Jon Lester is one of the best in the world at throwing from a pitcher's mound to home plate, and one of the worst in baseball at throwing under any other circumstances. The Chicago Cubs' 32-year-old left-hander refuses to toss over to first, hates to field bunts, and, if he happens to wrangle a come-backer, is apt to remove his whole glove and underhand it to Anthony Rizzo with the ball stuck in the webbing. This has proved a problem for Lester in the past; in 2014, as a member of the Oakland Athletics, he let the Kansas City Royals run rampant on the basepaths in an improbable come-from-behind victory in the Wild Card game. The Los Angeles Dodgers, in Thursday night's NLCS Game 5, seemed set on trying a similar tack.
The Dodgers deployed their dual strategies from the start. The first: they would show bunt whenever they could, betting that Lester's hesitations about fielding would make him miss the strike zone. Kiké Hernandez drew a leadoff walk by way of this bluffing. The second: they would take huge leads from the bases via every manner of distracting movement short of a Monty Python-esque silly walk. With Hernandez dancing around far away from first, Corey Seager rapped a single to center, and it looked like the start of a long night for Lester.
If it was a long night, it also turned into a successful one. With the Dodgers doing whatever they could to psyche him out—but, curiously, rarely actually stealing available bases—Lester maintained enough focus to scatter five hits over seven innings, allowing only one run. His four-seam fastball worked low in the zone and his curve dipped under it, but the featured pitch was the meat-hook cutter, which looked on this evening like nothing so much as an outlet for Lester's annoyance. In the third inning, it was good enough to strike out Seager twice: first by starting at his hip and then darting over to the inside corner at the last moment (this strike went uncalled, but it was one), then by starting at the bottom of the zone and skidding toward the dirt as Seager whiffed. The K inspired a profane celebration from Lester; FS1's slo-mo cameras did an excellent job capturing the spittle flying from his mouth.
Increasingly, this is the pattern of postseason baseball: teams challenging one another to see if the things that work out over a long haul still work on one pressure-packed night. Chicago's strategy regarding Lester and baserunners has been to let him ignore them, to have him pitch to the hitter and let David Ross deal with throwing to first and second. After the game, Cubs manager Joe Maddon affirmed the approach: "Like I said before, the most important thing is that Jon throws the ball well to home plate. That's the important part." It worked well enough over the regular season for Lester to put together a career-low ERA, and the Dodgers found out last night that it works pretty well even in the glare of a series-swinging Game 5.
If the Cubs advance to the World Series—Clayton Kershaw warms up menacingly; Chicago fans knock on wood for so long that their knuckles turn into pulpy blobs not really capable of knocking in the conventional sense, and they just keep mashing these blobs up against the wood anyway—Lester will face a Cleveland team more used to running. With fast-twitchers galore and a give-it-a-shot manager, the Indians stole the most bases in the American League this year. They surely look forward to testing Lester's nerve and Ross's arm. For their part, the Cubs will only hope that the cutter keeps going where Lester wants it to.