Lester's work was just what the Cubs needed. He worked seven innings. Lester gave up four runs, but only one was earned. He allowed seven hits, walked two and struck out six.
The situation demanded an ace, a stopper. The Cubs had the losing streak. Their bullpen was somewhere between cooked and deep-fried. This is an indisputably talented club, but much of that talent is young. The Cubs needed a solid, veteran pitching performance from a starting pitcher.
And the opposition was the St. Louis club, the Cubs' archrivals. But this was more tangible than that. The Redbirds had won eight games in a row. More than even that, they had a franchise-best start to the season at 20-6. It was only early May and already the Cards had a 6 1/2-game lead over their closest National League Central pursuers, who happened to be the Cubs. It was a moment for Jon Lester.
"That's why you want a guy like him on your staff," said Cubs manager Joe Maddon. "Typically, his stuff kept getting better as the game progressed, we've seen that a lot. I thought his cutter became more pertinent later in the game. He made good pitches when he had to. He keeps making positive strides, and that's good for us."
Lester typically is his own harshest critic. Here, he was critical not of pitches but of two balls he thought he should have caught. One was a dropped throw at first base that led to an unearned run in the second. Another was on a smash back up the middle that Lester knocked down but could not come up with cleanly. That was ruled a hit, but the play was a factor in two more unearned runs, these coming in the sixth.
"It should have been a little bit easier," Lester said with a slight chuckle. "If I catch two balls, then maybe we save some guys in the bullpen. But this is a huge team win, especially with how good [the Cardinals] play at home. For us to grind this one out and win, it's huge for us."
Lester was well aware of the circumstances surrounding this game. But he couldn't let that become the focus of his work.
"Obviously, it's in the back of your mind, you know," Lester said. "But the moment you start worrying about outside things, for me, then I'm worrying about the wrong things. I'm not worried about going out there in the first inning and doing a shutdown inning.
"Everybody knows in here we haven't been playing all that great. Everybody knows that, but you have to be able to separate that and go play a game. Yesterday was yesterday and today is today. And for the most part, I think these guys have done a great job of it this year. We worry about the task at hand, and that's what we have to do."
This was an important game, as early May contests go, but Lester had pitched in a considerably bigger game, against this same team, in this same ballpark. On Oct. 28, 2013, Lester started for the Red Sox in Game 5 of the World Series, and he held the Cardinals to one run on four hits over 7 2/3 innings in a 3-1 Boston victory. He was asked if he felt a level of comfort pitching in Busch Stadium.
"Any time you go on the road, I don't think there's any level of comfort," Lester said. "It's a beautiful stadium. It's one of my favorites, as far as the ones I like to go to. But no, I don't think any time you go into somebody else's environment it's a comfortable situation. You just try to keep the crowd out of it as best you can, because that's what [the Cardinals] feed off of."
Busch Stadium does present a difficult environment, between the ability of the Cards and the devotion of the home fans. But it turns out that a visiting team can take considerable comfort if it has, for instance, Lester on the mound.
"He's just got a real good sense of his game," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of Lester. "He knows when to expand the plate. He's got deception, he's got a good variety of pitches. He's just a good pitcher. He knows what he's doing."
There is a large task confronting Lester and his 24 teammates. That would be getting the Cubs consistently up to the level already established by the Cards.
"They're a great team with a history built on winning," Lester said. "They've got a certain way of doing things. We've got to find our way. This team hasn't done anything. We've got a bunch of talent, but that doesn't get you anything. We've got to keep grinding and keep playing these guys tough."
The Cubs will be helped considerably in this effort by the fact that at the top of their rotation, they have Jon Lester.