ATLANTA — It took a longtime north side nemesis to keep Jon Lester from throwing what would’ve been one of the more bizarre no-hitters in baseball history.
A.J. Pierzynski led off the bottom of the eighth with a single in the Cubs’ 4-0 win over the Atlanta Braves on Saturday night at Turner Field, ending Lester’s bid for a second career no-hitter. But this wasn’t one of those nights where the crowd slowly reached a rolling boil pulling for history — Lester didn’t even know he had a no-hitter going until he stepped into the on-deck circle in the top of the eighth.
And it wasn’t necessarily for a lack of paying attention to the scoreboard. Official scorer Jack Wilkinson decided in the top of the seventh that Nick Markakis ground ball to third base shouldn’t be a hit and instead saddled Kris Bryant with an error — and that was Atlanta’s only hit of the night at the time.
Bryant tried to backhand the short hop on Markakis’ chopper and had the ball tip off the front of his glove, rolling into left field for what was ruled a hit for the first six innings of the game.
[MORE: Outfield not part of Cubs’ plan for Kyle Schwarber just yet]
“That’s one of those plays that could go either way,” Lester said. “I figured because it was hometown, it would go a hit. I wasn’t surprised to see a hit go up there, I think I was more surprised that it ended up getting changed.”
Added Cubs manager Joe Maddon: “(Bryant) normally makes that play. The degree of difficulty from the Russian judge was very low.”
But his peculiar bid at history aside, Lester turned in his longest — and best — start since signing a $155 million contract with the Cubs over the winter.
Lester allowed no runs and two hits with one walk, one hit batter and seven strikeouts over 7 1/3 innings and now has allowed no earned runs in three of his last four starts. He finally got some run support on Saturday, with the Cubs taking advantage of a pair of Braves errors to plate at least four runs for the eighth time in his 19 starts (the Cubs have scored two or fewer runs in 10 of his starts).
The 31-year-old effectively worked through an aggressive lineup with his usual fastball-cutter combination, and mixed in a few breaking balls — including a handful of 70 mile-per-hour lollipops — to keep Braves hitters off balance. Lester last got an out in the eighth inning with Oakland during 2014’s Wild Card game against Kansas City.
[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Buy a Jon Lester jersey]
“The strong point that shouldn’t get lost is how well Jonny threw tonight,” catcher David Ross said. “Whether it was a hit or an error, he threw really well tonight and really managed that lineup well.”
The Cubs signed Lester to be the ace of their pitching staff, though he hasn’t quite lived up to that billing with a good-not-great 3.37 ERA and 5-8 record, though poor run support largely is to blame for those eight losses.
Lester is a three-time All-Star who wasn’t in the conversation to head to Cincinnati this year, so he unplugged on his farm and got away for a few days before rejoining his teammates in Atlanta. But he said the All-Star break doesn’t allow players a fresh start — that opportunity comes later in the year.
“I don’t think you can,” Lester said. “The good thing about the playoffs is you can do that. Everybody starts over, everybody’s back at zero, it doesn’t matter how good or bad a season you’ve had.”
For the Cubs to be able to hit the reset button, they’ll need Lester to pitch more like he did Saturday, even if it doesn’t involve one another one of the stranger no-hit bids in recent memory.