Lester shines, Davis scares in close call for Cubs
|Tuesday, July 18, 2017, 12:21 AM- -|
ATLANTA – Four games have now passed since the Chicago Cubs returned from the All-Star break, and the North Siders already appear to be a completely different team than the one that endured a roller coaster ride of a first half of the season. Boasting reliable hitting and refreshingly consistent starting pitching, the Cubs are clicking thus far in the second half, going 4-0 on the road to begin their postseason push.
Winning 4-3 behind a stellar outing on behalf of veteran starter Jon Lester, the Cubs defeated the Atlanta Braves to open up the three-game National League series. Marking the first occasion in which the Cubs suited up at the Braves' first-year venue, SunTrust Park, the Cubs appeared right at home as they overcame an early 1-0 deficit to earn the win. The triumph did not come easily, though, as the Braves produced a two-run ninth inning that saw them nearly pull off a thrilling come-from-behind victory, making Lester's contributions all the more valuable in hindsight.
Lester was, without a doubt, the shining star of the contest, pitching seven innings of three-hit ball with six strikeouts to show for it. Interestingly enough, Lester's pitching heroics, which baseball fans are well-accustomed to by now, were actually overshadowed by his offensive heroics, which baseball fans are definitely not accustomed to.
Plus a double, walk and his first career stolen base. pic.twitter.com/M6DEqbHTfY— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) July 18, 2017
Prior to joining the Cubs before the start of the 2015 season, Lester spent nearly a decade playing in the American League. Therefore, at-bats were few and far between for the pitcher, especially considering that interleague play was not particularly frequent until recent divisional realignment. But when Lester did receive the rare opportunity to bat during that stretch, he struck out both literally and figuratively, garnering a reputation for himself as one of baseball's most comically inept hitters.
However, since becoming a Cub, and thereby taking part in at-bats on a far more regular basis, Lester has drastically improved his hitting acumen, which was put on full display tonight. Becoming only the third pitcher in the last 40 years to collect an extra-base hit, a steal and a walk in a game, Lester was just as effective in his three plate appearances as he was in his 102 pitches.
Lester certainly had his work cut out for him on the mound, though, as he was facing off against a feisty Braves batting order and opposing Julio Teheran, Atlanta's ace, on the hill. Both starting pitchers fared well in the early innings, with neither offense threatening until a throwing error by Chicago second baseman Javier Baez indirectly led to the Braves scoring the game's first run. Coming on what should have been an inning-ending double play for the Cubs in the third inning, a the erratic throw by Baez allowed speedy Atlanta center fielder Ender Inciarte to reach first safely and take second on the bad throw. Inciarte then stole third, setting him up to score on an RBI single to center by second baseman Brandon Phillips thereafter.
Until the aforementioned ninth inning, Atlanta's hitting successes were few and far between from that point on, as Phillips's hit was one of a measly three accrued by the Braves prior to the final frame. As for the Cubs, they did not have much luck hitting against Teheran until the fifth inning, when they added two runs, thanks in large part to a wild pitch. Making up for the Baez error earlier in the game, Teheran threw a wild pitch with two men on and no outs in the fifth to place runners on second and third. Foreshadowing Lester's future auspicious plate appearances, the wild pitch came against him, indicating that Teheran did not slough Lester off as an easy out.
Although Lester struck out, left fielder Ben Zobrist came through for the Cubs in the succeeding at-bat. Marking his only hit of the evening, Zobrist's two-run single to center was also the most pivotal hit of the evening. The Cubs proceeded to load the bases after taking the 2-1 lead in the fifth, and, even though Teheran was able to escape that jam unscathed, enough damage had been done. Despite experiencing only one troublesome inning in his six innings on the hill, Teheran was handed the loss after allowing two runs on five hits, making his record 7-7 on the season.
The Cubs added two insurance runs over the course of the remaining four innings, which proved to be highly valuable in the end. In the buildup to that, Chicago left fielder Kyle Schwarber produced the best defensive play of his young career, flashing the glove with a tumbling catch into the seats down the left-field line in the bottom of the sixth. Not to be outdone, Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo blasted his 23rd homer of the year in the seventh inning, with the solo shot into the center-field seats putting the Cubs on top 3-1. Chicago added an additional run in the eighth by way of two doubles. Baez doubled early on in the inning, and shortstop Addison Russell brought his middle-infield mate home later in the frame with a double toward the wall in center.
While a 4-1 lead with elite closer Wade Davis toeing the rubber in the ninth might seem like a surefire win for the Cubs, it was not, as they escaped with a "W" by the skin of their teeth. Chicago actually had an opportunity to add more than two insurance runs in the innings leading up to the ninth but failed to do so, which nearly proved costly.
In the sixth inning, Cubs center fielder Ian Happ, who went 2-4 at the plate, led off with a double and made it to third on yet another off-the-mark throw by Teheran. Afterward, Lester, who doubled earlier in the game, drew a walk and followed that up with a steal of second. Both runners were left stranded, and Davis's surprising trials and tribulations in the ninth almost forced the Cubs to look back on the top half of the sixth rather ruefully.
Davis was off, to say the least, in the ninth. Lucky to earn a quick out on an Inciarte grounder, Davis next gave up two quick singles and enabled Phillips to score from third on a wild pitch. Veteran Braves slugger Matt Kemp then drove in another run on a hit to left that cut Atlanta's deficit to one, but Davis remained in the game. Struggling with his command for the entirety of the inning, Davis was not his typical self and was lucky to avoid a complete and total meltdown.
With two outs, third baseman Sean Rodriguez, who made his Braves debut on Monday, garnered a controversial walk to load the bases. It appeared as though Rodriguez went around with his swing on what would have been a game-ending strike-three call, but the Cubs' appeal was unsuccessful. Davis quickly regrouped, though, and forced rookie infielder Johan Camargo to hit a game-sealing flyout that earned Davis his 18th save of 2017. Lester received the win on the evening to become 6-6 and deservedly so, as he did it all for the Cubs in the 4-3 victory. Chicago (47-45) will look to improve its current winning streak tomorrow when they face off against Atlanta (45-46) in the second edition of what has all of the makings of being an incredibly exciting series.