Lester's Cards debut torpedoed by rocky 1st

Rotation reinforcements en route for pivotal August stretch

August 4th, 2021

ST. LOUIS -- Jon Lester was acquired by the Cardinals with the hopes that his veteran presence and track record would in turn track well forward, eating innings and providing a steady hand as the club makes its final push towards a lofty postseason bid and the end of the season.

Quickly into Tuesday’s 6-1 series-opening loss to the Braves at Busch Stadium, it appeared to be hopeful wishing; Lester allowed the first seven batters he faced to reach base, four runs to score before an out was recorded and 31 pitches to inch onto his ledger before his first official Cardinal frame was over.

“[Eight] pitches in and down 2-0, it's like 30 seconds into a fight and you get hit in the chin,” Lester said, “you don’t know where you're at.”

Sixteen years into his career, and with six World Series games appearances (including three rings), Lester endured some of the emotions that remind anyone of basic humanity in his first day in a new gig. The 37-year-old said that he was battling some jitters as he was on the mound, making his first appearance at Busch Stadium (in his 12th career game at the park, including the postseason) as a member of the home team.

But he settled in and efficiently worked past them, needing just 57 pitches for his ensuing four frames -- really, bit just for a hanging curveball to Freddie Freeman in the second -- to do what he set out to do: eat innings (five of them).

“It just kind of maybe sped up on me a little bit. Maybe a little bit jitters, trying to do too much early on, nibbling a little bit, putting myself in some bad counts,” Lester said. “From there on, I can live with the outcome after that, but anytime you put your team down five in the first is obviously never very good for us.”

“[He] just [put] balls out over the plate and they made him pay for it in the first inning,” added manager Mike Shildt, “and that was the game.”

Most perplexing: Lester needed 88 pitches to make it through five innings of six-run ball. That was one pitch fewer than Braves starter Max Fried needed through his own five shutout innings, before he blanked the Cardinals one inning more on nine pitches.

That’s what can be gleaned as a positive from Lester’s night, the capability he was able to show in innings Nos. 2-5 -- capability he’s shown across his career that made him an appealing trade pickup for St. Louis.

“Being able to settle in and get my feet under me, I think that's really the biggest difference,” Lester said.

Disheartening about Lester’s night was the context it came with. On Tuesday, the Cardinals trudged full throttle into a month with every series but two against teams under .500, including 16 against the Pirates and Royals -- and five more against the Brewers and Reds, teams ahead of them in the National League Central standings. With Cincinnati having lost Tuesday, it proved to be a costly chance at making up some ground.

That momentum may come soon. Reinforcements are en route soon in the form of pitching, after Miles Mikolas turned in his third rehab start as the Cardinals battled at Busch on Tuesday, this time with Double-A Springfield, where he worked 4 2/3 frames of one-run ball, striking out three on 67 pitches. Behind him, Daniel Ponce de Leon was roughed up for three runs on 1 2/3 frames as he makes himself an option for long relief.

The Cards will decide whether to employ Mikolas on one more rehab start, though they’ve left open the door that he could build up to his full workload at the Major League level. Behind him is Jack Flaherty, set to make his third rehab start in the near future as he looks to put behind him what will be roughly a 2 1/2-month absence.

Lester’s night may be more magnified given the need to fill innings in the short-term. But that he was able to work past a rough first and hand his team five innings to kick off a stretch of six straight days with games was, in itself, a welcome sight.

“You come out [of the game] in the third, you got six innings you got to cover, whereas we just had the four,” Lester said. “ So it's a little bit better, obviously not great, but it is a little bit better.”