By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — The return of left-hander Jon Lester to the Cubs rotation Saturday was significant on several levels.
Lester didn’t pitch well but did survive five innings and 92 pitches in the Cubs’ 14-12 win against the Braves at Wrigley Field. Having an ace back in a playoff push is elicits a feel-good reaction all around, and his presence could help out a Cubs bullpen. If Lester holds up physically after missing the past two weeks because of shoulder fatigue, the Cubs could return left-hander Mike Montgomery to the bullpen.
Some in the organization would prefer a five-man rotation the rest of the season, while others would like to keep Montgomery in it and go with six starters.
“Physically I felt fine,” Lester said after earning the win. “I had no limitations. I told our trainer that I will find out in the first inning if I am going to blow out. I found out everything is fine.”
Lester’s postseason durability was the reason the Cubs ponied up $155 million over six years for him back in December 2014. He’s delivered on the big stage for them as they envisioned.
Now, the focus is on having him in top form in October after so much wear and tear in seasons past. Lester allowed four runs on eight hits and a walk while striking out four.
“I felt good out there,” he said. “I thought a couple of pitch selections I would want back. We won the game. We are moving in the right direction.”
After a dream season in 2016 in which he finished second in the Cy Young race, Lester has had a tougher 2017. He’s now 9-7 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.29 WHIP, pedestrian numbers by his standards.
Lester has 22 career postseason appearances, including 19 starts, which is nearly the equivalent of another full season of work, especially when considering those are high-leverage outings throughout. The Cubs keep that in mind.
“I thought his last inning was his best,” manager Joe Maddon said of Lester’s fifth inning. “Command of stuff and everything about his last inning was good. I thought stuff-wise out of the shoot, it was good. He left with a good thought. I think 92 pitches for him was perfect.”
Lester will make his next start on the normal four days rest, throwing next Thursday. It remains unclear as to whether Montgomery will pitch as the sixth man the next time through the rotation.
The Cubs have now won six in a row and nine straight at home. After the conclusion of Saturday’s win, Chicago held a four-game lead in the NL Central over Milwaukee.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.