NEW YORK — Jon Lester is a stand-up guy, in the same way that Jake Arrieta is a stand-up guy, so he takes his responsibilities as a slump breaker very seriously. The only bigger indignity than pitching poorly to perpetuate a losing streak is recording so few outs that it requires a collaborative effort on the part of the bullpen to clean up his mess.
After allowing eight runs and recording four outs against the New York Mets on Sunday, Lester had a long time to sit and assess the carnage that had just befallen him in a 14-3 loss at Citi Field. He has made 301 big league starts since his debut with the Boston Red Sox in 2006, and he had never experienced an outing as brief as his 1⅓-inning cameo Sunday.
Lester’s immediate reaction: displeasure that so many of his 56 pitches were up in the strike zone, resulting in Neil Walker, Wilmer Flores and Rene Rivera taking him deep during his first trip through the New York batting order.
His follow-up reaction: a sense of gratitude to rookie Spencer Patton, who helped bail him out with an emergency 3⅓ innings and 81 pitches of impromptu long relief.
“I have to do a better job getting more outs one way or the other and get deeper in that game,” Lester said. “Our bullpen had already been depleted enough. Patton had to wear some pitches and some innings today that he shouldn’t have had to, and that lies on my shoulders. I owe him dinner or drinks or something along the way for picking us up today.”
In light of events in New York this weekend, the Cubs could probably all benefit from a round of adult beverages.
Chicago’s rotation was incredibly reliable for the first three months of the season, so a regression was inevitable. But no one in the Cubs’ clubhouse had reason to expect this kind of inflationary pressure on the ERAs in such a compressed time frame.
After John Lackey turned in a solid outing in the series opener, Jason Hammel, Arrieta and Lester combined to surrender 26 hits and 22 earned runs in a span of 10⅔ innings, for a collective ERA of 18.56. They allowed eight homers to a Mets lineup that ranked last among the 30 MLB clubs with 86 runs scored in June. After beating the Mets seven straight times during the 2015 regular season, the Cubs have now dropped eight straight to New York between the 2015 postseason and this weekend in Flushing.
If it’s true that good pitching is contagious, the Cubs are suffering from a virus of entirely the wrong kind. Lester’s performance was so out of character, on top of Arrieta’s shaky effort Saturday night, that manager Joe Maddon preferred to immediately turn the page.
“You don’t dwell on it,” Maddon said. “You know you’ve got good guys and they’re going to repeat their positive performances. This is an easy game for me to just throw in the trash can.”
As Sunday’s matinee wore on, ugly pitching gave way to a baseball theater of the absurd. Lester, the reigning National League pitcher of the month, recorded the same number of outs as catcher Miguel Montero, who volunteered his services for a bullpen-preserving appearance in the seventh and eighth innings.
Montero threw 30 two-seam fastballs at a velocity of 79 to 84 mph, and the Citi Field scoreboard recorded each one as a changeup. He mixed in a 74 mph curveball that hit Rivera, and he decided to junk the pitch because he didn’t want any Mets hitters to get hurt.
“It was something for my bucket list,” Montero said of his first MLB mound appearance.
In the eighth inning, Mets manager Terry Collins set the stage for a baseball oddity when he summoned a pinch-hitting pitcher, Jacob deGrom, to face a relief-pitching catcher, Montero. DeGrom flied out to left field.
“I would have to believe that’s somewhat of a first,” Maddon said. “Whether it’s researchable or not, I’m not sure.”
Seattle Mariners are long gone. The Mets just hit them with a cold, hard dose of reality.
“They outplayed us,” Montero said. “It’s as simple as that. We didn’t play good enough. We didn’t hit good enough. We didn’t pitch good enough. We were sloppy, for us. We expect a lot more from ourselves. Now we’ve got to move on. There’s still a lot of season left.”
The Cubs won’t have the luxury of any free time to clear their heads before the All-Star break. They return home to Wrigley Field to begin a three-game series against Cincinnati on Monday, then play a makeup game against Atlanta before a series with Pittsburgh at PNC Park. Reliever Adam Warren gets a spot start this week as Maddon goes to a six-man rotation to help navigate a stretch of 24 games in 24 days.
A season that was once a joyride has turned into the obligatory slog, with injuries and slumps that have to be confronted and addressed. The schedule has provided a dose of humble of late. Now it’s incumbent upon the Cubs to respond.