Jon Lester didn’t exactly get a lot of help from his pals Saturday night against the White Sox in the big fourth inning that knocked him out of his final start of the regular season — and, perhaps, his final regular-season start as a Cub.
But bet against him at your own risk, say those pals, if they get to a must-win Game 3 on Friday at Wrigley Field in the short, opening series of the playoffs.
“I’m going to bet on Jon Lester in a postseason environment before I would maybe a rookie,” said Cubs manager David Ross, who as his former personal catcher has caught more Lester innings than anyone else. “That being said, Jon is still getting to a point where his caliber of pitching is up to the standards he expects to be.”
Lester had allowed only two runs in his previous three outings combined, appearing to right his rough season heading into Saturday’s finale against a team that clobbered him at Wrigley last month and on Saturday improved to 14-0 this year when facing a lefty starter.
Bad matchup aside, Lester was navigating the lefty-mashing Sox well enough to be in position to win as he entered the fourth with a 5-2 lead — until a routine popup feel between right-fielder Jason Heyward and second-baseman Jason Kipnis for a miscommunication single to open what turned into a five-run inning.
Three batters later, with one out and the bases loaded, shortstop Javy Báez fielded a slow roller by Nick Madrigal and looked to the plate before throwing late to first as the first run scored.
Lester then struck out Tim Anderson for the second out, but a walk ended his workday, and José Abreu greeted Ryan Tepera with a three-run double off the wall in left. Game.
That’s the long way of saying his outing didn’t look quite as ugly as the line.
More to the point, say hello to your Game 3 playoff starter, Cubs fans — rough midseason skid, career-worst 5.16 ERA and all.
Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish have Games 1 and 2, probably in that order.
After that? In a possible final game of the best-of-three series — or early in the next series?
“He’s going to handle that stage, which is a bigger stage than I think people give it credit for, better than most because he’s been there,” Ross said when asked midweek about his friend.
“I think it actually raises his game,” added the manager, who won two championships as Lester’s catcher. “As many times as I’ve seen him on that stage, I think it makes him better, where I don’t know that I could say that about a lot of people that I’ve played with in those environments.”
Lester, who represents the best free agent signing in Chicago sports history for his franchise-altering six seasons, has an ERA in 26 postseason games (2.51) more than a point better than his career regular-season mark (3.60).
“He definitely takes it to the next level and is able to harness all the things that go with that and step out there and perform,” Ross said.
Whether Lester and the Cubs find an avenue for him to return next year after they buy out his $25 million option for 2021, for now, they’ll shrug off this 3 2/3-inning finish from the longtime, rotation-leading horse.
And they’ll look for another moment in October to hand him the ball.
“He’s a guy who wants to make other guys better, and when he’s out on the mound he’s the ultimate competitor,” teammate Kyle Schwarber said. “He’s a borderline Hall of Famer — I hope. If you’re in a big game, that guy wants the ball, and we want him to have the ball.”