ST. LOUIS – This is why the Cubs gave Jon Lester six years and $155 million guaranteed: To beat the best team in baseball – the franchise’s biggest rival – and transform this group into the kind of contender they watch here seemingly every October.
These are the benefits that come with having an ace: Boosting clubhouse confidence, giving a beat-up bullpen a break and stopping the four-game losing streak.
This definitely wasn’t one of Joe Maddon’s oil paintings, and the degree of difficulty became higher than it probably needed to be. But the Cubs still hung on for a 6-5 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday night at Busch Stadium.
Lester beat St. Louis twice during the 2013 World Series to win his second ring with the Boston Red Sox. So he’s not going to concede anything, even with the Cubs (14-12) in the middle of their youth movement and the Cardinals (20-7) jumping out to a 5.5-game lead in the National League Central.
“It’s May – we got a long ways to go,” said Lester, who went seven innings, giving up four runs (one earned). “They’re obviously a very, very good team, a team that’s built on a history of winning. They’ve got a certain way they go about things. We got to find our way. This team hasn’t done anything. We got a bunch of talent. But that doesn’t get you anywhere.
“We got to keep grinding it out and keep playing these guys tough. We’ve been in every game that we’ve played these guys. It’s not like we’re coming in here and getting our butts kicked.
“You play 162 for a reason. We’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing and see where we’re at – at the end.”
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Lester finished April at 0-2 with a 6.23 ERA but has notched two wins within the first week of May, chopping that ERA down to 4.04. If the All-Star lefty sharpens his cutter and really gets rolling, maybe this team will take off this summer.
“We can play with these guys,” Maddon said. “Head-to-head, I like it. Not a little bit. A lot. … I really believe that. We need more experience. We need a little bit more salt and pepper, a little oregano.
“We have to do a better job once you get on top of making pitches – and being more assertive – and the kind of things that take you to that level. But purely when it comes man-for-man, I’m good right now. I feel good about it.”
Lester walked up the dugout steps at 7:32 p.m. and jogged out to the mound with a 2-0 lead before he threw his first pitch. But the Cardinals are relentless, capitalizing on mistakes and creating their own sense of momentum. Lester couldn’t handle a throw from Anthony Rizzo while covering first base in the second inning, and that led to one unearned run.
Cubs fans must have been feeling like here we go again: With two outs in the sixth inning, Jhonny Peralta hit a sinking line drive that went underneath Addison Russell’s glove and through his legs for an “E4” that led to two more unearned runs.
But Lester ended that second-and-third threat by striking out pinch-hitter Matt Adams swinging. And Lester pumped his fist after freezing Mark Reynolds with a 92 mph fastball to end the seventh inning, leaving the potential game-tying run stranded at second base.
The Cubs survived, with Pedro Strop needing a double-play ball to escape an eighth-inning jam with only one run scoring. And Hector Rondon putting runners on the corners in the ninth before getting his sixth save. But you definitely notice a team with a lot more nerve this season, and that should start with Lester.
“We haven’t been playing all that great,” Lester said. “We’ve had our chances and everybody knows that. But (it’s being) able to separate it and just go play a game. Yesterday was yesterday and we’re going to worry about today. For the most part, I feel like these guys have done a great job of that this year. You worry about the task at hand.”