CINCINNATI – He didn’t get the win. Didn’t even pitch with a lead.
But for all his trouble containing one of the top base stealers in baseball early in the game, the Cubs’ Jon Lester eventually found a semblance of his big-money groove Friday night in Cincinnati – contributing to a 7-3, 11-inning victory over the Reds.
The bullpen pitched well, and Anthony Rizzo had a big night, including a two-run homer and the one-out hit that started the winning rally in the 11th.
But the story was Lester for what that start — at least the finish to it – might mean for what comes next this season.
“Jonny’s our horse. He’s the man,” Rizzo said. “And whenever he pitches we expect to win. We need to win for him. It carries over to the whole pitching staff. It was nice to play behind him tonight. It was fun.”
The veteran lefty the Cubs promised $155 million over the next six years survived a heavy pitch count early to eventually retire the last nine batters he faced for his first quality start of the season.
It allowed him to hand a 3-3 game off to a bullpen that got it through extra innings, where the Cubs broke out for a walk and four hits, including a go-ahead single by Jonathan Herrera and David Ross’ two-run double.
“I keep saying better, better, better, better,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s trending in the right direction. I think he had a lot of fun tonight, which is a good thing.
“If we can get him out of the chute hot and just build off that, he’s going to really pitch [in a groove].”
Lester’s six-inning labor wasn’t exactly a gem, especially after watching Billy Hamilton turn a pair of singles into a pair of runs with his legs during a three-inning start to his night that cost him 60 pitches.
“After probably about the second inning, I got into a little better rhythm and kept some guys off the bases,” he said. “That’s kind of been the thing that’s been plaguing me is just the continued base runners.”
When facing the Reds 11 days earlier, Hamilton wasn’t even in the lineup because of a finger injury. This time he singled in the first, stole second on the next pitch, took third on a wild pitch and scored on a grounder.
In the third, he led off with another single, stole second two pitches later, then after Joey Votto struck out, stole third on the first pitch to Todd Frazier. He eventually scored again on another grounder.
Lester didn’t throw to a base during the start, although he stepped off the rubber a few times to look runners back.
In Hamilton’s case, the big difference was he didn’t reach base again, in no small part to a spectacular play at second by rookie Addison Russell, who dove to his right and threw as he leaped to his feet.
“It was a lot better,” Lester said. “I got a better feel for my cutter tonight, was able to mix some off-speed pitches, which is obviously key against this team. I’m learning. I’m learning. New league, new faces, new guys. Kind of figuring it out as we go.”
Lester said his season-high 10 strikeouts were a good sign but also made the outing look better than it might have been. Seeing the Reds for the second time might have been as big as anything.
“I’m a visual guy, so when I get to see how guys approach me, how they take swings off me, you learn. I get information,” he said. “It’s a work in progress. It’s a constant adjustment for me right now. We’ll keep building. There’s room for improvement and we’re going to keep making adjustments.”
Lester reached 93 mph, mixed speeds and struck middle-order guys Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce twice each. The way he finished, including strikeouts of five of the last seven he faced, finally offered a glimpse of the vision Maddon talked about heading into Lester’s fourth start as a Cub.
A vision of what a Cubs team might look like once its new ace started pitching like one.
“Believe me I’ve thought about that,” Maddon said. “What’s it going to look like? I just think we can continue to anticipate better.”
They were 8-7 despite a three-start Cubs debut by Lester that added up to a 6.89 ERA and .353 opponents average.
Even before Friday’s start, Lester seemed confident he was on the right track – physically strong, back to full capacity after missing a start in spring training because of a “dead arm” period.
“Usually it takes me a while anyway to get my velocity, consistent velocity,” he said. “Everything’s – obviously, other than the results – is right in a good spot. I think everything’s right in line to continue to get better as we progress through the year.”
PEN NOTE — The struggling bullpen put together five scoreless innings from five relievers despite the unavailability of eighth-inning ace Pedro Strop. Strop was treated for a foot infection the team hopes will be well enough by Saturday to have Strop back in the mix.