CHICAGO — If you didn’t think it before, you should now: Chicago Cubs lefty Jon Lester deserves to start Game 1 of the postseason next month. That doesn’t mean he has been the Cubs’ best pitcher or should win the Cy Young Award — though maybe both are in play after Lester won his 15th game going the distance in a 2-1 win over the San Francisco Giants on Friday afternoon.
As for that best pitcher on the Cubs stuff, it’s a great debate but one that is for fans — not Maddon or team management. What makes sense in the playoffs is Lester starting Game 1.
“I’d rather have a ring,” Lester said. “Individual stuff is cool and nice but those World Series trophies look nice on your mantle, too. I’d rather have those.”
What the heck happened? The common thread was that none of them could score. Good pitching of all different types shut them down. Here’s a quick recap.
Giants (lost to Cubs, lead NL wild card)
The Giants couldn’t hit Cubs starter Jon Lester, who carried a no-hit bid through 6 2/3 innings. As this story notes, Lester pounded the strike zone. His 57 percent zone rate (percentage of pitches in the zone) was his highest since July 28, 2013 (58 percent against the Orioles).
Giants hitters went 1-for-18 in at-bats ending with a Lester fastball in the zone.
The upswing has been a collaboration between the lefty and the league-best defense behind him. Lester has improved his percentages in all the things the pitcher controls most. Strikeouts are up, walks are down and homers have been minimal. But most striking, opponents’ average on balls in play against him has dropped from .263 before July 29 to .228 since.
That was on display again Friday and helped Lester prolong the no-no suspense. Kris Bryant used all of his 6-foot-5 length to nab Crawford’s smash in the fifth, a ball that seemed ticketed for left field. In the sixth, Dexter Fowler charged in from center field and made a sliding catch of a sinking liner hit by pinch hitter Kelby Tomlinson.
“That was pretty awesome,” Lester said. “KB’s was pretty cool just because of how hard hit that ball was. Seemed to be by him before he kind of made his move and ended up catching it. That was nice.”
With Lester settling for the three-hitter, the most recent Cubs no-hitter at Wrigley Field remains the one tossed by Milt Pappas on Sept. 2, 1972 — 44 years ago to the day Friday. Really, though, the Cubs have celebrated their past long enough. And while a Lester no-hitter would have been a high point in a fairy-tale season, Wrigleyvillers are more concerned about what lies ahead than the exploits of the past.
“There is good energy on the field,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “There’s a strong belief that we’re going to play a pretty good game. The defense and the pitching have really set the tone for the whole thing.”
And on that front, here’s a little perspective. The Cubs are now 87-47. Even if they lost their final 28 games, Chicago would still finish with a winning percentage of .537. The second-place St. Louis Cardinals currently have a winning percentage of .530. That, folks, is dominance.