ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals' game plan against Cubs left-hander Jonathan Lester on Saturday was obvious, intentional and perhaps summed up best after the team's 5-3 win by one of the key initiators, Tommy Pham.
"Run," Pham confirmed. "That was our approach. Get a big lead and run."
It didn't work perfectly, as the Cardinals were successful just twice in four stolen-base attempts. But the payoff was critical. Steals by Pham and Yadier Molina set up two of the team's first three run-scoring opportunities and complicated an otherwise respectable start by Lester.
"I think that was probably the closest thing we've had to a Spring Training game, where we were aggressive on the bases, taking advantage, trying to make Lester as uncomfortable as we can," Jedd Gyorko said afterward. "If you're not going to put any pressure on him, he's going to be tough to beat. It was good to steal a couple runs."
The Cardinals, who have faced Lester in 10 regular-season games since he arrived in the National League Central in 2015, are plenty familiar with his troubles holding runners on. Knowing Lester is unlikely to snap a throw to first, manager Mike Matheny encouraged his players to push their limits.
Pham went first after drawing a leadoff walk in the third. He stretched his primary lead to 18.6 feet, according to Statcast™, more than seven feet further than the average lead taken on successful steals of second in 2016. He moved out 26 feet on his secondary lead, swiped second and drew a rushed throw from catcher Willson Contreras that allowed Pham to move to third.
There, Pham was in position to score on a successful squeeze by Carlos Martinez.
"[I] loved how the guys did their research," Matheny said. "They had an idea of what they wanted to do when they got out there, and then tried to put it in motion when we gave them the freedom to do so. I thought it helped us today."
Pham's primary lead was the sixth largest on a successful steal of second in the Majors this season. Aledmys Diaz got a 17.4-foot primary lead on Lester on Opening Night, when the Cardinals swiped two bases against him in as many tries.
An inning after Pham scored to tie the game at 1, Molina collected his 50th career steal to set up Pham's two-out RBI single. Molina took a primary lead of 14.6 feet, according to Statcast™, and pushed his secondary lead all the way to 31.3 feet. That secondary lead lands as the 10th longest on a steal of second in 2017.
Lester did combat the Cardinals' running ways by catching Pham and Magneuris Sierra later in the inning. But by the end of the fourth, the Cardinals had used their speed to grab a two-run lead they never relinquished.
The Cardinals are now 13-for-21 in stolen-base attempts against Lester, and that's actually a more successful rate than most. Despite Lester's hesitancy to throw to a base, teams were just 6-for-13 in steal attempts against him entering Saturday, and had been picked off three times.
This time, a 50 percent success rate didn't cut it.
"Jon is one of our better guys at controlling the running game, compared with our other pitchers," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Picking off Sierra was kind of nice. Willie throwing from his knees was a nice play. The ball going into center field that allowed the runner to go to third ... that was not good."