No, wait. That wasn't from Saturday night's game; it happened eight days before the first game of the National League Championship Series. Lester's performance in NLCS Game 1, a 4-2 Cubs loss to the Mets, wound up eerily similar to that NLDS Game 1 outing against the Cardinals.
The unlikely home run hit into the chilly night at Citi Field off Lester was hit by Daniel Murphy, who is making a habit of hitting homers this postseason. Murphy, who posted a .633 OPS against lefthanders during the 2015 regular season (as compared to .817 against righties), had hit just one home run off a lefthander in 126 at-bats during the regular season (off Jake McGee of the Rays August 7, if you must know).
But he yanked a Lester cutter that got up in the zone into the right-field seats in the first inning and the Mets had a 1-0 lead.
No matter! It's just the first inning, right?
Well... yeah, it mattered. Matt Harvey was dealing. He retired the first 12 Cubs he faced, and in a postseason situation it's much more magnified if you give up that many outs. Fortunately, Lester settled down and the game went to the fifth still 1-0.
Harvey hit Anthony Rizzo with a pitch to lead off the fifth, and Starlin Castro launched a ball toward center field that sailed over Juan Lagares' head. Rizzo scored, and the game was tied.
What followed is something you'll certainly debate all morning, and depending on what happens in the rest of this series, perhaps all winter. Javier Baez bounced a single to left, right at Yoenis Cespedes, who was playing medium-deep. This was the result:
Well? Would you have sent Castro? I wouldn't, even though the next two hitters were David Ross and Lester. Had Castro been held, the Cubs would have had runners on first and third with one out. There are a lot of things that could happen there. Yes, I am well aware that Ross is not a good hitter. Perhaps, though, he could have hit a fly ball deep enough to score Castro. Or put a bunt down, scoring him. To me, Castro's not a fast enough baserunner to beat any throw from that spot and Cespedes has one of the best and most accurate arms in the game. (Never mind that Castro didn't slide, instead trying awkwardly to avoid a tag).
The fact that neither Ross and Lester, or Lester and Ross in whatever order they've batted, can't hit much at all, is one of the primary reasons why Lester ranked 106th of 124 qualified starters in run support per start (3.7). The Cubs have scored two total runs in Lester's two postseason starts. Now, for those of you who will say "the Cubs need a backup catcher who can hit better than Ross," most backup catchers don't hit. If they did, they wouldn't be backups. For comparison, the Mets' backup catcher in this series, Kevin Plawecki, hit just about as poorly as Ross this year: .219/.280/.296 (.576 OPS; Ross' was .518). Ross provides defensive value, but there's no doubt the offense suffers when he's in the lineup.
But the Cubs had tied the game, and Lester had settled down. Unfortunately, that didn't last long. Three Mets singles in the bottom of the fifth made it 2-1, and then Mets starting catcher Travis d'Arnaud homered with two out in the bottom of the sixth to give the Mets a two-run lead. That was after Dexter Fowler led off the top of the sixth with this "hit," and I use the word literally to describe what the ball did to Harvey:
If that ball falls even a couple of inches from where it did after it hit Harvey, Fowler would have been safe. The only reason Harvey realized where it was is that it hit him a second time, on the back, coming down after the first time it hit him. Even then, Fowler nearly beat the throw.
The Cubs were doing this all night, hitting balls really hard right at Mets fielders. Fowler noted that in postgame remarks:
Don't worry, #Cubs fans. Fowler says: "Don't panic. C'mon. We hit balls way harder tonight than we hit off Lackey" in Game 1 of NLDS— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) October 18, 2015
Fowler is absolutely right. Harvey might have been dealing, but Cubs hitters were able to solve him. It's just that Mets fielders were right where balls were hit. This could be a good sign for Game 5, and hopefully the series gets at least that far, when Harvey would be pitching in a rematch against Lester.
The Mets scored their fourth and final run using small ball: a single by Lagares, a sacrifice by Harvey, a stolen base and a sacrifice fly by Curtis Granderson. The score was now 4-1 and the Cubs seemed done. But wait! There was Kyle Schwarber to be heard from:
Every time you think Schwarber has hit the monster Schwarbomb of all monster Schwarbombs, he outdoes himself. That ball went much farther than his Wrigley homer Tuesday against the Cardinals:
Schwarber's HR, by the way, was measured at 459 feet. Personal best this year for the #Cubs rookie— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) October 18, 2015
By the way, Schwarber's HR at Wrigley was measured at 419 feet. It's a shame the scoreboard got in the way of that one. #Cubs— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) October 18, 2015
4-2, and that one chased Harvey from the game in favor of Mets closer Jeurys Familia, who hadn't even allowed a single baserunner in the series. Kris Bryant, the first batter to face Familia, took care of that by working a walk (a really nice at-bat, incidentally, coming back from down 0-2 to walk, something Bryant had done many times in his rookie season). Unfortunately, Rizzo grounded out to end the inning. Rizzo's tough day included bizarrely being hit in the hand after he had led off the seventh with a walk and had to retreat to first to avoid being doubled off on this line drive by Castro:
Rizzo stayed in the game and seemed fine, although that had to hurt even more than usual in the chilly weather.
The Cubs bullpen, at least, did its job in keeping the Mets from scoring any more runs and thus keeping the game within reach. Justin Grimm, Clayton Richard and Trevor Cahill retired all the batters they faced. Okay, so that's just four hitters, still, they did what they needed to do, and with two out in the ninth, Miguel Montero singled, bringing Tommy La Stella to the plate representing the tying run.
Sigh. Murphy again:
That ball was inches from getting through for a hit, which would have put the tying runs on base and brought Chris Denorfia to the plate, batting for Cahill. But just as the Mets did all night, their defense prevented a Cubs hit and the game ended.
Do not panic, Cubs fans. This was Game 1 of a seven-game series. You'll remember just over a week ago, the Cubs lost Game 1 of a five-game series to the Cardinals, on the road, and their offense looked even worse in that game than it did Saturday night in New York. This Cubs club has been resilient all season in coming back from tough losses and I expect that to continue.
Meanwhile, Schwarber continues to be awesome. He's 8-for-17 (.471) this postseason with four home runs, five runs scored and six RBI. The four home runs ties him for the Cubs career postseason home-run record with Aramis Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez. There's also this:
Let's hope Schwarber continues his amazing home-run barrage for the rest of this series. The Cubs are also going to need to get the bats of Rizzo and Bryant going; neither had a hit Saturday night, though Rizzo scored a run after he was hit by that Harvey pitch and Bryant had the aforementioned walk. That makes Rizzo 3-for-20 (.150) and Bryant 3-for-23 (.130) through the Cubs' six postseason games. I do think they'll eventually get untracked. Sunday night would be a good time to get that going.
Jake Arrieta takes the mound Sunday evening against the Mets' Noah Syndergaard. The Mets righthander known as "Thor" threw 17 pitches in relief Thursday night against the Dodgers in Game 5 of their Division Series, but got up to warm up three different times during that game and threw an estimated 100 pitches in the bullpen. Hopefully that means the Cubs can get to him early and often Sunday night while Jake mows down Mets hitters.
Win Sunday night and the Cubs will have accomplished what any road team wants to do in the first two games of a seven-game series: split in their opponent's home park. Have faith in this team. They've come back all year from things like this. There's a lot of baseball left to be played this month.
SITE NOTE: Cub Tracks, which usually runs Sunday mornings, will run Monday morning with all the media reaction to Game 1.