A little more than a week later, Jon Lester and the Cubs have distanced themselves from the frustration they carried into the All-Star break. The veteran left-hander helped the defending World Series champs remain perfect in the second half with Monday night’s 4-3 win over the Braves at SunTrust Park after an hour-long rain delay before first pitch.
“We got a good feeling as our pitchers are coming out dominating and our hitters are having really good at-bats,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It is a good formula.”
Pitching for the first time since allowing the Pirates 10 runs in just one inning on July 9, Lester limited Atlanta’s potent lineup to just three hits and one run over seven innings. Ben Zobrist’s two-run single off Julio Teheran in the fifth inning provided the lead for the Cubs, who have won four straight to remain third in the National League Wild Card race, 1 1/2 games ahead of the Braves.
Lester’s effort was preserved when the Cubs gained a necessary insurance run courtesy of the consecutive two-out doubles Javy Baez and Addison Russell in the eighth inning.
“There have been some things in the last couple of starts that haven’t felt right, but I was able to get my body to repeat better tonight,” Lester said. “My stuff had a little bit more crispness to it than in the last couple of starts. That is a positive and I will build off of that.”
The Braves, who opened the second half by sweeping the D-backs, gained an early lead via Brandon Phillips’ third-inning single and saw Teheran keep the Cubs scoreless until he began the two-run fifth by walking Jason Heyward. Freddie Freeman made a couple of run-saving plays at first base during the fifth and sixth innings. He also singled in the two-run ninth Cubs closer Wade Davis endured before escaping a bases-loaded jam to remain perfect through 18 save opportunities.
“It was exciting, kind of like a playoff game with the energy and everything else in that stadium,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It was good to see the guys come back. It was a good, hard-fought game by both sides.”
After Javier Baez followed Heyward’s leadoff walk with a single in the fifth, Teheran’s attempt to pitch inside on Lester’s sacrifice-bunt attempt resulted in a wild pitch that advanced the runners and put them in position to score when Zobrist bounced his two-run single through the middle of the infield. Rizzo and Willson Contreras drew consecutive two-out walks to load the bases before Freeman prevented further damage by snaring a Kyle Schwarber hot shot that would have reached the right-field corner.
“One mistake right there, walking the leadoff hitter cost me two runs, but overall, I think I did pretty good,” said Teheran, who had allowed four earned runs or more in five of the previous nine starts he had made at home.
Welcome cushion: After Teheran pitched around Ian Happ’s sixth-inning leadoff double, Rizzo gave Lester some cushion when he drilled a one-out seventh-inning home run against left-handed reliever Ian Krol. The Cubs first baseman’s 23rd homer of the season was a liner over the center-field wall that had a 107.7-mph exit velocity per Statcast™.
Lester became the first Cubs pitcher to collect an extra-base hit and steal in the same game since Rick Sutcliffe did it on July 29, 1988. Lester accomplished the feat by doubling off the right-field wall in the third inning and swiping a bag in the sixth inning, his first career stolen base.
Sean Newcomb will take the mound when this three-game series resumes Tuesday at 6:35 p.m. CT. Newcomb was impressive in his first four career starts, but he struggled while facing the Astros and Nationals in his final two starts before the break.