CHICAGO – The evasive “it” – the only “it” that matters for the Cubs – happened last year.
Another “it” might happen this year.
Then again, Jon Lester isn’t optimistic. The pitcher isn’t “feeling” another miracle.
“I don’t think it’s meant to happen,” Lester said with a shrug after his warning-track flyball Thursday during the Cubs’ 9-5 win over the Reds at Wrigley Field yielded a sacrifice fly, but not his first big-league homer.
“A day late,” Lester added, “and a dollar short.”
In his previous start Saturday at St. Louis, Lester also flirted with a home run, driving a ball that landed at the base of the wall.
“He’s been hitting the ball really well,” shortstop Javy Baez said. “Hopefully he gets [a homer] this year.”
Lester, whose 2-for-18 performance at the plate this season has hiked his career batting average from .064 to .069, wasn’t given a six-year, $155 million contract two years ago to hit the baseball 400 feet. Kris Bryant (450 feet) and Baez (415 feet) did that in helping the Cubs complete a three-game sweep of the Reds with a solo homer and grand slam, respectively.
Lester made “it” happen last fall for the Cubs, and his effort in front of 36,023 fans at sunny Wrigley Field was more vintage Lester. He shut out the Reds for six innings before giving up three straight singles in the seventh. Backed by the Baez and Bryant blasts and his own fifth-inning sacrifice fly that left fielder Adam Duvall snagged near the ivy, the lefty left with a 9-1 lead. Hector Rondon allowed two inherited runners of Lester’s to score.
Lester’s performance followed those of John Lackey (51/3 innings, three runs) in the series opener and Kyle Hendricks (six innings, two runs) on Wednesday night.
“We pitched really well (in the series),” manager Joe Maddon said. “Our starting pitching was pretty good, and for me that’s always the biggest part. I’ll say it again: Our starting pitching drives the engine. I will never be deceived by that thought.”
Call it trending up. Both Maddon and Lester did.
“We’re doing better,” Lester said after improving to 2-2 this season and 11-1 in his past 16 home starts. “I feel the (warm) weather’s helping out. Other than [the wind] blowing out at 30 mph, the elements are nice for us (pitchers). You can get a good sweat going. You don’t have to worry about it being 40 degrees and warming up in the dugout.”
The third career grand slam for the 24-year-old Baez came after Reds lefty starter Amir Garrett walked three batters in the first. Baez came to the plate with Addison Russell, Willson Contreras and Anthony Rizzo aboard and sent a hanging slider deep into the left-field bleachers.
“When it comes to bases loaded, I think every hitter thinks about a grand slam,” said Baez, who had three hits and five RBIs. “I just kept my approach the whole AB, and [Garrett] made a mistake.”
Cubs switch-hitting rookie Ian Happ continued to impress in his first week in the big leagues. Batting right-handed, he ripped a double down the third-base line in the third. Batting lefty, he smacked an opposite-field single in eighth.
Happ, who started in left field and batted cleanup, was 2 for 4 to raise his batting average to .353 (17 at-bats).
“He’s just like the rest of the guys. He’s a ballplayer,” Lester said. “He gets in there, he gets dirty. First game (of his big-league career) he takes a guy out at second base. He plays the game the right way. He’s quiet, he goes about his business, he knows what he’s good at, and he knows what he needs to work on.”
Happ has impressed Maddon with his arm and athleticism, as well.
“He’s got all these different things going on,” Maddon said. “He’s not just a hitter.”
Neither is Lester.