CHICAGO — Jon Lester has been there before, more than anyone, in fact. Thirteen times he has taken a no-hitter through at least five innings, most among active players. And every time it happens, he’s thinking the same thing as everybody else.
“You go through the first inning, you think no-hitter,” Lester said. “Anybody that tells you different is lying to you. Every time you go out there, you know when you haven’t given up a hit.”
Save for one errant pitch to San Francisco’s Hunter Pence in the seventh, Lester dominated the Giants on Friday, working quickly and efficiently all through a complete-game three-hitter, a 2-1 victory that pushed the Chicago Cubs 40 games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 1945 season.
Lester had retired 18 straight and allowed only a first-inning walk when he faced Pence with two out in the seventh. Pence reached out and hooked a ball into the second row of the bleachers near the left-field foul pole.
“It was terrible,” Lester said of the mistake pitch to Pence, making you think that despite the mostly terrific 101 other pitches he threw, that was the only one he was thinking about.
That killed the no-hit bid, but Lester wasn’t done riding out a low pitch count. He pitched around the Brandon Crawford double that followed, Trevor Brown’s one-out two-bagger in the eighth and Pence’s two-out walk in the ninth. Lester got Crawford looking to end the game. Easy.
But as good as Lester was Friday, he was quick as usual to point out the missed brushstrokes on what everybody else sees as a masterpiece.
“I think the big thing is them being aggressive,” Lester said. “I wasn’t able to throw the ball where I wanted to at the beginning, as much as later in the game. Them being aggressive kind of helped me out a little bit. I was able to keep the ball down and keep the defense active today, so that was good.”
It was Lester’s 14th career complete game, and he needed just 102 pitches to do it, the fewest yet. And while he didn’t end up with his second career no-hitter, he did become a 15-game winner for the seventh time in his career. He allowed one run or fewer for the 17th time this season, the most in baseball. And in doing so, he joins teammates Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks in what is shaping up to be a wild chase for this season’s Cy Young award.
Lester has been especially dominant of late. Over his past seven starts, the 32-year-old is 5-0 with a 1.38 ERA. Only Hendricks has a lower ERA during that span. His 2.61 season ERA ranks fourth in baseball, joining Hendricks (first) and Arrieta (sixth) among MLB leaders.
“This is Jon Lester, the guy I known since I’ve been catching him,” said David Ross, who caught Lester for the 84th time Friday. “This is typical Jon. He’s going to go out and keep you within striking distance. He’s going to go out to the mound, and he expects perfection out of himself. And expect perfection when I’m catching him. He’s having a phenomenal year.”
“The cool thing for me is that when you’ve got this kind of lead this late in the season, guys are still not giving away [at-bats] late in the game,” Ross said. “Or you get down like the other night and still find ways to come back. That’s a sign of guys just focused on what’s going on, on the field. Nothing else.”
Forgetting individual accomplishments, there are strategic reasons for starting Lester in the playoff opener. The St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers and these Giants are all in the bottom half of the league against left-handed pitching. Even the Washington Nationals rank just seventh against lefties. Starting Lester in up to two games in a best-of-five scenario makes all the sense in the world considering not much separates him and the righty starters on the team anyway. Cubs manager Joe Maddon was asked if he saw the strength in Lester facing their potential playoff opponents.
“Against those teams, absolutely,” he said. “He’s been really solid pretty much all season.”
And he has the experience of being a Game 1 starter. That’s not to say Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks can’t be good, but why put that kind of pressure on Hendricks and why not use a lefty weapon against weaker opponents as much as possible? Plus, most observers would agree Lester has been more consistent than Arrieta and deserves two starts in a series if it’s needed.
“You can’t prepare for the playoffs,” Lester said. “It’s a whole other season. I’m not looking past the next one.”
Lester is thinking of the next one because he desperately wants to reach 200 innings. That’s the statistic in which pitchers take the most pride. He has thrown 169 innings so far this season after his masterpiece against the Giants. And there is a level of trust there this season that might have been missing a year ago. It’s hard to argue with 15-4 and a 2.61 ERA.