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Max effort prevails as Nationals' Scherzer beats Cubs' Lester 3-0

Jon Lester beat in pitcher's duel with Max Scherzer, also sets big-league record for most at-bats without a hit to start a career (59).

The marquee pitching matchup lived up to its billing Wednesday night at Wrigley Field.

It didn’t do the Cubs much good at the end of the day, with Max Scherzer and the Washington Nationals beating Jon Lester 3-0 in a game marred by three Cub errors. One led to the first run of the game, in the fourth inning on Addison Russell’s bad throw trying to turn a double play.

Both big-money aces pitched seven innings with double-digit strikeout totals in the kind of matchup — against a Nats team many consider the National League favorite – “that gets your juices flowing a little more,” Cubs reliever James Russell said.

“Obviously, Max threw the ball just a little bit better than I did,” said Lester, whose only unearned run came on Bryce Harper’s NL-leading 18th homer, leading off the sixth. “If you’re a purist of the game and like watching pitching matchups, that was fun tonight. That was what it kind of lived up to be. And I made one mistake. And going against a guy like [Harper] you can’t make any.”

The Cubs and Nats split a pair of one-run games Monday and Tuesday before sending $365 million worth of free-agent starting pitching to the mound Wednesday in a game that might have been 1-0 into the eighth if not for the error.

“The takeaway is we can play with those guys,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I feel confident in that moving forward.”

After seeing the Nats – who won their ninth consecutive series – the Cubs get defending American League champion Kansas City over the weekend, then head out on a long road trip that includes Washington again and contender Detroit.

Team president Theo Epstein said he likes what he’s seen so far from his young, transitioning team.

“But no one’s patting themselves on the back for being five games over .500 or whatever it is,” he said, “because there are tough times ahead, and hopefully our best stretch ahead at some point.

“We’ll see where we are later in the season.”

If nothing else, this kind of pitching matchup involving the Cubs has been unheard of since the days of Carlos Zambrano and Kerry Wood.

The last time the Cubs faced a Cy Young winner, they sent Edwin Jackson to the mound. And lost 14-5 to Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers last September.

Over the last three years, other Cubs starters against Cy Young opponents included Chris Volstad, Paul Maholm, Travis Wood and Justin Germano.

“It’s kind of special,” Russell said.

The Cubs managed just five hits against Scherzer (6-3), who struck out 13 and walked just one – running his season totals to a league-leading 85 strikeouts (just 10 walks). He also leads the league with 71 2/3 innings.

Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo downplayed the heightened attention and potential adrenaline, but acknowledged the magnitude for a Cubs team trying to find October – like the Nationals have two of the past three years.

“Obviously, this is a big early test for us,” Rizzo said. “But we’ve been tested early a lot, playing all these one-run games [13-10 in such games this season].

“There’s a lot of buzz around this game. It’s good for us young guys to play in games like this early.”

The Cubs fell to 3-6 against current first place teams (2-4 vs. the Cardinals).

NOTES: When Lester flied out on a long drive to center in the second inning he set a major league record of 58 consecutive at-bats without a hit to start a career (breaking Joey Hamilton’s record set in 1994-95). Lester struck out in the fourth in his other at-bat. “One day,” he said. He has 35 career Ks (and one walk) …

With runners at the corners and one out in the eighth inning of a 2-0 game, cleanup hitter-for-the-day Dexter Fowler decided to try to bunt a 1-1 pitch past the mound. But Matt Grace smothered the ball and threw from his knees for the out. “I would have liked it better if he was safe,” Maddon said. “I would have liked for him to drive the ball” …

A day after scouting/player development exec Jason McLeod said the Cubs’ were down to four players they considering for their first-round draft pick, Epstein said: “My list is longer than that. My list is nine, which is convenient because we pick ninth” …

After trying to get right-fielder Jorge Soler a day off, Maddon used the rookie right-fielder off the bench in the eighth, and he delivered a pinch double leading off the inning against left-hander Matt Grace. It meant Soler – who has never played more than 86 games in a season at any level in his life – still hasn’t missed a game. …

Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro had his 13th multi-hit game of the season — and first multi-error game. He has 11 this season, including eight this month and five in the last nine games — most of them on routine plays. …

Anthony Rizzo was hit by a pitch in the eighth, his major league-leading 13th HBP. The franchise record is 17, set by Frank Chance in 1905 and tied by Marlon Byrd in 2010.