Jon Lester had been struggling for so long this season, and so badly after the All-Star break, that it was legitimate to wonder whether he was injured, or just needed a break from the long season, or perhaps was beginning to decline as he reaches his mid-30s.
None of that was in evidence Thursday night in Pittsburgh. Lester was dominating in a six-inning outing and Ian Happ’s solo homer gave the Cubs a 1-0 win over the Pirates to begin their four-game series.
It wasn’t just the results, which were outstanding: six shutout innings, five hits (all singles), eight strikeouts, no walks. It was the fact that he didn’t walk anyone and among the strikeouts were a lot more swings and misses than he’s had nearly all season. This was the Lester we’ve been used to seeing over the past three years. Hope he sticks around for a while.
No Pirates runner got past first base until the fifth, when Jon allowed a pair of two-out singles. Then he ran a 3-0 count on Pirates pitcher Ivan Nova. This has been a problem this year. Cubs pitchers have walked the opponent’s hurler 14 times, more than any other team. Opposing pitchers have a .189 OBP against the Cubs, which doesn’t sound great until I tell you that N.L. pitchers have a .145 OBP against all other teams.
Anyway, Lester got two strikes on Nova, who then fouled off a pair of pitches before striking out. That was the only real trouble Lester was in all night.
In the sixth, Starling Marte singled with one out, and then with two out took off for second. Willson Contreras and Javier Baez took care of that [VIDEO].
Willson’s accurate throw and another patented Javy tag ended the sixth inning.
Ian Happ had provided the only run the Cubs would need in the fourth inning [VIDEO].
Happ’s 13th of the year was his first since July 19 and in the interim, he’d been in a slump: .186/.324/.237 (11-for-59). That’s a weird line — good OBP (12 walks), but few hits and just three for extra bases (all doubles). If Happ can get going again, maybe that can help the offense get on trarck.
Lester appeared to be lobbying to stay in the game as the Cubs batted in the seventh, and he probably could have at just 92 pitches, but Joe Maddon sent Kyle Schwarber up to pinch hit with Contreras on first with a single. Schwarber hit into a force play and the Cubs had just two more baserunners, David Bote hit by a pitch in the eighth and Contreras drawing a ninth-inning walk.
But with Lester’s strong outing and excellent bullpen work from Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop (10th save), the Cubs nailed down this win. The pen combined for three shutout innings, with one hit allowed and two strikeouts. The only extra-base hit of the entire game, among the 13 the teams combined for, was Happ’s home run.
It was the Cubs’ 13th shutout of the season, which is tied for the major-league lead with... the Pirates. And it was their second 1-0 win of the year. The other: April 26 over the Brewers at Wrigley Field. It was the 43rd 1-0 game of the 2018 season and we’re now about three-quarters of the way through the year. Last year there were 29 1-0 games for the entire season.
Another 1-0 game fun fact:
Last 6 #Cubs to homer in a 1-0 win— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) August 17, 2018
Ian Happ tonight (in his home town)
Kyle Schwarber 4/26/2018
Javier Báez 10/7/2016 (NLDS Gm 1)
Chris Denorfia 9/28/2015 (walkoff)
Addison Russell 5/1/2015 (1st career HR)
Anthony Rizzo 9/15/2014 (Walkoff HR)
And if you were wondering why the Pirates were wearing camo uniforms Thursday night, here’s the answer. (They do it for every Thursday home game to honor the military and benefit military charities.)
This win was a great way to start the road trip, and especially good to see Lester throw so well. Here’s the advice he got from Joe Maddon:
I mentioned on the radio that Jon Lester went to Maddon to discuss his struggles. Maddon gave him two pieces of advice: Go back to your fundamentals (like a hitter holding his swing at the end) and simplify your game plan even more.— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) August 16, 2018
“When you get backed into a corner and you struggle, you run to stuff you feel comfortable with, and it’s just being a natural human being,” Lester said after scattering five hits, walking none and tying a season high with eight strikeouts. “That’s what I feel I was doing.”
Whatever works, Jon. Here’s hoping the season’s final five weeks will be just as good.
The Cubs thus increased their N.L. Central lead to 3½ games over the idle Brewers, and five games over the Cardinals, who lost to the Nationals Thursday evening. The Brewers and Cardinals will face each other in a three-game set in St. Louis beginning Friday night and... well, the good news is that one of those teams has to lose.
Meanwhile, the Cubs’ series in Pittsburgh will continue Friday evening at 6:05 p.m. CT. Cole Hamels, who made his Cubs debut just a couple of weeks ago at PNC Park, gets the call for the Cubs. He’ll face Pirates righthander Trevor Williams. TV coverage Friday will be via NBC Sports Chicago.