PITTSBURGH – This is what $155 million worth of free agent pitcher looks like in a pennant race.
A complete game against one of the top teams in baseball to win 2-1 and snap a three-game mini-skid on the road.
That was the Cubs’ Jon Lester on Tuesday night in the second game of a doubleheader against a Pittsburgh Pirates team the Cubs might have to beat in a one-game playoff three weeks from now just to get a shot at an actual series in the playoffs.
If Jake Arrieta is the new ace of this staff as he tries for a 20th win Wednesday night, Lester is worth remembering as the big, stoic, October-tested left-hander this whole thing was built around when he became team president Theo Epstein’s first mega-money free agent since taking over the Cubs.
Lester’s first complete game of the season came in the start the Cubs might have needed it most, with their bullpen struggling and playoff position at play with every game against division rivals Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
Lester’s previous start? Seven dominant innings against the Cardinals in which he allowed one run and retired 20 of the last 21 he faced – and lost only because of an eighth-inning bullpen collapse.
“This is what he does,” said manager Joe Maddon – the man who stood in a hotel lobby during the winter meetings in San Diego last December and called Lester’s signing “winning the lottery.”
“He likes pitching in big games in the latter part of the season. It’s not a surprise.”
Maybe not, considering this is a guy with two World Series rings, 14 postseason starts and a 3-0 record and 0.43 ERA in three World Series starts.
If not a surprise, maybe a message. If not a message, maybe a statement.
The Pirates had taken a five-game lead over the Cubs in the race for home-field advantage in the Oct. 7 wild-card game by winning 5-4 in Tuesday’s opening game – with designs on trying to catch the Cardinals for the division title.
The Pirates got within two games of the Cards before losing the nightcap.
Lester said he doesn’t know about messages, or about anything being different for him when the leaves start to turn in the fall.
“I always feel better the second half of the year, both with stuff and physically,” he said. “I don’t know. If I knew I’d be able to share it a little bit more.”
What he does know is that a victory in Pittsburgh in the middle of September – no matter how big for morale or playoff position – is not what he envisioned when the Cubs made their pitch to him during his free agency tour last winter.
“When I signed here I envisioned winning a World Series, not just playing September baseball,” he said. “Hopefully we can get to that point and we can talk about that a little bit more.
“It was just a good atmosphere tonight. It was loud. They were into it. Fortunately we played good baseball and got the two across and were able to hold on to it.”
Lester gave up one single the first time through the lineup, two singles the second time through and didn’t give up a run until the fourth hit he allowed – leading off the seventh – came around to score on another single and a double play ball.
He retired the final seven he faced, including four strikeouts.
As big as anything might have been the pickoff of Starling Marte in the third inning – considering all the troubles and “yips” issues he has had all season.
Marte jumped early, and Lester stepped off and made an easy throw to Rizzo, who eventually made the tag after a brief rundown.
“The biggest thing with him about that is mentally,” Maddon said. “He actually does it really well in practice. Just when he gets comfortable in a game that will really be a big boon to his own personal psyche in that moment.”
Not to mention the wrinkle on opponents scouting reports it adds.
“It’s good. It was good,” Lester said. “Got the play done. That’s all that matters. As far as other teams and all that stuff, and all the other things that have gone on this year, I’m not too concerned about it. I’ll continue to try to vary my looks and holds.
“I may surprise you guys one day with just like an Andy Pettitte move over there. And maybe surprise Rizz a little bit too.
What won’t surprise anyone in the organization is that the Cubs might take the top 1-2 rotation punch this side of Los Angeles into the postseason.
“We’ve got to get there first of all,” Maddon said. “And then you’ve got two guys that are able to pitch those kind of games in a five-game series. It’s very important obviously.
“As much as anything, it’s good for Jon just for his own mind, that fact that he did pick somebody off, that he did finish really strong. I think moving forward it’s a big moment for him and for us.”