Playoff-tested Jon Lester comes up short in Game 1 of Cubs-Cardinals


Playoff-tested Jon Lester comes up short in Game 1 of Cubs-Cardinals

ST. LOUIS – The Cubs signed Jon Lester for October nights like this, to stare down their biggest rival and ultimately deliver the franchise’s first World Series title in more than 100 years.

Lester understood the win-or-else terms, how $155 million would become part of his baseball card forever, and vowed to be the same guy no matter what. 

While Lester kept his head down, almost everything else seemed to change around this team in Year 1 of that megadeal, leading to the first playoff clash ever between the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals.  

Lester kept his team in Game 1, but the Cubs didn’t get the huge momentum swing they hoped for, simply not doing enough to beat the National League’s gold-standard franchise at Busch Stadium.

[MORE: Ross, Cubs not accusing anyone of anything after Game 1 loss]

“We all know that,” Lester said after Friday’s 4-0 loss, surrounded by reporters at his locker. “It doesn’t matter if you’re us or the Pirates or the Dodgers or the Mets or anybody else. It’s gone through this city for a long time. You look up at the banners in right-center field, you know that. 

“It’s like looking up at Yankee Stadium. You know you got to go through those guys to get to where you want to go.”

The Cubs wanted to silence a sellout crowd and put the pressure squarely on the best team in baseball with the hottest pitcher on the planet (Jake Arrieta) lined up for Game 3 at Wrigley Field and a two-time World Series champion (Lester) ready if this best-of-five series goes the distance.

Lester looked like that big-game pitcher for most of the night, retiring 13 straight batters in a 1-0 game until pinch-hitter Tommy Pham blasted an eighth-inning homer an estimated 431 feet over the visiting bullpen and into the left-field seats in his first playoff at-bat. 

[SHOP: Buy a Jon Lester jersey]

“They play really good, sound baseball,” Lester said. “They have really good, sound at-bats every night. They don’t give up pitches on either side. That’s what makes them tough. But we’re right there with ‘em. There’s no reason why we can’t beat these guys.”

Lester views himself as a blue-collar guy, nothing that flashy to his game, just a punch-in, punch-out mentality to produce 30-plus starts and at least 200 innings a year.  

Lester more or less did his job this time, getting charged with three runs in 7.1 innings and finishing with nine strikeouts against one walk. But it wouldn’t be enough with old friend John Lackey throwing seven-plus scoreless innings and lefty Kevin Siegrist and closer Trevor Rosenthal combining to get the final five outs.

Even if this wasn’t a must-win situation, it would’ve given Game 2 starter Kyle Hendricks some breathing room. And the Cubs will feel unbeatable playing behind Arrieta on Monday in Wrigleyville. So this still felt like a missed opportunity. But the Cubs also wanted Lester for his veteran presence and even-keel personality. For now, this series is out of his hands. 

“We’ve done a good job of coming back the next day and preparing and being ready to play,” Lester said. “We’ll keep grinding out at-bats and grinding out pitches. And hopefully we can get out of here tomorrow with the series tied.” 

It looks like rough times are ahead for Brewers relief ace Josh Hader

It looks like rough times are ahead for Brewers relief ace Josh Hader

The Brewers' best pitcher is in some serious hot water before the second half of the MLB season gets underway.

As he was serving up a 3-run homer in the All-Star Game Tuesday night, Josh Hader's Tweets from 2011 were aired publicly and the result was...not good.

Hader's Tweets as a 17-year-old reflected racist and homophobic remarks, among other issues. (A summary of his Tweets can be found at Deadspin.)

After the All-Star Game, Hader was immediately put in front of reporters to respond to the Tweets and admitted he will accept any punishment that comes his way — including any possible suspension:

He won't be suspended by the league and will instead under go sensitivity training, but this absolutely could affect Hader mentally moving forward. 

Case in point:

He can ask teammate Ryan Braun how to deal when fans turn on you, but it's going to be a lot more difficult for a 24-year-old in his first full big-league season to deal with any hate that comes down. 

Hader has been the Brewers' most valuable pitcher all season, going 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA, 0.79 WHIP and a ridiculous 16.7 K/9. 

But over the last month-plus, he's been...human.

Ever since Jason Heyward turned on a 98 mph Hader fastball to tie the game in Milwaukee on June 11, the Brewers' relief ace has a 2.84 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 13.5 K/9.

Still great numbers, to be sure, but not the Superman-esque line baseball fans came to expect from Hader after the first couple months of 2018. (Plus, the All-Star Game homer he served up to Jean Segura, but that obviously doesn't count for anything.)

With the Brewers already chasing the Cubs by 2.5 games in the division in the second half, they can't afford Hader's slump to worsen.

Though Cubs fans may be rooting for that...

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Willson Contreras’ third-inning home run might not have ended up standing out too much in an All-Star Game featuring a jaw-dropping and record-shattering 10 dingers.

But, obviously, it will always stand out to the guy who hit it.

“I enjoyed every single second that I spent out there.”

Remarkably, Contreras repeated his feat from two seasons ago, when he hit his first big league homer on the first big league pitch he ever saw. Ditto on Tuesday night at Nationals Park, when he launched the first pitch he saw as an All Star out over the wall in left field.

“When I hit the ball and thought it was gone, I went back to 2016, playing in Chicago. It was the same thing, first pitch for a homer,” Contreras, all smiles, said following the American League’s 8-6 victory. “I’m really blessed with these kinds of situations. Those moments, they’re going to be history and they’re going to be in my mind and my heart.”

Contreras’ long ball was the highlight of the evening for fans watching back home in Chicago. Javy Baez got a hit in his first All-Star at-bat but was outdone by his teammate. White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu was hitless in his two trips to the plate.

And while it will be a highlight on this night for Cubs fans, it will be a highlight forever for Contreras, who enjoyed the heck out of his first All-Star experience.

“‘I did it, I did it,’” he said when asked what was going through his head. “I knew it was something special. And I wasn’t trying to do too much because these guys are nasty, throwing 98 in the first inning. I just tried to get the hit out.”

The nasty guy he went deep against was Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell, whose 2.27 ERA on the season made him a very worthy inclusion on the AL roster. But Contreras was more impressed with the guy who started the game for the National League, raving about Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer after the game.

“He was great, man. Great stuff, he gets so into the game,” Contreras said. “I would like to have him one day on my team or play with him for a few years. That guy is amazing.”

That’s not the current Nationals star Cubs fans are dreaming about, Willy, but point taken.

But it wasn’t Snell or Scherzer or even Baez or Jon Lester, also in the NL dugout, who Contreras was thinking about the most during his home run trot. Instead, Contreras was thinking about his grandfather, Ernesto, who passed away a few years ago.

“My grandpa, he died in 2015,” Contreras said. “I grew up with him.

“He didn’t play ball. But I feel like every time I go out there and step into the box, he’s at my back. It just feels amazing when you hit a homer or do something special, look at the sky and you know that he’s there smiling somewhere.”

It all made for a pretty incredible night for Contreras, who has officially and loudly taken his place among baseball’s best on the game’s biggest stage.

The only thing that was missing? The ball.

Yeah, Contreras didn’t get the ball, not that he really expected to. But if you’ve got it, he wants it.

“I don’t think they’re giving it back,” he said with a grin.

We’ll see. Social media’s a powerful tool. So reach out.