There are three ways to look at the Cubs' 9-3 loss Friday:
1) Jon Lester had another rough outing and the sun is starting to set on his career as a front-of-the-rotation starter.
2) Lester gave up some hard contact, but also had some tough luck and pitched better than his final line indicated.
To be honest, each of the three perspectives has an element of truth to it, but the third one is probably the main way to look at it as the Cubs tasted defeat for the first time in a week.
No, the team did not play well, but it went far beyond Lester.
The Nationals didn't get into town until the wee hours of Friday morning, yet it was the Cubs who looked sluggish Friday. They managed only two baserunners - a single and a walk - until the ninth inning when they put together a too-little-too-late rally thanks to some shoddy Washington fielding.
But even if the offense did come to play, the game was out of hand by the fifth inning, when Lester and Pedro Strop combined to allow 3 runs, extending Washington's lead to 7-0.
Lester was charged with 6 runs on 9 hits and a walk over 4.1 innings, but 8 of those 9 hits were singles. The only extra-base knock off the Cubs southpaw was Adam Eaton's line drive home run in the first inning that he smacked into the 18 mph wind howling in off the lake.
Of the singles, a couple were hard ground balls knocked down by Cubs infielders and one was a perfectly executed bunt by pitcher Anibal Sanchez with two strikes that the Cubs had no choice but to hope it would roll foul. At that point in the fourth inning, the score was only 3-0, but the Cubs' misfortune seemed to open the door for the Nationals.
"I'm telling you, I don't think he was that bad today," Maddon said. "We were a little bit unlucky with him. ... Outside of that last inning when they squared him up, I thought he actually threw the ball decently.
"I think he's gonna be fine. He will find a way to get himself back into the picture in the right way. There's a lot of time left with the playoffs, etc., so I'm counting on it. I believe in Jon."
Beyond the tough luck, the Nationals hit five balls more than 100 mph off Lester, including a 108.5 mph single on the final batter (Juan Soto) he faced in the fifth inning.
After the game, Lester couldn't do much but shrug and accept responsibility for the loss.
"I feel fine," he said. "Today sucks. Tomorrow, I'll wake up and start a new day and get ready for another start. That doesn't take the sting away from today. Joe's always said, 'you win hard, you lose hard' and losing for me is even harder than that. Sucking as a pitcher is even harder than that.
"It's my job to do better and I'm not. I let a five-game winning streak basically go by the wayside because I didn't throw the ball very well. It's frustrating, but tomorrow starts a new day and move on to the next one."
Friday's game marks the fifth time this season Lester has allowed at least 6 runs in an outing. This was his 25th start of 2019, so that means 20 percent of his appearances have resulted in putting his team in a major hole.
"I think we're getting to the point where you can't isolate [the rough games]," Lester said. "They're happening a little bit too much for myself. I felt pretty good about myself after the last one, just being able to continually execute pitches. I don't feel like stuff was much different than last time, just different results and that's the shitty part about this game and my job - it's results driven and it doesn't matter how I feel or what the gameplan was going in.
"You have to execute and get people out and keep them from scoring runs and I'm just not doing that."
Lester started the five-game winning streak for the Cubs with a performance befitting true "ace" or "stopper" status. After a pair of disheartening bullpen meltdowns, he took the ball last Saturday and shut out the Pirates through 6 innings, battling despite not having his best stuff (5 walks).
But even including that start in Pittsburgh, Lester has now allowed 23 earned runs in 24.1 innings in five starts in August.
For a 35-year-old with three World Series rings and a long track record of pitching well when the lights are the brightest, he isn't where he wants to be as September approaches in a tight playoff race.
"Better than this," he said. "Usually this is the time of year where I pitch a lot better than I have been. For whatever reason, I haven't hit that stride. I usually have ups and downs to every season, but usually more ups than downs.
"Right now, it's just continuing to go down. The old saying - one step forward, two steps back - is kinda what I'm doing right now. The positive is I physically feel fine. Can't blame it on that. Just have to be better. Tomorrow's a new day, prepare for the next one."
Even with the recent struggles, Kyle Schwarber said Lester is still the guy the Cubs would want to give the ball to in Game 1 of a playoff series.
"He'll bounce back," Schwarber said. "He knows how to handle himself really well. He's a leader out there and we always have his back."
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