Jon Lester Re-Establishing Himself as One of October's Unflappable Heroes

Jacob ShaferFeatured ColumnistOctober 21, 2016

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 20:  Jon Lester #34 of the Chicago Cubs reacts after the final out in the third inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game five of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

The Chicago Cubs are one win away from the World Series, and Jon Lester is back among the pantheon of postseason studs.

On Thursday, the Cubs defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 8-4 at Chavez Ravine to grab a 3-2 lead in the National League Championship Series. Game 6 will be played Saturday at Wrigley Field.

For his part, Lester twirled seven innings of five-hit, one-run ball with one walk and six strikeouts. He got the win, moving his 2016 playoff record to 2-0 and his ERA to 0.86.

Nothing is over until the Cubs bust their century-plus championship drought, as Lester himself noted.

"This season isn't anything unless we do what we showed up at spring training to dowin a World Series," Lester said in early October, per ESPN.com's Jesse Rogers.

Still, in his pivotal Game 5 outing, Lester was every bit the crafty, nasty, unflappable ace the Cubs thought they were getting when they inked him to a six-year, $155 million deal in December 2014.

At the time, Lester was coming off a disappointing postseason outing with the Oakland A's.

Oakland acquired Lester from the Boston Red Sox at the trade deadline in 2014, only to watch him allow eight hits and six earned runs in a heartbreaking Wild Card Game loss to the Kansas City Royals.

It was only one game, the mother of all small samples. But in 2015, Lester was again mediocre in the playoffs, yielding seven earned runs and 13 hits in 14 innings as the Cubs fell in an NLCS sweep to the New York Mets.

Suddenly, the veteran southpaw's clutch credentials were in doubt.

Lester won a pair of championships with the Boston Red Sox.
Lester won a pair of championships with the Boston Red Sox.Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Sure, Lester won a pair of rings with the Red Sox, in 2007 and 2013. Yes, he's gone a spotless 3-0 in three World Series starts, allowing a single run in 21 innings. Granted, he'll never buy another drink in Beantown.

Reputations, however, last only so long. At a certain point, the query inevitably creeps in: What have you done for us lately?

Now, Lester can offer this answer to the title-starved Cubs faithful: Pitched you one essential step closer to a Commissioner's Trophy, that's what.

The Dodgers tested Lester on Thursday, seeking to exploit his well-documented difficulties throwing to first base. They stretched their leadoffs beyond credulity. They bunted. They stole.

"This isn't some WikiLeaks bombshell: Jon Lester has the yips," CSN Chicago's Patrick Mooney noted. "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."

L.A. did. Lester was not amused.

"It gets him pissed off," catcher David Ross said, per 670 The Score

That can mean rattled, or it can mean laser-focused. On Thursday in Southern California, it meant the latter. 

Lester pushed through. He pitched like a guy who has been on this stage many times before. He wasn't flawless, but he was more than good enough.

Catcher David Ross said opposing teams' efforts to exploit Lester's weaknesses, "gets him pissed off."
Catcher David Ross said opposing teams' efforts to exploit Lester's weaknesses, "gets him pissed off."Stacy Revere/Getty Images

It can't be overstated how huge this win was for the Cubs. In Game 6, they'll face Clayton Kershaw, who has cast aside his playoff demons and is still the best pitcher on the planet. Had they lost Game 5, that would have been a do-or-die situation. 

Now, thanks to Lester, it's a game they'd very much like to win, but not one they have to win.

Oh, we should toss some praise at the Cubs offense, which has plated 18 runs in the last two contests after scoring one in the previous two.

If Chicago is going to slay the billy goat once and for all, it will be a team effort spearheaded by the lineup, the bullpen and the full complement of starters.

Lester doing Lester things, however, is a welcome addition. President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein remembers this guy from his days in the Boston front office. And while Epstein rarely smiles when the cameras catch him, surely he's grinning behind closed doors.

The Chicago Cubs are five wins away from a champagne bath that's been on ice since Theodore Roosevelt occupied the Oval Office.

And Jon Lester, not coincidentally, is back in vintage autumn form.

   

All statistics current as of Thursday and courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball-Reference.com.