GOODYEAR, Arizona — Earlier this month, Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey was interviewed during a televised game. He said the rotation starters would ramp up to throwing into the seventh inning or about 100 pitches, then dial it back in their last spring start before Opening Day.
Monday night, Jon Lester put together that near-seven inning outing and did it with style, and the Cubs hung on for a 5-4 win over the Reds.
Lester’s pitching was solid. He allowed nine hits in 6⅔ innings, but some of those were of the seeing-eye variety, just getting past diving Cubs infielders; otherwise he might have allowed just one run instead of the three he was tagged with. He walked one and struck out six, and snagged a sharply-hit comebacker from Joey Votto and made a perfect throw to first base.
That latter fact isn’t something you’d normally read in a game recap, but as you know, Lester has had trouble with those routine throws. This one, he did flawlessly.
And, to cap off his night, he had an RBI single.
When he was removed with two out in the seventh, he left to a standing ovation, rare in a spring training game.
The Cubs had eight baserunners in the first two innings — five hits, two walks and a hit batsman. Yet they wound up with just one run in each of those innings, thanks to some good defense by the Reds. Victor Caratini hit a screaming line drive to center field with the bases loaded and one out in the first; Albert Almora Jr. strayed too far off second base and was doubled off. And in a similar situation in the second only with none out, Kyle Schwarber laced a line drive right to second baseman Cliff Pennington, who flipped to shortstop Jose Peraza to double Lester off second. Then Ryan Court, who was on third base after that double play, tried to score when the ball briefly got away from Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco, but was tagged out to end the inning.
Lots of action in those first two innings, but little scoring.
The Reds tied the game on a two-run single by Peraza off Lester in the fourth, a ball that just got by a diving Addison Russell.
But the Cubs put three on the board in the fifth, the big blow a two-run single by Russell.
After Lester left the game it was up to a couple of guys fighting for that last spot in the bullpen to try to nail down the win. Joe Maddon played this one a bit like you might see a regular-season game. Justin Hancock entered with two out and nobody on in the seventh to replace Lester; he retired pinch-hitter Mason Williams on a comebacker.
Anthony Bass got the first two outs in the eighth, then allowed three straight hits that made it 5-4.
Joe called on Kyle Ryan, who struck out Sebastian Elizalde to end the inning.
Ryan, a lefthander, was allowed to start the ninth. He got the first two outs easily, then Williams doubled off him. But Joe let him stay in to clean up his own mess, and with the tying run in scoring position he got Alex Blandino to ground to second to end the game.
I always like visiting Goodyear Ballpark, despite its location in the far West Valley (I heard some stories Monday of people enduring two-hour rides from Mesa there in rush-hour traffic). Gameday staff are efficient and friendly, and the park’s smaller capacity of 10,311 gives it an intimate, old-timey spring training feel. 8,159 attended Monday evening’s contest, a crowd that seemed about two-thirds Cubs fans.
Walking around the concourse before the game, I came across this map, posted on the wall.
A gameday worker sitting next to this map hands you a small sticker based on your fan loyalty, and you stick it on the map near where you’re from. As you can see, I had trouble finding an open spot near Chicago to put mine, but it’s interesting to see where fans attending games at Goodyear Ballpark come from.
There was also one of the nicer sunsets of the spring Monday night:
So, nice work by Lester was the most important takeaway from this game. I jokingly said after his first start that he was “ready for Opening Day,” but now that statement appears to be true. He’ll throw again Saturday in the Cubs’ final Cactus League home game, probably limited to three or four innings, and that’ll be it until Thursday, March 29 in Miami.
Tuesday, the Cubs are off, but Kyle Hendricks will throw in a minor-league game at the Sloan Park complex. This is to keep the rotation in proper order for the beginning of the regular season. The Cactus League schedule resumes Wednesday at Surprise when the Cubs face the Rangers. It’ll be a homecoming of sorts for Yu Darvish, who will face his old team for the first time. Matt Moore, who threw so well against the Cubs for the Giants in Game 4 of the 2016 division series until the Cubs had that amazing four-run ninth-inning rally off San Francisco’s bullpen, will start for the Rangers. Game time Wednesday is 3:05 p.m. CT. Audio coverage will be on cubs.com and TV via the Rangers network Fox Sports Southwest.