Cubs’ bats didn’t back him up, but starter Jon Lester was more than good enough
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The ball rose off the bat of Rockies right fielder David Dahl, who had six home runs in the last week of September. As it descended, it appeared — as sure as the deepening darkness beyond the Wrigley Field bleachers — to be ticketed for the basket in left-center.
Somehow, it stayed in the yard. Center fielder Albert Almora Jr. leaped back into the wall and emerged from the ivy having made a crowd-pleasing catch. Lester, the Cubs’ 34-year-old ace, got a sudden injection of life.
He was going to stay in this National League wild-card game awhile. He was going to do his thing. He was going to deliver a near-vintage Lester performance on a night when the Cubs desperately needed at least that much from the six-year, $155 million man they brought to town before the 2015 season.
Unfortunately for him and his teammates, the Cubs lost to the Rockies 2-1 in 13 innings, ending their postseason after only one game.
“This year sucks,” Lester said. “This is a sting right now. But we’ve got to still find a way to look at the positives of things.”
The Lester-Dahl sequence took place in the second inning of a boom-or-bust game the Rockies led 1-0. They had scored in the first when Charlie Blackmon walked, former Cub DJ LeMahieu doubled and NL home-run champ Nolan Arenado hit a sacrifice fly.
At that point, Lester’s standing in the game was shaky, especially with fellow starters Cole Hamels and Kyle Hendricks prepared to pitch out of the bullpen. What Lester did, though, was buckle down as he has done in the postseason throughout his career — and as he has done, memorably, a time or two with the Cubs.
After LaMahieu’s double, Lester retired 15 of the next 17 Rockies hitters. And by the time he was pulled after six innings, he had struck out nine, equaling his season high. Throughout a season in which Lester’s strikeout total dropped to a career low, there was talk of an aging lefty left with no choice but to pitch to contact and count on all the gloves surrounding him. On this night, he took care of much it himself.
“Good pitching will always shut down good offense,” he said. “I’d like to say that [about] myself tonight. That’s a good offense on the other side. I gave up one run.”
It was along the lines of what his teammates had expected.
‘‘I think [he has] a presence,’’ Kris Bryant said heading into the game. ‘‘It’s the name behind the person. You know Jon Lester on the mound during the playoffs, he’s going to bring his A-game, and it’s going to be tough for the other team.’’
Lester was pulled for pinch hitter Ian Happ leading off the sixth on a night when he clearly had another inning or more in his arm. But what’s a team that has struggled so severely on offense to do? It was the right move — the only move — at the time.
Still, it felt as though Lester, the Cubs’ all-time leader in postseason innings pitched, deserved better. He came into the game with 148 postseason innings pitched, the most among active pitchers. His nine victories ranked third. His 22nd start tied him with the Yankees’ CC Sabathia for first.
Young Rockies left-hander Kyle Freeland was outstanding, at times dazzling. But Lester more than held up his end of things.
A surprise? Again, no.
‘‘It’s Jonny Lester,’’ Anthony Rizzo said Monday. ‘‘He’s pitched in a few big games before. . . . We’ll be leaning on him hard.’’
That, they did. And he had no trouble handling the weight of the moment.
With two years left on his contract, Lester believes he has plenty left in the tank.
“Got to,” he said. “I ain’t going anywhere unless they trade me or release me, and they can’t trade me. Unless they tell me to go home, I’m here. You guys are stuck with me.
“I mean, I feel good. Tonight was probably the best physically, and as far as pitch command, that I felt in a long time.”