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


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.

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“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.

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“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. 

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.

For now, it appears Javy Baez has avoided serious injury on hit-by-pitch

For now, it appears Javy Baez has avoided serious injury on hit-by-pitch

ST. LOUIS — Cubs nation can breathe a sigh of relief for now.

The team announced Javy Baez has a left elbow contusion after taking a 90 mph fastball off it in the third inning of Sunday night's game. He was initially scheduled for an X-ray to make sure there is nothing more sinister at play, but that was deemed not necessary throughout the course of the game and it looks as if the Cubs' dynamic young infielder has avoided serious injury.

"I'm fine. Just really sore," Baez said. "It got me really good right on the elbow. I thought the pain was gonna go away right away but kinda numbed my whole arm. We've been icing it. It feels pretty sore, but right now, I'm good."

Baez said he didn't move his arm for almost an hour after getting hit, but wasn't experiencing any numbness or lack of feeling in his left hand or fingers after the game. He didn't rule out playing in Monday night's homestand opener at  Wrigley Field.

Still, this is not what the Cubs wanted to see.

The Cubs entered play Sunday night having gone 24-12 since getting swept out of St. Louis in the first weekend of May. They were feeling good about themselves, starting to get their mojo back and playing more like the team everybody expected.

And then Baez took a fastball off the left elbow.

After a couple minute delay, Baez was led off the field and Addison Russell came in off the bench to replace him at first base.

The 25-year-old is in the midst of a breakout season for the Cubs, sitting 5th in the National League with 46 RBI and on pace for a near 30-30 season (33 homers, 29 stolen bases). 

He had slowed a bit (.175 average, .502 OPS in June) but still gives the Cubs so much energy and versatility on a daily basis with his ability to move around the infield and lineup.