Lester flirts with no-hitter, locks up Giants in CG
By Carrie Muskat and Chris Haft
CHICAGO -- On Sept. 2, 1972, Milt Pappas threw a no-hitter for the Cubs against the Padres at Wrigley Field. Forty-four years later to the day, Jon Lester nearly matched that.
Lester held the Giants hitless until Hunter Pence's solo home run with two outs in the seventh en route to a 2-1 Cubs victory on Friday afternoon in front of 40,818. Brandon Crawford followed Pence with a double for the Giants, who lead the National League Wild Card standings despite a 15-29 record since the All-Star break.
Lester was vying for his second career no-hitter, and his first since he blanked the Royals on May 19, 2008, while with the Red Sox. He had a stellar August in which he posted a 3-0 record and a 1.71 ERA in five starts. Against the Giants, the lefty walked two and struck out four in his second complete game this season.
"Jon pitched today," catcher David Ross said. "I didn't think his stuff was overpowering. He just really moved the ball around and executed the pitches when he had to. When you have an aggressive team like that and the ball is moving all over the place, good things happen."
With the win, the Cubs improved to 40 games over .500 for the first time since they finished the 1945 season 42 games over at 98-56.
"It's pretty incredible," manager Joe Maddon said of the Cubs' record. "I've always talked about increments of five, and I remember back when we were talking about just five. … There's good energy on the field, there's a strong belief that we'll play a pretty good game. The defense and the pitching have really set the tone for the whole thing."
Striving to keep pace with the first-place Dodgers in the NL West and clinging to a 1 1/2-game lead over St. Louis for the league's first Wild Card spot, the Giants mustered three hits for the second game in a row. They remained two games back in the division after the Dodgers lost, 4-2, to the Padres.
"Lester pitched a great game," Pence said. "He's kind of locked in right now. His stuff was exceptional, for sure."
Giants catcher Trevor Brown, who doubled in three at-bats, described how Lester kept hitters off balance: "He had a curveball that he'd throw once to each batter and keep in the back of everybody's mind."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Forever young: Giants starter Albert Suarez retired the first six batters he faced, and then Javier Baez and Ross hit back-to-back doubles in the third to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead. Ross moved up on Lester's sacrifice bunt and scored on Dexter Fowler's single. Ross, 39, was catching his second straight day, and he was behind the plate for a day game after a night game.
Satisfactory Suarez: The Giants couldn't have hoped for much more than they received from Suarez. Delivering a performance commensurate of a fifth starter -- which he essentially is -- Suarez yielded three hits and both Cubs runs in five innings. He displayed a lively fastball that reached 94 mph.
"Suarez kept us in the game," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "He gave us what we needed."
"I'm thankful for the opportunity and just trying to do my best," Suarez added.
Glove work: Pitching and defense win games, and Lester helped himself in the second inning when he snared Eduardo Nunez's liner for the second out. Third baseman Kris Bryant robbed Crawford of a potential hit leading off the fifth with a diving grab. Fowler also made a diving catch of pinch-hitter Kelby Tomlinson's fly ball to center in the sixth.
"[Bryant's play] was pretty cool because of how hard hit that ball was," Lester said. "They really kept our defense on its toes today and guys made some great plays. Dex in center, [Anthony Rizzo] had a nice pick, it seemed like everybody was contributing throughout the game. It makes our jobs a lot easier, because we know we can throw the ball and let them hit it and let those guys make the plays."
A play that wasn't: The Cubs' two-run third inning might have turned out differently -- that is, a little more in the Giants' favor -- had Suarez executed a bunt play more neatly.
With Ross on second base, Suarez fielded Lester's sacrifice attempt and considered throwing to third before opting for the sure out at first. As it turned out, Suarez second-guessed himself to some extent.
Indicating that he couldn't quite hear his teammates' instructions, Suarez said, "They were saying, 'three, three.' I thought about [throwing to third], but the crowd was loud."
"The thing that doesn't get talked a lot about here is the atmosphere we play in front of every night. It brings the best out of you as a player, especially when you get a little older like I am and get to play in front of 40,000 people every night, and they're getting on their feet and the music and atmosphere is phenomenal." -- Ross, on home games. The Cubs have the best home record in the Majors at 50-19
WHAT'S NEXT Giants: Left-hander Madison Bumgarner, who regained his sharpness in a victory over Atlanta last Sunday, will confront Chicago in Saturday's 11:20 a.m. PT encounter at Wrigley Field. Bumgarner has thrived against the Cubs, posting a 7-2 mark with a 2.19 ERA in 11 career starts against them.
Cubs:Jake Arrieta, who is 4-1 with a 1.60 ERA in five career starts against the Giants, will start on Saturday. Arrieta is coming off a start in which he gave up six runs over 6 1/3 innings against the Pirates. He has a 2.68 ERA at home. First pitch will be at 1:20 p.m. CT.