Instead of spraying champagne all around the Wrigley Field clubhouse, Jon Lester had a gaudy 2016 World Series ring on his right hand as he placed a Miller Lite can on the ledge of an empty locker and began talking with the waiting reporters.
Instead of wearing goggles and a soaking-wet, officially-licensed T-shirt on Wednesday night, Lester had already showered and changed into a gray windowpane jacket and dress pants for the business trip to Washington. Whatever happens next to the defending champs, it’s out of his hands.
Will the Cubs regret playing their Lester card too early against the Nationals? Who knows? That’s the nature of unpredictable playoff baseball and the “barroom banter” manager Joe Maddon likes to reference after growing up in Pennsylvania’s blue-collar, coal-mining region.
But Lester emerging from the bullpen in the fifth inning and getting 10 straight outs sure looked like a statement on how much the Cubs wanted to end this National League Division Series and avoid Thursday night’s Game 5 at Nationals Park.
“I don’t know,” Lester said after a 5-0 loss. “I just do what I’m told. I don’t even know what today is, what, Wednesday? I asked Monday night if they wanted me in the ‘pen on Tuesday and we got rained out. They came to me yesterday and said: ‘Hey, you’re in there tomorrow.’
“Like I said, I don’t ask questions. I don’t really read into things. They wanted me down there, and Joe called my name, so you got to try to go out there and do your job. I was able to keep us in it there until the end.”
Exactly one year to the day the Cubs pulled off a stunning ninth-inning comeback at AT&T Park to eliminate the even-year San Francisco Giants – and avoid a bad-vibes elimination game against Johnny Cueto at Wrigley Field – Maddon felt the sense of urgency to use Lester as a $155 million lefty reliever.
The Cubs took into account their Game 5 alignment – Kyle Hendricks (1.98 ERA in eight career playoff starts) with Jose Quintana (zero relief appearances in the last five seasons) waiting in the wings – plus Jake Arrieta seeing his first action since Sept. 25 as he recovered from a Grade 1 right hamstring strain.
Arrieta battled, needing 90 pitches to get through four innings on a day where Stephen Strasburg drew all the pregame attention. Arrieta worked around five walks and allowed only one unearned run when Ryan Zimmerman’s two-out chopper bounced off the heel of shortstop Addison Russell’s glove in the third inning.
“I was in the bullpen, so you never really know,” said Lester, who didn’t get the clean inning Maddon promised against the Cleveland Indians in that World Series Game 7. “Any time you have a plan, just like last year when you’re in the ‘pen, it never really goes according to plan, so you make adjustments.
“We made adjustments and ended up out there a little bit sooner than we all thought.”
Just before 5 p.m., Jason Aldean’s “Gonna Know We Were Here” started blasting on the Wrigley Field sound system, the warm-up signal for Lester’s country hardball. Now batting: Bryce Harper, who chucked his bat toward the visiting dugout after lifting a harmless flyball to shallow left field.
Lester retired the first 10 batters he faced until giving up a walk to Zimmerman in the eighth inning. Lester got so far outside of his comfort zone that he made two pickoff throws to first base, the first one getting mock cheers – a recognition of the yips – and the second one leading to a standing ovation after Anthony Rizzo dropped the tag on Zimmerman’s left foot and a Cub challenge overturned the call on the field.
Lester tipped his cap when he walked off the mound and back to the dugout, leaving a runner on for Carl Edwards Jr. with two outs in a one-run game. Things quickly got out of control, with All-Star closer Wade Davis taking over in the middle of an at-bat in a bases-loaded situation and giving up a grand slam to Michael A. Taylor.
If the Cubs find themselves in another emergency situation on Thursday night, they can’t realistically expect to use one of the best big-game pitchers of this generation.
“I have no idea, I haven’t talked to anybody,” Lester said. “I don’t know how many pitches I threw (55), but I would imagine I’m probably not involved. We’ll see tomorrow. I’ll do whatever I can to be ready and to be available. But I would imagine that’s probably an argument that I won’t win.”
This is probably the ending Cubs vs. Nationals deserves.
“Both sides – if that side’s honest over there – thought this would be a good series,” Lester said. “Nobody thought it was going to be a three-and-done-type series. It’s two heavyweights going at it. And we’re going to the last round.
“It should be exciting TV.”
Lester will be watching, just like the rest of us.