PITTSBURGH — This is why the Cubs gave Jon Lester $155 million guaranteed — to pitch in big games, give their young players more confidence/attitude and ultimately lead this team into October.
Lester took care of business in Tuesday night’s 2-1 Game 2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, salvaging a split of this huge doubleheader at PNC Park. He pumped his fist at the end of this complete-game performance — and then quickly came down from the emotional high by the time reporters surrounded his locker.
Sure, this is nice. The Cubs reduced their playoff magic number to 12 and stayed within four games of the Pirates for home-field advantage in the National League’s wild-card game. But Lester earned two championship rings with the Boston Red Sox, so in terms of expectations for the first season of this six-year deal megadeal ...
“When I signed here, I envisioned winning a World Series,” Lester said. “Not just playing September baseball. Hopefully, we can get to that point and we can talk about that a little more.”
That looks more realistic when the Cubs have Lester or Jake Arrieta on the mound, a 1-2 playoff punch that might be as good as any other combination in the game.
Manager Joe Maddon noticed Lester still throwing 94 mph in the eighth inning, and the lefty got Andrew McCutchen and Aramis Ramirez to swing at first pitches in the ninth for two quick outs. Lester froze Francisco Cervelli with a 94-mph fastball — his 111th pitch — to end the game with his ninth strikeout.
“This is what he does,” Maddon said. “He likes pitching in big games in the latter part of the season. It’s not a surprise.”
In the moment, the Cubs (83-61) needed Lester (10-10, 3.38 ERA) to give the bullpen a break and stop a three-game losing streak. Big picture, the franchise needed someone to anchor the rotation and set an example for being a professional and handling the big stage.
“(I) prepare the same way (for) an April start as I do in September or October,” Lester said. “If there’s a magic formula or whatever, I think everybody would try to share that with all your teammates. I don’t know. I always feel better the second half of the year, both with stuff and physically.”
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Since Lester’s issues with throwing over to first baseman Anthony Rizzo and controlling the running game have been so publicized, it’s only fair to also mention that he initiated a 1-3-4-3 to pick off Starling Marte, ending the third inning.
“He picked himself off,” Lester said. “He tried to sneak one, and the infield did a good job (with) that rundown. He’s such a good athlete. He can turn and move and he’s fast.
“As far as other teams and all that stuff and all the other things that have gone on this year, I’m not too concerned about it. I’ll continue to try to vary my looks and holds.
"And I may surprise you guys one day with just like an Andy Pettitte move over there — and maybe surprise Rizz a little bit, too.”
Lester doesn’t appear to get defensive or too stressed out, and the Cubs also looked much sharper defensively in Game 2, whether it was Kris Bryant crashing into the right-field wall to make a leaping catch or shortstop Addison Russell gliding to his left and flipping the ball to Starlin Castro to start a key double play that limited the Pirates to one run in the seventh inning or Javier Baez seemingly getting to everything over at third base.
That’s what the Cubs will need if they return to this beautiful waterfront stadium on Oct. 7 in a win-or-else situation. Arrieta and Lester can take it from there.