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.” 

Sports Talk Live: Cubs convention edition

Scott Changnon

Sports Talk Live: Cubs convention edition

On the latest Sports Talk Live Podcast we join David Kaplan and Kelly Crull at the Chicago Cubs Convention for interviews with Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein, Kris Bryant and many more.

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below:

Sports Talk Live Podcast


Cubs understand fans' angst over slow winter, but insist they're working behind the scenes

Cubs understand fans' angst over slow winter, but insist they're working behind the scenes

Theo Epstein isn't trying out his hidden ball trick this winter.

He admitted as much during his annual press conference at Cubs Convention Friday evening at the Sheraton Grand Chicago, saying "it continues to be extremely unlikely" the Cubs will add a mega free agent this winter.

No, that wasn't one more ruse before the Cubs had Bryce Harper hop out from behind the curtain and run across the stage to surprise Cubs fans at Opening Ceremonies (a la Kerry Wood earlier this decade).

The only Harper descending upon Chicago was the winter storm creating Convention travel issues.

Obviously that's not what fans want to hear.

Epstein understands that. Joe Maddon understands that. The Cubs players understand that.

After a one-and-done playoff appearance last fall, Epstein sat at the podium during his season eulogy and passionately promised change coming for the team.

But we're three months into the offseason and the only notable addition to the roster is Daniel Descalso, a 32-year-old utility player.

"I'm not blind to that," Epstein said. "I get it. We've had meetings the last few days internally talking about the guys that we do have and the incredible talent that does exist in this organization and how we can learn from last year and continue to get the absolute most out of guys or take it to another level. 

"We have to be excused for being excited, because we are really optimistic about this season. But I completely get it from a fan's standpoint and I know there are a lot of questions out there. I actually appreciate that. Just to have fans that are as passionate about baseball and about winning and about the Cubs as we are, you can't take that for granted. 

"Even if the tone isn't what you always want sometimes, it's coming from the right place and it also reflects the fact that standards have been raised around here quite a bit. We're coming off a 95-win season, we've won more games than any other club the last four years and yet there are loud, legitimate questions from our fans. I think that's a good thing and I'm happy to provide answers the best I can. It just means there are fans who probably were with us through some pretty thin times who enjoyed the really good and even historic times with us and are eager for those to continue, as we are."

Epstein stopped short of calling fans "impatient" and corrected a reporter who used that term, instead calling the angst from fans "passion" and "expectations." 

The Cubs president of baseball operations has a reputation of being very aggressive during the offseason and not making a habit of resting on his laurels even after a successful season. 

Epstein and the Cubs have referenced their 95 wins in the regular season last year a lot this winter, but they also acknowledge they were caught from behind by the Brewers and didn't even make it to the National League Division Series.

This winter hasn't resulted in almost no change to the roster, but that doesn't mean the team won't be able to improve on last season.

"I understand the way things look from the outside in, especially in the winter," Epstein said. "We can't go out and win games in the winter and we can't go out and play hard in the winter. All we can do for the fans in the winter — in terms of public-facing — is adding players, and we haven't added as many players as we normally have. 

"But behind the scenes, there's an awful lot we do. I promise you and I promise our fans this is as hard as I've ever worked in an offseason. The results in terms of adding players aren't there. We think we've done a lot of good behind the scenes to learn some lessons from last year and try to put our best foot forward."