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The curious case of Jon Lester's yips

We know Jon Lester has trouble throwing to first base. He knows it. The Indians know it.

And, yet, the Indians did very little with it in Game 1. That surprised the observers who expect that to change when Lester takes the mound Sunday for Game 5.

"I think the Indians will do everything they can to make that a severe topic," Fox Sports analyst John Smoltz told the Tribune. "Look, the industry doesn't run much anymore, but the Indians do. They'll use that asset. Jon knows it. He has to have the utmost patience."

Smoltz had to be talked into talking about what ails Lester, refusing to utter the word "yips."

"It's a sick feeling," Smoltz, the first-ballot Hall of Fame right-hander who now thrives in celebrity golf events, said. "No one wants to say the 'y-word' (yips) or the 's-word' (shank) in golf.

"I'm not a believer that one day you wake up and mentally you can't make a two-foot putt. You lose the mechanic, the feel and then your brain tells you that you have to fix it and think about it. And the more you think about it, the worse it gets. So I commend Jon. The Cubs have a plan."

The first part of that plan — keep runners off the bases.

The four-time All-Star finished third among National League starters with a regular-season WHIP of 1.02, meaning about one walk or hit allowed per inning. He has been stellar in the postseason, posting a 1.69 ERA and allowing just 25 baserunners in 26 2/3 innings.

The veteran lefty is quick to home plate. He steps off the rubber. And when it comes to policing the running game, catcher David Ross is no Boss Hogg.

In Game 1, he nailed Francisco Lindor on a stolen-base try in the third inning, two frames after Lindor swiped Cleveland's only bag of the game.

"We've had a lot of tests all year long," Ross said. "Of course we'll be ready for whatever they throw at us."

Cleveland scored two runs in the first inning of their 6-0 victory Tuesday. After Lindor singled and stole second, Mike Napoli walked. Then Carlos Santana took a free pass.

Was Lester distracted?

"I'm not sure," Lindor said. "I don't want to take full credit. I was trying to execute my plan. It's not easy to pitch to Napoli and Santana and then (Jose) Ramirez."

Ramirez drove in a run with little nubber. Lester then misfired on an 0-2 pitch, hitting Brandon Guyer.

"Jon Lester pitched really good," Smoltz said. "He gave up a swinging bunt and an 0-2 hit batsmen. Did the stolen base do all that? Not necessarily, but it put him in a position to pitch differently."

White Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson expects the Indians to do more to upset Lester, such as bunting.

"I feel bad for him," Harrelson said. "You look at Steve Sax or Chuck Knoblauch, they had mental blocks on throwing. One of our guys, Clayton Richard, couldn't throw to first base.

"Lester has the yips, no question. Doesn't make him a bad guy. And I know one thing: He doesn't have the yips throwing 60 feet, 6 inches. That's what Joe Maddon is worried about."

Indeed, during the NLCS against the Dodgers, Maddon said: "There's always plotting going on. (But) the most important thing is that Jon throws the ball well to home plate. That gets overlooked. I don't want him to get caught up in the minutiae of everything else. Do what you do best. What he does best is throw up to 94 miles an hour where he wants to, and then he has a great cutter and a curveball. So why would I want him to get mentally infiltrated with trying to hold runners if he's not comfortable? We have other things in place to take care of that."

Indians manager Terry Francona can tell you that. He was managing the Red Sox in 2011 when Lester's struggles began.

"We knew it was surfacing," Francona told the Los Angeles Times, "and we did a lot of things to make sure it didn't get out in the open."

Lester made 70 throws to first base in 2011, but that sunk to five in 2012 and seven in 2013. He did not attempt a single pickoff in 2014, according to the Times.

Lester allowed a major league-high 44 stolen bases in 2015 but got that number down to 28 this season.

"All pitchers do certain things well, and certain things not so well," Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio said. "They're not robots."

Smoltz was in Atlanta when teammate and All-Star closer Mark Wohlers lost command, walking 33 batters in 20-plus innings in 1998.

"It was a painful situation I don't even feel comfortable bringing up," Smoltz said.

Wohlers logged four more seasons but was never as effective.

Lester, meanwhile, remains among the best in his craft.

"Think about those numbers (19-5, 2.44 ERA in 2016) despite his inability to throw over to first base or technically hold runners on," Smoltz said. "It speaks volumes of how good he has been."

tgreenstein@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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