PITTSBURGH — The Cubs are getting by without their $155 million ace, but they will need the real Jon Lester to seriously start rolling.
The Cubs see an opening in the National League Central, where the Milwaukee Brewers are in free fall and the Cincinnati Reds are doing damage control, knowing their windows could soon be slamming shut.
The Cubs packed their bags for Cincinnati after Thursday’s 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, leaving PNC Park with the feeling they should have won this series instead of settling for a split.
Lester (0-2, 6.89 ERA) takes the ball on Friday night at Great American Ball Park. The Cubs are still waiting to see what made the lefty a two-time World Series champion with the Boston Red Sox and one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation.
That guy would help solve a bullpen equation that’s getting more difficult by the day, and take some of the pressure off a young lineup that’s not going to hit every night.
Still, this team is 8-7 and not buried in April and already talking about who’s going to get traded to a contender this summer. That’s a big improvement from the lost seasons Cubs fans have endured while waiting for The Plan to come together.
“I like the way it looks,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I like the way it looks a lot. Again, that’s because of the whole thing, the entire group. It’s not just one particular item that I like.
“Everybody’s talking about the young guys. We’ve hit the ball pretty well. But how about the defense and the baserunning? I’ll say it a zillion times, because that has been really impressive (and) a big part of our victories. For the most part, the starting pitching has been really good. And Jon’s going to keep getting better.
“Believe me, I’ve thought about that. So what’s it going to look like? I just think we can continue to anticipate better.”
The Cubs have only six quality starts through 15 games and it’s starting to catch up to a bullpen missing right-handers Justin Grimm (forearm) and Neil Ramirez (shoulder), two key pieces now on the disabled list.
Lester is over the “dead arm” that prevented him from having a full spring training, saying it usually takes him until the middle of May or early June before he really gets into a rhythm and consistently finds his velocity.
“Obviously, everybody wants to get off to a good start,” Lester said. “I’ve just always been kind of a slow starter for whatever reason. Obviously, I would have liked these three different starts to go a little bit different than what they have. But you can’t go back.
“I got to just keep looking forward to the next one and continue to build. That’s all you can really do.”
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The bullpen got exposed again on Thursday afternoon when Kyle Hendricks couldn’t finish the sixth inning. Edwin Jackson — the default reliever with a $52 million contract — earned a bigger moment but couldn’t protect a two-run lead. Phil Coke inherited a runner from Brian Schlitter in the seventh inning and allowed the go-ahead run to score.
“We’re trying to define it right now,” Maddon said. “It really comes down to a pitch now and then. We’re just not making the pitch when we have to right now, but we will. With the different people not being available, it makes it difficult.”
The Cubs have been pretty good at improvising, dropping Kris Bryant into the cleanup spot and having him play center field while Dexter Fowler deals with a groin injury.
Addison Russell — the youngest player in the National League at 21 years and 90 days — chipped in with an RBI double for what’s supposed to become an American League-style lineup.
But the starting pitching that had been so reliable during the Sign-and-Flip Era hasn’t been as good as advertised yet.
“We’re obviously not performing as we should,” said Hendricks, who has a 5.74 ERA through three starts. “Getting deeper into games as a staff — and me in particular — (is key). We’re keeping the team in the game, but we got to start putting up some (better) numbers overall.
“We’re still getting that feel. I know it’s coming around.”
Lester is the horse, the bulldog, or whatever animal metaphor you want to use, expected to carry this team into October.
“He’s the guy,” Hendricks said. “He’s the ace. We lost two in a row now, so he’s the stopper. There’s no doubt in my mind.”