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Jon Lester’s bizarre no-hit bid powers Cubs to win over Braves

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Jon Lester’s bizarre no-hit bid powers Cubs to win over Braves

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. 

What the Cubs can learn from the 2019 MLB postseason so far

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USA TODAY

What the Cubs can learn from the 2019 MLB postseason so far

For the 10 teams that qualify for MLB’s postseason, October represents a chance to climb baseball’s mountain and secure a championship. For the 20 other teams sitting at home, though, October is a chance to evaluate those in the Big Dance.

Less than two weeks into the postseason, here’s some things that the Cubs can take away from the action thus far.

1. Starting pitching matters

With bullpens being relied on more than ever, starting pitchers aren’t used the same way as just a few seasons ago. The Brewers rode their bullpen all the way to Game 7 of the NLCS last season, while the Rays used an “opener” (a reliever who starts a game and pitches 1-3 innings) in Game 4 of the ALDS this season – beating the Astros 4-1.

And yet, the Astros and Nationals are proving how important it is to have a difference-making rotation. The bullpening method can work, but being able to throw Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke at an opponent in a single postseason series is downright unfair.

The Nationals have Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in their rotation, as formidable of a trio as any in the National League. They also have Anibal Sánchez, who took a no-hitter into the eighth inning of Game 1 of the NLCS against the Cardinals on Friday. No big deal...

And despite getting eliminated, the Rays — Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Charlie Morton — and Dodgers — Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Hyun-Jin Ryu — have talented rotations, as do the Cardinals and Yankees.

Meanwhile, the Cubs rotation didn’t have as big of an impact this season as they expected, a contributing factor to the team not making it to October.

“We had really high hopes for our starting group this year," Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "You looked at it 1-through-5, we had a chance to roll out a really quality starter on a nightly basis, and that might be an area that was a separator for us versus some of the teams we were competing with. While we had a couple guys who had really good years and all our starters had their moments, it didn't prove to be a separator.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned. It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well. We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester are under contract for 2020, while Jose Quintana has an $11.5 team option. The Cubs don’t have an Astros or Nationals-esque trio, but their rotation can still be good enough to lead the charge in 2020. They’ll need them to do just that if they are to return to the top of the NL Central.

2. Manager decision-making is far more important in October than regular season

The Dodgers’ season came to an abrupt close in Game 5 of the NLDS, with manager Dave Roberts being smack dab in the spotlight.

With the Dodgers leading 3-1 in the seventh inning, Roberts called Clayton Kershaw’s number to get Los Angeles out of a two on, two out jam. Kershaw did just that, but the Nationals opened the eighth with home runs from Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto (on consecutive pitches) to tie the game.

Kershaw is one of the best pitchers in his generation, a three-time Cy Young Award winner and one-time NL MVP. However, his postseason woes are real (4.43 ERA, 32 games/25 starts), and therefore, Roberts made a questionable decision going with Kershaw in that moment. 

Where was Kenta Maeda to face Rendon? Maeda had allowed just a single hit in 3 2/3 innings at this point in the postseason. He took over for Kershaw after Soto’s home run, striking out three-straight Dodgers to end the eighth. 

Roberts also didn't bring in closer Kenley Jansen to start the 10th inning, when the game was still tied 3-3. Instead, he left in Joe Kelly, who allowed a decisive grand slam to Howie Kendrick. Only then did Jansen come in, but the damage was done. Not bringing in your closer in an extra-inning postseason game is inexcusable, and while it may be outcome bias, this game proves why.

Roberts has 393 wins in four seasons as Dodgers manager, leading them to World Series appearances in 2017 and 2018. Even with that experience, though, he made a bad decision at a terrible time. The postseason is a different animal, not only for players, but the coaches in the dugouts, too.

Of the known candidates the Cubs have interviewed for manager — David Ross, Joe Girardi, Mark Loretta and Will Venable — only Girardi has big-league managing experience. And while Epstein noted at his press conference that it isn’t everything, he added that experience is important.

"Lack of experience - and I'm speaking broadly for the group, not necessarily [about Ross] - is always a factor,” Epstein said. “It's not a determining factor, but it's a significant factor. I always have greater comfort level hiring for roles in which the person has done the role before. Especially with manager.

“But I think there are ways for that to be overcome - there are a lot of different ways to get experience in this game - beliefs, skills, personal attributes, those can outweigh a lack of experience, but experience certainly helps.”

3. Winning in the postseason is tough

After the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, there was a feeling that baseball’s next dynasty was underway. After all, the Cubs had a talented, young position player group that reached the promised land early in their time together. It made sense.

Those talks have died down, of course, as the Cubs haven’t even appeared in the World Series since 2016. And while they've had plenty of success since 2015, it feels like they could’ve had more.

The thing about baseball, though, is that it’s extremely hard to sustain those high levels of success. A few teams (Red Sox, Cardinals, Giants) have won multiple World Series this century, none have repeated as champions since the Yankees, who won three-straight from 1998-2000.

The Twins won 101 games this season and were swept out of the ALDS. The Braves won 97, only to lose Game 5 of the NLDS in brutal fashion at home to the Cardinals.

The Dodgers made it to the World Series in 2017 and 2018 and came up empty both times. They won 106 games this season, a franchise record, only to be eliminated in the NLDS by the Nationals — a Wild Card team, nonetheless.

Does that make last few seasons even more frustrating for the Cubs and their fans? Probably. October is a crapshoot, meaning as long as a team gets in, they have a shot at winning it all, no matter their record.

At the same time, the Cubs made things look easy in 2016. They had brilliant injury luck, a historic defense, a deep position player group, a loaded starting rotation and the right manager for their young core. Even so, it took erasing a 3-to-1 series deficit against the Indians to win it all, not to mention a dramatic Game 7 win that nearly didn’t go their way.

This isn’t an excuse for the Cubs shortcomings in 2019, but merely a reminder: they won the 2016 World Series, and that's no small feat. This offseason offers the chance to improve as a team for 2020, when they’ll set out to win again.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Kap breaks down the Cubs managerial search

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: Kap breaks down the Cubs managerial search

David Kaplan shares his thoughts on the Cubs, the decision to move on from Joe Maddon (0:50), the process in hiring a new manager (2:40), and who should be in the dugout next season (4:05).

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Cubs Talk Podcast

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