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Lester’s great escape paves way for Cubs’ 6-1 win over Braves

Matt Szczur watches his grand slam during the eighth inning a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves in the Cubs 6-1 win. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

Jon Lester was in serious need of a timeout. So when Joe Maddon made his way out of the dugout in the seventh inning with the Cubs and Braves tied, the bases loaded and no outs, Lester knew one of two things was about to happen.

“Either you’re getting taken out of the game or he’s giving me a pep talk,” Lester said.

Maddon, in his own Joe Cool way, chose the latter. He told Lester to think about a positive result rather than give in to the one many nervous Cubs fans feared was coming.

The visit paid off. Lester struck out Drew Stubbs and Jace Peterson and got Nick Markakis to ground out to first baseman Anthony Rizzo. The Houdini act loomed large as the Cubs scored five runs in the eighth inning, including Matt Szczur’s first career grand slam, to win 6-1 on Friday at Wrigley Field.

“Obviously, that’s a big inning because if they get a hit there or even a walk, the momentum is on their side,” said Lester, who allowed one run and seven hits, walked two and struck out 10 in the no-decision.

But Lester put himself in that jam, and his fielding issues played a part. He gave up a leadoff single to Jeff Francoeur and walked Tyler Flowers. Then Erick Aybar put down a seemingly harmless bunt back to Lester, who appeared to freeze. Maddon said Lester “chose not to throw,” and that decision loaded the bases.

Asked to reconstruct his thought process, Lester immediately went on the defensive.

“No matter what I say about the bunt in that inning, nobody’s really going to believe what I say,” he said. “I never had a handle on it. I fielded it, the ball kind of rattled around in my glove, I reached for it twice and didn’t have a handle on it and ate it. You can believe me or not on that.”

Whatever the case, retiring the next three batters made Lester’s latest fielding adventure a moot point.

Pedro Strop relieved and pitched a hitless eighth, and Rizzo broke the 1-1 tie with an RBI single in the bottom of the inning. Szczur followed with his blast to left field.

As big as that was for the Cubs, everything pointed back to Maddon’s meeting and Lester’s ability to move past the negative and escape the mess he helped create.

“Huge,” catcher David Ross said. “Joe’s visit was so important. He laid out the game and what he was thinking just as a calming factor. He never is anxious; there’s never any stress in Joe’s voice.”

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