SAN DIEGO – Even on a day he tied Madison Bumgarner and Justin Verlander for most quality starts in the majors and earned his 14th victory, Jon Lester seemed to get overshadowed by teammates.
The buzz after Monday night’s 5-1 victory over the Padres to open a three-game series at Petco Park was mostly about shortstop Addison Russell’s diving stab of a 110-mph one-hopper off the bat of Wil Myers in the eighth.
Russell leaped to his feet after the impossible-looking snare and threw out Myers – likely preventing a run from scoring and, said his manager, keeping the late-inning bullpen plans smooth and intact.
“Spectacular,” manager Joe Maddon said.
“Just instinct, man,” said Russell, who said the ball was hit so hard on a short hop that he had to anticipate where to thrust his glove as he started to dive. “With that one, with a short hop like that, you have to kind of guess. That’s kind of what I did.”
Russell, by the way, also hit his third home run in four at-bats over two days, then added a sacrifice fly to reach 80 RBIs – the third shortstop in franchise history to do that (Ernie Banks and Roy Smalley Sr. the others).
Then there was right-fielder Jason Heyward, the slumping $184 million free agent, returning from a four-day seat on the bench to hit his first home run since July.
“Those are the kind of things that can get his confidence going,” Maddon said, “and get him going in the right direction offensively.”
And, oh, by the way, did you notice Jon Lester pitching quick, scoreless innings for most of the game?
“He’s just been rolling them out there,” Maddon said of the streak of strong starts this season that have led to 20 quality starts out of 25 – acknowledging the idea that his impressive season has sometimes been overlooked in the Cubs’ season of big ideas and bigger performances.
“Him and probably Kyle [Hendricks] have been the most consistent, just the type of games they’ve pitched all year.”
On this day, Lester struck out eight through six scoreless innings, allowing only a pair of singles and two walks – until back-to-back singles to start the seventh ended his start at the 100-pitch mark.
He was visibly perturbed by the hook.
“I may not be happy with it. That’s null and void. He’s the boss,” Lester (14-4) said. “You don’t always have to be happy with your boss’s decisions. That doesn’t mean he’s not making the right decision.
“At the time I obviously would have liked to finish the seventh. But even [catcher David Ross] said the stuff wasn’t really the same.”
Nonetheless, the results have been remarkably consistent – even better than that since the All-Star break.
Lester earned his 10th victory in 11 decisions going back to late May, and he improved to 5-0 with a 2.28 ERA in six seven starts since the All-Star break.
Not that anybody has much noticed his season, with the drama every five days of Jake Arrieta, the reigning Cy Young winner, and Hendricks, who took over the major-league ERA lead over the weekend.
Not to mention the MVP candidates in Anthony Rizzo (four hits Monday) and Kris Bryant (32nd homer to tie for the league lead).
“I don’t really care,” said Lester, whose 2.81 ERA ranks sixth in the league, and who seems to be pitching his way into a Cy Young contention. “I just try to go pitch and do a good job. That’s all I worry about.
“I don’t care what’s being said or being looked at or whatever,” he said. “I try to do my job.”