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Cubs’ Jon Lester has worst outing of season as Matt Carpenter, Cards romp 18-5

The day began with Cubs manager Joe Maddon extolling starting pitcher Jon Lester’s excellence under duress and ended with three of the team’s position players comparing notes after having pitched in an 18-5 loss to the Cardinals.

Indeed, it was a strange one.

Lester (12-3) entered the game with an 8-0 record over his last nine starts and hadn’t taken a loss since May 23. Cardinals leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter apparently wasn’t impressed.

Carpenter crushed a first-inning home run off the video screen in right and went on to have a dream day, becoming the first Cardinals player in over a century to have five extra-base hits in a game. He also joined the Cubs’ Kris Bryant as the only players ever to have three home runs and two doubles in a game. Bryant pulled it off in Cincinnati in 2016.

Jon Lester begins to process his worst performance of the season in Friday's 18-5 loss to the Cardinals. (Jon Durr/Getty Images)

Jon Lester begins to process his worst performance of the season in an 18-5 loss to the Cardinals in July. | Jon Durr/Getty Images

“He’s always been good, but right now he’s probably at the top of his game,” Maddon said. “You know, bully for him.”

As for Lester, here’s what Maddon said before the game:

“I just think he’s pitching so well. He has turned into a pitch maker. Even when things don’t go well, he’s staying [steady]. He’s not letting things snowball.”

Eight earned runs allowed in three-plus innings later, the veteran lefty told a much different story.

“I don’t want to chalk it up to, ‘Days like this happen,’ ” he said. “Mechanically, I think this has kind of been coming. I’ve been battling myself a little bit, probably for the last three, four starts.”

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It was Lester’s worst start of the season and easily in his bottom five since joining the Cubs in 2015. Add his mechanical issues — however small and temporary — to the list of pitching problems that includes Yu Darvish being missing in action, Tyler Chatwood being unable to throw strikes and closer Brandon Morrow being on the disabled list.

Lester’s ERA soared from an excellent 2.58 to 3.14 — still good, but perhaps no longer worthy of Cy Young conversation.

Speaking of ERAs, Ian Happ’s is a lot better — as in 0.00 — after the first inning pitched of his career. Tommy La Stella’s is 6.75 after he threw 1 1/3 innings. And Victor Caratini probably shouldn’t quit his day job as a catcher, although surrendering only a pair of runs before recording three outs isn’t so bad when you really think about it.

Together, the trio players put the Cubs’ bullpen in a less precarious position than it would’ve been in heading into Saturday’s day-night doubleheader. It was the first time since at least 1907 that more than one Cubs position player pitched in a game.

Was there some friendly competition between them over who threw the best?

“Yes,” Happ said. “I won.”

After the game, Happ noted the oddity of being surrounded by reporters who were asking about his pitching. When veteran first baseman Anthony Rizzo — who has lobbied on many occasions for a chance to pitch — caught sight of the scene, he shook his head in mock disgust.

“I’ve been here eight years and I can’t pitch,” he said. “They’re pitching first-rounders now. Unbelievable.”

In one of those games when pretty much everything goes wrong, the key move for Maddon was yanking Rizzo from a hopeless game before he could badger the manager for the ball.

“That made my decision-making process a lot easier,” Maddon said.

Again, a strange day. Kind of fun, too, as it always is in fish-out-of-water situations like the ones La Stella, Caratini and Happ found themselves in.

Yet there’s also ongoing concern about a rotation whose imperfections have been largely hidden by a strong group of hitters and a solid bullpen. If Lester becomes shaky for a while, it won’t be a pretty picture.