MESA, Arizona -- Forget the designated hitter. When Jon Lester pitches, he needs a designated fielder.
I'm joking. Mostly.
The Cubs defeated the Royals 5-2 on a hot Sunday afternoon at Sloan Park, largely on the hitting prowess of Jason Heyward (two RBI) and Jorge Soler (two-run homer), and I'll get to more of that, but what needs to be addressed by the Cubs, somehow, is Lester's seeming inability to do simple things in the field.
I figured the Royals would test him on the bases, and as soon as they got a runner on base in reasonable position to steal (I don't count Tony Cruz on first base as "reasonable position to steal"), Paulo Orlando, Orlando took off for second and David Ross' throw came in high. That cost the Cubs a run, as Reymond Fuentes then bounced a ball into the berm in center field. If Orlando's still on first base, he's got to stay on third.
Then Fuentes stole third, and it wasn't close. In fairness, both of these men are pretty good basestealers (or at least they were in their minor-league careers), but the Cubs really didn't have much of a chance to throw either of them out. Lester never even stepped off the mound.
So that was one run. Then it was Lester's fielding follies in the fifth inning that cost the second run. After a pop-fly single to left by Cruz, Terrance Gore laid down a bunt. Lester looked at it as if it were on fire, which forced Anthony Rizzo to come in to field it; Rizzo's off-balance throw to first got away for an error, leaving runners on first and third.
The next hitter, Alcides Escobar, hit a ball in the general direction of Lester, and he threw it in the general direction of first base, but not so it would result in an out or anything useful. The bases were loaded with nobody out and Mike Moustakas was coming to bat.
Fortunately, Lester got Moustakas to hit into a double play, with a run scoring, and he got out of the inning with a grounder to short. An unearned run scored, and Lester was lucky it wasn't worse.
I'm not sure what the Cubs can do about this. As I've written before, Lester certainly has the physical ability to make these plays. It has to be something psychological. I'm not sure continued practice is going to make any difference. This might be just me playing pop psychologist, but it seems to me that maybe talking to a sports psychologist could be of more use.
There were plenty of good things that happened for the Cubs in this game, including the aforementioned homer by Soler, who also handled several chances flawlessly in the field and looked a lot better out there than previously this spring. Dexter Fowler walked, tripled, was hit by a pitch and scored twice. Rizzo drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. If you missed Soler's homer, here it is:
More good news: Two relievers who have been hit fairly hard this spring had good outings. Pedro Strop had a 1-2-3 sixth and Hector Rondon a 1-2-3 seventh (11 pitches), both of them facing (mostly) big-league Royals. That makes me feel much better about both of them. Clayton Richard gave up a pair of hits in an otherwise scoreless inning, one of them to a Royals minor leaguer named Amalani Fukofuka, and yes, that's his name. He was KC's fifth-round pick in 2013 out of high school in California, and will likely play this year in the Low-A Sally League.
Attendance watch: Yet another all-time spring-training record was set Sunday as 15,523 paid to go to this game. It didn't seem tremendously crowded on the berm, as many people took to standing on the concourse in the shade. That makes the total for 10 spring dates at Sloan Park 149,166, or 14,917 per date, still on pace to break last year's records. The next home date at Sloan isn't till Friday.
And Monday will be a Cubs day off, the only off day of the month. John Lackey, I'm told, will not have the day off as he'll take his normal turn Monday at the minor-league complex. The Cubs' next Cactus League game is Tuesday, against the Reds at Goodyear. Jason Hammel will face Alfredo Simon, who was just re-signed by his former team last week and who has not appeared in a spring game yet.