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  • It will be lost to a footnote, but Jon Lester continues to battle his biggest weakness and win.
By Stephanie Apstein
October 11, 2017

The first time, the TBS producers didn’t see it coming. They had chosen the feed from the camera focused on the Nationals’ Daniel Murphy, standing in against Cubs lefty Jon Lester in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the NLDS, and showing good sense: Ryan Zimmerman was on first base, but there wasn’t much danger of a play there. Lester hadn’t picked anyone off since June. Before that it was July 2016.

If you care enough about baseball to read this, you know that Lester has the yips, an inexplicable problem making a routine play—in his case, the throw to first base. It’s likely he has had the yips to some degree since October 2007. (He debuted in ’06, so that’s almost his entire major league career.) The disease grew worse in subsequent years, and he probably exacerbated it when he spent the winter after the ’10 season trying to fix his pickoff move. He has attempted many remedies—conversations with coaches and teammates, hours of work on back fields in spring training, adjusted mechanics—but since he got to Chicago in ’15, the plan has been largely to let the catcher and first baseman handle the running game. Lester is supposed to concentrate on getting the hitter out.

But as Zimmerman drifted toward second, Lester reared back and lobbed a throw into the grass a few yards in front of Chicago first baseman Anthony Rizzo; it ricocheted into his glove, but not before Zimmerman slid safely into the bag. Viewers watching from home missed all of that. TBS had to show it on replay. The Wrigley crowd gave Lester a standing ovation.

That seems patronizing, and maybe some of the fans meant it that way. Way to go, Jonny; you didn’t completely embarrass yourself and everyone around you! But what everyone watching should feel is awe. It is utterly mortifying for a professional athlete to be unable to do something any Little Leaguer can. We all have weaknesses, but most of us do not have to stand, alone, on a raised hill of dirt, with floodlights and flashbulbs in our face, while 40,000 screaming people and

Lester threw over again, keeping the ball in the air but pulling Rizzo off the bag. TBS caught that one.

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Plenty of players don’t like making certain throws. (Many of them are relievers, which is how they get away with it: There are so many fewer opportunities for opponents to notice their discomfort.) But generally, once the league finds out that a player has the yips, his career is over. The list of victims’ names inspires a mixture of sympathy and secondhand shame: Steve Blass, Mackey Sasser, Chuck Knoblauch, Rick Ankiel … Lester’s problem is slightly different from theirs, because the thing he can’t do is just one element of his job, but the fact remains that he has had the best years of his career since everyone found out. He has succeeded despite the yips because he decided not to let the yips bother him.

Lester gave it one more shot, tossing awkwardly in the general direction of the Gold Glove–winning Rizzo, who swiped at Zimmerman’s left leg as his right hand touched first. It took a replay to sort it all out, but as the crowd roared, the umpiring crew ruled: out. You can bet TBS kept the camera on him the whole time.

Lester still has a terrible pickoff move. He is still deeply uncomfortable making that throw. He can hit a stitch on his catcher’s chest protector, but his first basemen know that they need to block anything he flings over there as if they are hockey goalies. Everyone in the ballpark, including Lester, knows that any of these attempts could end in disaster. But he keeps trying.

This will end up a footnote in a game the Nationals won 5–0, behind a superhuman start from a sniffling Stephen Strasburg, who struck out 12 in seven innings, to force a Game 5. But it was another chapter in one of the most quietly compelling stories in sports: Lester continues to face one of the most unrelenting demons the game offers … and continues to beat it.

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