What You Need to Know: One day after a washed out game in Atlanta, rain again threatened the Cubs’ efforts to squeeze in a ballgame in Cincinnati. A 90-minute delay finally gave way to the game’s first pitch, and the game was in the Cubs’ hands shortly thereafter. The bats made Homer Bailey look like, well, Homer Bailey, and Jon Lester battled the elements through six impressive innings of one-run ball.
Next Level: Lester, along with Kyle Hendricks, has proven the Cubs’ most reliable starter through the first eight or so weeks of this season, and I don’t think many anticipated that. Part of Lester’s lessened role in the Cubs’ 2018 plans was due to the acquisition of Yu Darvish and the return of 2017 deadline acquisition José Quintana, both of whom figured to headline a strong rotation. Fans and analysts alike also glossed over Lester when speaking of the 2018 rotation due to Lester’s mediocre 2017 season, when he posted a 4.33 ERA with a DRA to match.
Friday, Lester turned in a season-high strikeout total, with eight punchouts complementing only one walk and two hits. He successfully pounded the zone, with 64 strikes out of 99 pitches, and his only mistake was a meaty 89-mph fastball to Adam Duvall that scraped the outfield wall in left. Considering the wet conditions, such a commanding start from the Cubs’ lefty was impressive.
This start was a nice entry into Lester’s quietly outstanding 2018 ledger. Through nine starts, Lester has proven his doubters wrong. He lowered his 2018 ERA to 2.52 after six strong innings Friday. While his walk rate is up, his strikeout rate is down, his hard contact rate is up, and his soft contact rate is down, Lester has been in control of almost every game he has pitched this year. He’s allowed more than three runs in only one start—a five-inning outing on April 11th, when he allowed four runs—and has only topped 100 pitches twice.
Joe Maddon is likely being more cautious with Lester this season than in years past. Last year, Lester experienced his first injury troubles since joining the Cubs, and he has gone through periods of “dead arm” more often as he has advanced in age. Now 34, Lester is on the downside of his career and the second half of his tenure in Chicago. He might not be the top-of-the-rotation guy he has been most of his career, but Lester appears to be aging gracefully into his wily veteran days.
Top Play (WPA): Oddly, in a game featuring a barrage of Cubs hits from up and down the order, the game’s most impactful play by WPA was Kris Bryant’s first-inning double that followed Ben Zobrists’s leadoff single (+.099). The three next batters—Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, and Addison Russell—all singled in runs, and the four consecutive hits comprise the four top plays of the game.
Bottom Play (WPA): Javy Báez’s recent struggles have sunk his rate stats to normal, but still very good, levels, and he managed only one infield hit in five plate appearances versus the Reds. His first-inning strikeout following Kyle Schwarber’s popout was the Cubs’ bottom play on the evening (-.047), indicating just how little the Reds did to threaten the Cubs’ quick lead.
Up Next: A doubleheader! Great American Ballpark hosts a pair of Cubs-Reds matchups on Saturday, the first at 12:10 pm and the second at 6:10 pm. In the first, Kyle Hendricks looks to continue his dominant 2018 opposite Reds ace Luis Castillo. In the evening, José Quintana gets the ball, dueling the doughy Sal Romano.
Lead photo courtesy David Kohl—USA Today Sports