infield dirt were made of hot coals.
“I think that we all see that, and they know that, that he doesn’t like throwing the ball,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Whatever you want to call it, he just doesn’t feel comfortable throwing the baseball. So obviously as good of a pitcher as he is, yeah, we’re going to get huge leads and try to bunt on them and try to get in his psyche a little bit.”
But early on, Lester was unmoved. In the second inning on Thursday, Joc Pederson became the first Dodgers hitter to actually get a bunt down. But Lester bounced off the third-base side of the mound and made a tentative throw to first.
The ball hopped softly off the turf and into Anthony Rizzo’s mitt at first base. It was not pretty, but effective. As he walked off the mound, Lester peered straight into the Dodgers dugout, content that he had won the battle.
It’s one that Lester has been waging since the 2014 wild-card game, when he was with the A’s. The Royals repeatedly exploited a weakness that had yet to become part of the public consciousness. The lefty hasn’t lived it down since.
But for all the talk about Lester’s throwing yips to first base, the Cubs have rendered it a non-issue during the lefty’s 19-5 season. That’s partly because bunting has been de-emphasized all throughout baseball, making it a skill that most hitters have failed to master.
“In the major leagues today, you probably can count on maybe two hands really good bunters for a base hit,” Maddon said. “It’s not as easy as it appears to be.”
Meanwhile, few teams play more aggressively against the bunt than the Cubs, who will often send their corner infielders charging down the line in situations when pitchers are expected to square around. It also helps that catcher David Ross has picked off 11 batters over last two seasons, keeping runners honest despite liberal leads against Lester, who does not trust himself to throw over.
For all the obsession about Lester’s fear of throwing to first, Maddon has insisted that Lester keep his focus on something that he does better than most: pitching.
“Everybody’s worried about you throwing to first base, and so are you,” Maddon said. “Everybody’s worried about a bunt, and so are you. But the one thing that you do probably as good as any pitcher in the major leagues is throw the ball to the plate, so let’s focus on that.”
That focus is particularly sharp in October, when Lester owns a 2.57 ERA while pitching under the game’s brightest lights. Even without his best stuff in Game 1, Lester held the Dodgers to one run in six innings. Again, the Dodgers had done plenty of squaring around to but. Only Pederson got one down, a poor two-hop effort handled by third baseman Kris Bryant.
“It is what it is,” Lester said after that start. “I haven’t run from anything. I’ve been honest with everybody about it, so it is what it is. It’s hard to bunt.”