PITTSBURGH (AP) – The Chicago Cubs threw $155 million at Jon Lester over the winter and tasked the left-hander with becoming the cornerstone of a starting rotation desperately in need of one.
His team’s hopes of catching the Pittsburgh Pirates for the top spot in the NL wild-card chase fading, Lester provided a welcome reminder on why he was worth the investment.
Lester dominated a reshuffled Pittsburgh lineup in a 2-1 victory on Tuesday night, giving the Cubs a needed doubleheader split while tossing his first complete game for Chicago and the 12th of his career.
“This is what he does,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “He likes pitching in big games in the latter part of the season. It’s not a surprise.”
Maybe, but it was necessary after Chicago saw a late rally fall short in a 5-4 loss to Pittsburgh in the opener of the day-night doubleheader. Faced with the possibility of falling six games behind the Pirates with less than three weeks to play in the regular season, Lester looked like the ace the Cubs ponied up for last December.
“When I signed here I envisioned winning a World Series, not just playing September baseball,” Lester said. “So hopefully we can get to that point.”
Lester (10-10) allowed five hits while striking out nine against just one walk. David Ross and Javier Baez had two hits each for Chicago.
“It’s nice to leave having won,” Maddon said. “I would’ve been fine with winning the first game, but it’s something about leaving the building having won.”
J.A. Happ (9-8) had his five-game winning streak end for Pittsburgh. Happ pitched in and out of trouble, allowing two runs on eight hits in 5 2-3 innings. Aramis Ramirez had two hits but the Pirates mustered little against Lester.
The left-hander has been uneven during his first summer in Chicago, ceding his spot atop the rotation to the white-hot Jake Arrieta, whose 19 wins are tops in the majors. Still he had plenty to overwhelm Pittsburgh, which rested regulars Gregory Polanco, Pedro Alvarez and Jung Ho Kang.
The Pirates’ best chance came in the seventh. Ramirez led off with a single and scored on a double play. Sean Rodriguez was hit by a pitch. With the crowd chanting “Les-ter! Les-ter!,” the pitcher struck out the pinch-hitting Kang, with Ross pumping his fist in celebration.
“That was a big strikeout,” Lester said. “He kind of set the momentum going their way and able to get it back onto our side a little bit.”
Lester cruised the rest of the way, retiring Andrew McCutchen, Ramirez and Francisco Cervelli on six pitches in the ninth.
“I really wasn’t expecting Aramis to be swinging especially after McCutchen swings at the first pitch,” Lester said. “Yeah, thank you.”
Chicago took the lead in the top of the first on a run-scoring single by Anthony Rizzo. Dexter Fowler made it 2-0 with an RBI double in the fifth. The Cubs had a chance to break it open, loading the bases before Happ struck out Starlin Castro to avoid further damage. He exited with runners in scoring position and two outs in the sixth. Arquimedes Caminero came on to get out of the jam, but Lester already had all the support he needed.
“Any time you try to see a guy on his game, it’s tough,” Happ said. “He was tough tonight and just a little bit better than us.”
Pittsburgh broke a 4-4 tie in the eighth when Pirates’ pinch-runner Pedro Florimon stole second, moved to third when the throw from Chicago catcher Miguel Montero skittered into center field and scored on Starling Marte’s sacrifice fly off Justin Grimm (3-5).
“I’m beating myself,” Grimm said. “Other teams aren’t beating me. I’m beating myself.”
Montero had two hits for the Cubs, who took advantage of two wild pitches from Pittsburgh reliever Joakim Soria to rally from a 4-1 deficit only to watch the Pirates pull it out when Grimm faltered.
“There were a lot of gifted runs in that game,” Maddon said. “We gave them runs, and they gave us runs, too, but we’ve got to do a better job, especially in a close game.”
Cubs: Arrieta goes for his major league-leading 20th win on Wednesday. Arrieta is 8-0 with a 0.46 ERA in his last eight starts and is 13-1 with a 1.00 ERA since June 21.
Pirates: A.J. Burnett (8-5, 3.14 ERA) makes his second start since returning from the disabled list with a strained right elbow. The 38-year-old, in the final season of his career, pitched five innings in a no decision against Milwaukee last Thursday.
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