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.
“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.
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“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.”