Lester after loss: 'I've got to figure it out'

Late rally falls short after rocky day for left-hander, Cubs defense

May 24th, 2019

CHICAGO -- The roar from the Wrigley Field crowd rose with the baseball that Cubs shortstop  drilled to deep left field in the eighth inning on Thursday. When its flight ended in the glove of Phillies left fielder Andrew McCutchen on the warning track, a groan swept through the stands.

It was hard to blame the fans for thinking, hoping and wishing that Baez's shot would find the bleachers. Given the back and forth over the past four days between the Cubs and Phillies -- living up to the billing as National League heavyweights -- it almost felt certain that Baez's flyout was destined to be a game-tying homer in the eighth inning. The howling wind did not carry that one out and Chicago came up short in a dramatic 9-7 defeat.

"When the wind's blowing out like that -- I've said this before -- you do not give up," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Three runs is a one-run lead, as far as I'm concerned. That's the way I play it, mentally."

This game, which resulted in a split of the four-game series, was a story in three acts.

Act I: Lester's rough day

True to his reputation, Cubs lefty  was in no mood to make excuses or assign blame elsewhere in the wake of a seven-run disaster. The way Lester saw things, this loss was draped over his shoulders, and he now has four work days to decipher what went awry.

"Something's off," Lester said. "I mean, that's kind of stating the obvious, but something just doesn't feel right. Obviously, the last two starts, the results kind of speak for themselves. But I've got to figure it out."

Two starts ago, Lester took the mound with a pristine 1.16 ERA on the season. After allowing nine earned runs over his past 8 1/3 innings -- that includes four earned runs out of the seven given up in his four innings on Thursday -- his season ERA has climbed to 2.68. Lester offered an eye roll when asked if Wrigley's windy environment played a role in his ineffectiveness.

"I'm pretty sure the homers that I gave up today would've gone out regardless of the situation," Lester replied.

J.T. Realmuto launched a solo shot off Lester in the third that cleared the left-field stands and landed on Waveland Avenue. Jean Segura's two-run blast one frame later rocketed roughly mid-way up the bleachers in left-center.

The Realmuto home run came off a cutter, which has been Lester's bread-and-butter pitch, but one that abandoned him against Philadelphia. Per Statcast, the five cutters put into play had an average exit velocity of 102.4 mph. Four resulted in hits and one led to a sacrifice fly. Entering the day, opposing batters had a .180 average, .344 slugging percentage and 85.9 mph average exit velocity against Lester's cutter this season.

"I watch pretty closely. He looks normal," Maddon said. "I just think the shape of his pitches is off a little bit right now. He's not nailing that backdoor cutter. ... Things like that. He's just off a click on both sides. That's what I'm seeing."

Act II: The turning point

Realmuto's home run put the Cubs in a 4-0 hole, but that deficit still seemed manageable on a gusty afternoon like Thursday. Inside Chicago's dugout, the players had no doubt that they could cut into that lead and make things interesting.

"Once we were down, I didn't think that there were any negative thoughts going around in the dugout," Cubs left fielder  said. "Getting some guys on, a couple swings and go from there."

The Segura shot in the fourth was a gut punch though, mostly for what took place in the moments leading up to the home run.

With one out and Sean Rodriguez on first base, Phillies starter Aaron Nola hit a sacrifice bunt in front of the plate. Cubs catcher  scooped it up and looked to second before firing the baseball wildly to first base. The ball skipped away, Rodriguez hustled to third and Nola reached safely. Andrew McCutchen then grounded a Lester pitch to second baseman Daniel Descalso, who stepped on second, but was unable to complete a double play.

One run scored and then Segura delivered his two-run homer to give the Phillies a 7-0 advantage. That chain of events led to three unearned runs added to Lester's pitching line.

"A couple things could've gone differently there," Schwarber said when asked about Lester's outing. "I don't think there's any question in our minds whenever Jon takes the mound, that he's going to put up some zeros for us."

Act III: The rally falls short

Prior to Thursday's game, 's, John, was in the home dugout. He told reporters that the Rizzo family enjoyed a meal including pierogies at Maddon's Post the night before his son's home run on Wednesday that cracked the "d" in the Budweiser sign that sits atop the towering right-field video board.

John Rizzo then pulled a pierogi out of his pocket.

"I've got to get him to eat this before the game," he said with a grin.

In Thursday's loss, Rizzo collected four hits, including a home run two batters after Schwarber crushed a two-run shot of his own in the seventh. That outburst followed another three-run flurry in the fourth against Nola. In the ninth, Rizzo stepped to the plate with Chicago trailing, 9-6, and the slugger led off by bunting a 3-1 pitch from Hector Neris up the third-base line for a single to beat the shift.

"Shoot, you've got to get on base," Schwarber said. "It's a smart play. Free knock, too. If I was up there, I'd try to do it 10 out of 10 times."

Neris followed with a walk to Contreras, bringing the tying run to the plate for the Cubs. Following a  strikeout, Maddon sent pitcher  to the plate as a pinch-hitter with one out, as the Cubs had no position players remaining on their bench. Chatwood -- one of Chicago's more athletic pitchers -- had an RBI double on April 28 in Arizona, and he did the same on Thursday, yanking a pitch to deep left for a two-base hit that scored Rizzo and trimmed the Phillies' lead to two runs.

"What a swing," Schwarber said with a smile. "He needs to get a little bit more launch angle on that swing -- it might've been tied up."

That is where the comeback stalled for the Cubs.  struck out on four pitches and  flew out to end the game. The Phillies felt fortunate to escape with the win.

"That lineup is never-ending," Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. "Every guy can hit it out of the ballpark. The way it went today, you thought at any time, there could be more home runs."