ATLANTA – With most of the Cubs in the dugout in the top of the seventh inning Saturday night, one small number on the Atlanta Braves’ giant video scoreboard suddenly changed from “1” to “0.”
And suddenly everything about the game – and potentially some Cubs history — changed with it.
“That makes my mindset different,” manager Joe Maddon said after the Cubs’ 4-0 victory at Turner Field.
“I got a little nervous,” catcher David Ross said.
And the guy in the middle of it all – Cubs starter Jon Lester – didn’t even notice right away that his one-hitter had suddenly turned into a no-hit bid after a first-inning ruling was changed.
Even after he realized – even after he pitched a 1-2-3 seventh inning to take that no-no into the eighth – Lester said he never let the idea fully sink in.
Maybe that’s because the game was still so close at 2-0 – another nail-biter in a season of them for the hard-luck Lester. Maybe it’s just because of what’s at stake these final 2 ½ months, or simply the work that was left on this sweat-drenched Atlanta summer night that Ross described as “a billion percent humidity.”
“Six outs is a long ways to go,” said Lester, whose quirky bid for a second career no-hitter was decisively wrecked by former teammate and career agitator A.J. Pierzynski, who lined a single to right leading off the eighth – six innings after Lester hit him with a pitch.
“The strong point that shouldn’t get lost is how well Jonny threw tonight,” Ross said. “Whether it was a hit or an error, he threw really well tonight, and really managed that lineup.”
Lester (5-8) lasted only two more batters, surrendering another single to Andrelton Simmons, before Hector Rondon got two quick outs to quell the rally.
But the significance of his strong start two games into the second half probably can’t be understated for a team that counted disproportionately on the staff leadership of their $155 million free agent ace.
The win snapped a 10-start winless streak for Lester, who had received just 2.49 runs of support per start before Saturday. The Cubs were shut out in four games during the streak – in five of his starts overall this season.
In four July starts, Lester has a 1.27 ERA, 30 strikeouts and four walks in 28 1/3 innings, and a pair of no-hit bids through at least six innings (also 6 1/3 innings July 6 against the Cardinals).
So does this signal the extended roll many have waited to see from the big left-hander?
“We’ll find out,” Maddon said.
In the meantime, the sharp fastball and big curve were as good as they’ve been all season.
“He has uncanny command of that [curve], based on its change in velocity,” Maddon said.
It almost became part of the long, strange lore of Cubs baseball.
Had he carried the no-hitter through the ninth – something Maddon said he would have let him do even if he’d thrown 120 pitches through eight – it might have ranked with Milt Pappas’ 1972 no-hitter for controversy.
Pappas missed a perfect game against the Padres because of the walk umpire Bruce Froemming called with two outs in the ninth after Pappas had a 2-2 count on Larry Stahl.
This one had little drama. No rising tension through the middle innings. Just a sudden scoring change by official scorer Jack Wilkinson that figured to get debated for years if Lester had held the Braves hitless the final two innings.
“I noticed it, but I didn’t really pay attention to it,” Lester said of eventually spotting the zero on the scoreboard. “I didn’t really understand what was going on, why they changed it or what happened or why it took so long.”
The play in question was a high bouncer down the third base line by Nick Markakis that short-hopped under and off third-baseman Kris Bryant’s glove and into left-field on a back-hand attempt.
After a few seconds, Wilkinson announced an “infield hit” – only to review it later and change it after it had become the only hit against Lester through six innings.
Ross said he only became aware of the change when Markakis pointed it out.
“He came up and said, ‘You ever seen anything like that?’ ” Ross said. “It could have gone either way. Whatever it is, I don’t think the situation of the game should dictate [anything]. Stick with your gut instinct.”
Lester, too, said he could have seen the play getting called either way.
“I figured because it was hometown, that it would go a hit,” he said. “I wasn’t surprised to see a hit go up there. I think I was more surprised that it ended up getting changed, especially being a hometown [scorer]. I figured that’s just how it would be, and if something did happen at the end, then maybe that’s something you go back to the league about.
“At the end of the day it didn’t matter whether that was a hit or an error.”