Lester labors, but Nats take solace in his five-inning start

Only once in his career had Jon Lester made a major league start on a hotter day, and that was 11 years prior when his Red Sox were in Texas on a 102-degree afternoon. So there was a built-in excuse for the veteran left-hander to use Wednesday after he slogged his way through five innings on a muggy 95-degree late afternoon at Nationals Park, if he chose to use it.

Which he did not. Though the conditions were miserable, Lester would not give them any credence in affecting his performance during the Nats’ 15-6 win over the Rays.

“It’s not like you can use it as an excuse,” he said during a postgame Zoom session with reporters. “There’s 17 other guys that are playing in it and have to deal with it and have to execute pitches and have good at-bats. So it’s not like I’m out there by myself trying to do this.”

Lester-Fires-White-Sidebar (1).jpgNo, Lester attributed his struggles Wednesday to a familiar cause: poor command.

It’s been happening far more than the 37-year-old cares to remember this season. He’s falling behind hitters in the count, and that’s forcing him to throw pitches right over the plate that are getting hit hard. As was the case in this start, with Tampa Bay totaling seven hits in five innings (including two homers).

“It’s frustrating that I keep putting myself in bad counts, falling behind guys and grinding when there really shouldn’t be grinding,” he said. “I feel like I should be able to attack a little bit more, and I’m not doing it, for whatever reason.”

It was obvious from the get-go in this game, with Lester spotting the Rays a 2-0 lead in the top of the first on Manuel Margot’s single, Randy Arozarena’s sacrifice fly and Yandy Díaz’s 424-foot homer.

There would be another homer later, in the top of the third by Mike Zunino, and though his teammates supplied him with enough run support to still put him on track to earn the win, that didn’t overshadow his numbers for the day.

“If I give up a hit on the first pitch and move on, that’s fine,” he said. “I can tip my hat all day to that. But when I’m continually grinding into at-bats, and you end up finding yourself in a spot where you don’t know where to go, that’s where it gets really frustrating for me.”

There was one particularly encouraging sign for Lester on Wednesday: His fastball averaged 90.6 mph, up 1.7 mph from his season average. And he topped out at 92.5 mph, the hardest he has thrown a pitch in some time.

“I’m just going to round that up to 93,” he said. “I don’t know how you all feel about that. I’m going to take the 93, not the 92.5.”

Lester also could take some solace in knowing he didn’t force a quick hook from manager Davey Martinez, even when it looked like one was looming. He bounced back and retired the side in the fifth inning to end his afternoon on a positive note.

“He’s a veteran guy,” Martinez said. “We had the lead. I talked to him in between innings, and the fifth inning he topped out at 93 today. So I told him you’ve got to throw strikes. The biggest thing is to attack the strike zone.”

However hard he’s throwing, Lester recognizes he needs to be better. Only two starts ago, his ERA had dropped as low as 3.60. Now it’s up to 5.34.

Until Stephen Strasburg or Erick Fedde returns from the injured list, nobody’s breathing down Lester’s neck for a spot in the Nationals rotation. He will continue to get a chance to take the mound every fifth day, hoping better starts await him soon.

“We need him,” Martinez said while discussing the significance of Lester pitching a quick fifth inning to end his afternoon. “We need him for the duration of the year. It was a good moment, a big moment for him and a good win for us. The way he kept battling during the game, that’s what he does. That’s who he is. He’s a competitor and he loves to win.”

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