As much as the Cubs dreaded the idea of facing Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner in an elimination game last October – and feeling all that anxiety rippling throughout the crowd at Wrigley Field – the San Francisco Giants still would have had to beat Jon Lester that night.
The Giants know how good Lester is, sending future Hall of Fame manager Bruce Bochy and All-Star catcher Buster Posey as part of the recruiting visit to his Georgia home shortly after winning the 2014 World Series. There were even rumblings of a $168 million proposal from the Giants at the winter meetings where Lester took a six-year, $155 million megadeal and the chance to make history in Chicago.
So Lester won’t take it personal when manager Joe Maddon talks about last year’s entire postseason hinging on avoiding Cueto and winning that divisional round in four games.
“I’m not too shabby, right?” Lester said with a smile after dominating the Giants during Tuesday night’s 4-1 complete-game victory. “I’ve had a decent career.”
That Lester vs. Cueto rematch in Game 5 never happened, because the Cubs pulled off a Giant comeback in San Francisco. After winning a 1-0 instant classic against Cueto in Game 1, Lester went on to become the National League Championship Series co-MVP and win his third World Series ring.
“Nobody wants to face a guy like that,” Lester said. “He was throwing the ball really, really well at that time. And, obviously, all the stuff he does on the mound really, really screws up guys’ timing. He made a couple mistakes tonight and we were able to put them in the seats. That doesn’t happen very often.
“I know what I can do on my side of the ball. But that would have been a tough game.”
After waiting out a 65-minute rain delay, Lester struck out the side in the first inning and again outdueled Cueto. Keeping a Giant lineup looking fastball off-balance with changeups, Lester allowed four hits and finished with 10 strikeouts and zero walks in a game that took only 2 hours and 5 minutes.
Where Cueto has a 4.64 ERA and blisters on his right middle and index fingers – Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo drove balls onto Sheffield Avenue and into the right-field basket and bleachers – Lester (3-2, 3.19 ERA) appears to be picking up where he left off last October/November.
You can’t really say that about the 23-21 Cubs as a whole, but Lester’s 15th career complete game is a step in the right direction.
“It’s been close for a while,” Lester said. “I feel like we just haven’t put it all together at once. I’ve said it a million times – and I hate to beat a dead horse – but I feel like when we pitch well, we don’t hit. And when we hit, we don’t pitch well. It’s been kind of back and forth for us, so it’s nice to limit runs and give our guys a chance.”