ST. LOUIS – Games like this are why Jon Lester gets the big bucks.
Warm, hostile nights like this in St. Louis are what made Theo Epstein and his fellow Boston expatriates in the Cubs front office believe Lester was the man to give $155 million over the next six years to show the way for the next-generation Cubs.
Taking the mound at Busch Stadium for the first time since beating the Cardinals in the 2013 World Series, the Cubs’ high-priced ace pitched enough like big money to beat division leaders and snap the Cubs’ four-game losing streak with a 6-5 victory over the Cards.
In one of the first statement performances of a pivot-point season in the Cubs’ long rebuilding process, Lester survived a pair of costly errors to put down a Cardinals lineup that had scored 17 runs the first two games of the series – ending the Cards’ eight-game winning streak with another seven strong innings Wednesday night.
“That’s what you want a guy like that on your staff for,” manager Joe Maddon said. “And then you follow him up [Thursday] with [Jake] Arrieta. That’s pretty nice, too.
“Jonny went out there, he did what he had to do. He keeps making positive strides and steps and that’s good for us.”
It was the second seven-inning start in a row for Lester (2-2), who might have had a chance for eight if errors in the second and sixth inning didn’t cost him 20 extra pitches.
“It should have been a little bit easier,” said Lester, who dropped a toss from Anthony Rizzo at first base for the first error, and in the sixth deflected a comebacker for an infield hit instead of an inning-ending out. “If I catch two balls, then maybe we save some guys in the bullpen.
“But as far as the team, that’s a huge team win, especially with how good these guys play at home.”
Only one of the four runs he allowed was earned, and until a leadoff homer in the fourth by Jhonny Peralta, he had pitched 12 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run — apparently signaling the end of Lester’s annual cold start to the season.
“The cutter’s getting there. There’s still some times where the ball’s flattening out on me,” he said. “The execution has gotten better over the last three starts I would say, so we’ll just continue to try to build on that.”
While Lester seemed to be gaining strength into his sixth start of the season (2-0, 1.80 in last three), the Cubs’ lineup continued to look impressive against the top-ranked pitching staff in the majors – totaling 19 runs in the three games.
All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo has set the pace all week, including a homer and two-run double Wednesday – his fifth and sixth hits of the series.
“I think he’s one of the top five best at-bats in all of baseball,” Maddon said. “At-bat per at-bat, this guy is engaged in every pitch. Every pitch. He doesn’t give anything away at any time. He’s one of the few major league players that has a legitimate two-strike approach, something I’ve always preached in the past. It’s hard to get guys to do it, but he has a legitimate two-strike plan, which is really beautiful to watch.”
Rookie Kris Bryant singled home a run in the first, and doubled and scored in the eighth. Rookie Jorge Soler singled twice, including the hit that scored Bryant in the eighth. And rookie Addison Russell has a nine-game hitting streak after doubling and scoring in the fifth.
“It’s been impressive to see these guys the past three days, four days, whatever it’s been, the at-bats that we’re having,” Lester said.
Until committing a pair of errors that led to three unearned runs Wednesday, the Cubs’ everyday guys had played clean baseball during the series, through the pitching breakdowns that led to losses Monday and Tuesday.
“We’ve played equally well, though,” Maddon said before the Cubs rebounded Wednesday. “I’m really encouraged by what I’m seeing. Actually, they’ve beaten us three out of four [this season through Tuesday], but I’m encouraged. Head-to-head I like it. Not a little bit; a lot.
“We can play with these guys. I really believe that.”
They have 13 more meetings this season to see how much of the gap they can close on the class of the NL Central, including a chance Thursday with Arrieta (3-2, 2.84) on the mound to split this week’s series (and the season series).
“We need more experience,” Maddon said. “We need a little bit more salt and pepper – oregano, I don’t know. But we can play with these guys.”
Lester said it’s too early to know whether the Cubs are going to be able to make a run this season at the Cardinals, who still have baseball’s best record (20-7).
“They’re obviously a very, very good team, a team that’s build on a history of winning,” he said. “They’ve got a certain way they go about things. We’ve got to find our way. This team hasn’t done anything. We’ve got a bunch of talent, but that doesn’t get you anywhere.
“We’ve got to keep playing these guys tough. We’ve been in every game that we’ve played these guys. It’s not like we’re coming in here getting our butts kicked. We’ll keep doing that, and we’ll see where we’re at, at the end.”
NOTES: The Cubs took another step toward tightening up a bullpen that has struggled much of the past week, activating 2014 workhorse Justin Grimm (forearm) from the disabled list for the first time this season. Right-hander Anthony Varvaro was designated for assignment to make room on the roster, after just one day with the team. … The Cubs also swapped outfielders with AAA Iowa Wednesday, adding Matt Szczur – who’s viewed as a better bench/platoon option – and sending out Junior Lake, who did well but needs to play every day, Maddon said.