Lester in WS Game 5: A win above all others?

January 12th, 2022

There is so much to remember, and unpack, about , now that he retires with 200 regular-season victories and three World Series rings -- and knowing that in the last run he made, with the Cardinals, he went 4-1.

We remember Jon Lester being a cancer survivor today, remember the night he came back from lymphoma and pitched his no-hitter for the Red Sox at Fenway Park in 2008 -- and the pictures on the field afterward of him with his teammates and his manager, Terry Francona, not just pictures that spoke to this baseball moment, but also the company of baseball men.

His catcher, Jason Varitek, was asked when it was over that night what he said to Lester when he got to him first.

“I told him to enjoy the moment,” Varitek said. “Later, I told him how proud I was of him.”

But when you add it all up with Jon Lester -- what a tough out he was in all ways, the way he could pitch when he had his health, the way no manager he ever had was afraid to give him the ball in a big game -- it always comes back to Oct. 30, 2016, at Wrigley Field, when Lester won as important a game as any starting pitcher ever won in a World Series.

Lester might never have the numbers to make it to Cooperstown, but he was a Hall of Fame starter that night when the Cubs needed him to be. Chicago was down three games to one against Cleveland in that Fall Classic. After Game 5, the Series would move back to Progressive Field for Games 6 and 7. But there was no thought of Game 6 or Game 7 when Lester took the mound on Oct. 30. There was just Game 5 on the North Side of Chicago, a game that was everything, with the Cubs up against it and 108 years of waiting for a Series title on the North Side about to have one more heartbreak season added to it.

Really: You can talk about all the other important starts pitchers have made in October. Who ever made one bigger than Lester’s that night?

Six innings. Ninety pitches. Four hits. Five strikeouts.

Two runs.

No walks.

He would be asked later about his mindset going into the game, knowing what the stakes were, knowing what the consequences of a loss were for the Cubs and their fans. It wasn’t life or death that night, of course not. Jon Lester, cancer survivor, knew better than that, better than anyone on the field that night.

“I wanted to pitch better than the last time [six hits, three runs, 5 2/3 innings in Game 1, which the Cubs lost],” Lester said. “That’s all I was thinking about.”

Lester fell behind, 1-0, in the second inning of Game 5. Then the Cubs came back to get him three runs in the fourth. He gave up another run in the top of the sixth, knowing it was likely his last inning, despite a low pitch count. But Lester did not give up that lead. Neither did Carl Edwards Jr. nor Aroldis Chapman, who would get the last eight outs of that game for the Cubs.

Before the game, knowing it might be his catcher, David Ross’, last as a big league player if the Cubs lost, he and Ross had a quiet moment alone before they went out on the field.

“One more time,” Lester said to Ross, and then the two men, Cubs pitcher and catcher, told each other that they loved each other.

It was Lester’s Game 7 that night, in Game 5 of the ’16 Series. It was, in all ways, the biggest game of his career. Lester would talk later about how huge it was that he got a 1-2-3 top of the first, because he felt as if that got the Wrigley crowd even more involved and more excited than it already was. He talked about how he was fine with manager Joe Maddon taking him out after just 90 pitches.

“I’d been grinding the last couple of innings,” he said.

It means that those last two innings were like his entire career, the best of which we saw in Boston and in Chicago. He won in Boston, and then the Cubs signed him as a free agent to be a big-game pitcher who could finally put them over the top and end all the waiting. And that is exactly what he did. No Cub, in the batting order or on Maddon’s pitching staff, was more important than Lester was that season.

Lester won 19 games in 2016, against just five losses. His ERA was 2.44. He was 3-1 in the postseason and the Most Valuable Player for the National League Championship Series. His only loss was that Game 1 of the Series. Lester told himself that it wasn’t going to happen again. It sure did not.

“That night is something I’ll remember until I’m done in this game,” Lester said.

Now he’s done. And he will remember that night. Maybe almost as well as fans of the Chicago Cubs will. A lot happened in that World Series after Game 5. None of it happens without Jon Lester. One more time, and one last time, he was great when his team needed him to be.