Chicago Cubs ace Jon Lester carries a four-pitch arsenal to the mound. His fastball hums around 91 mph, his cutter and his changeup disrupt the timing of his opponents and his curveball ends at-bats. But after a 4-0, series-clinching victory over the Dodgers on Wednesday afternoon, manager Dave Roberts pointed to another totem in Lester’s possession.
“Lester might have had a little rabbit’s foot in his pocket,” Roberts said inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field. “Because he didn’t have the command that he normally has, and we took a lot of really good swings, and squared some balls up.”
Indeed, the Dodgers connected on a series of line drives during Lester’s seven innings. The output may keep the team’s confidence from faltering after three unproductive games for the offense at Wrigley. It will not aid the win-loss record. The defeat meant the Dodgers (38-35) had dropped a series for the first time since losing two out of three games to Miami in the middle of May.
Lester (9-2) recorded only one strikeout. Of the 21 outs he recorded, 14 came through the air. He scattered five hits. It was not a dominant performance; it was still enough to stymie the Dodgers, who had split a doubleheader with the Cubs on Tuesday.
While Lester stayed unblemished, Dodgers right-hander Ross Stripling (6-2) gave up three runs for the first time since April 30. He struck out seven batters in six innings, but paid for eight hits. Yimi Garcia surrendered a run in the seventh.
The Cubs will visit Dodger Stadium next week. The two teams have dueled in the National League Championship Series the last two seasons. Roberts stopped short of predicting a third meeting this fall.
“We’re going to be somewhere in October,” Roberts said. “I can’t speak to who the opponent will be. But we’ll be somewhere.”
The Cubs used their legs and a series of well-placed grounders to score first. Stripling induced three consecutive groundballs after third baseman Kris Bryant opened the bottom of the first inning with a single. Bryant was erased on a first fielder’s choice. Jason Heyward raced to third base on a hit-and-run single by Ben Zobrist. Heyward scored when Anthony Rizzo beat out a double-play ball.
Heyward showed off his arm in the third inning. The Dodgers mounted a rally against Lester with a ground-rule double by Chris Taylor and a single by Enrique Hernandez. Taylor held at third base on Hernandez’s hit. When Justin Turner flied out to right field, Taylor tagged up. Heyward fired a dart that landed in the glove of catcher Willson Contreras, who spun in time to nab Taylor.
Taylor felt tightness in his left hamstring after the play. The muscle affected him as the day continued, and he left as a precaution before the bottom of the sixth inning. Taylor plans to play Friday when the Dodgers begin a series in New York against the Mets.
“It wasn’t like a pull or anything,” Taylor said. “It was just like after that play, there were a couple instances when it grabbed at me.”
The Dodgers could not bring another runner to third base against Lester. He numbed the Dodgers bats and benefited from the skill of his defenders. Despite their assertions afterward, much of the contact against him was weak, a slew of fly balls that were not deep enough to reach the ivy.
Stripling was less effective. Chicago bruised him for two runs in the fourth and fifth innings. The first came from brute force. Outfielder Kyle Schwarber hit a first-pitch changeup for a home run. Stripling left the pitch at Schwarber’s belt. The pitcher paid the price.
“I was trying to get ahead and probably threw too fat of a pitch,” Stripling said. “He clobbered it. I mean, that was into the wind and 10 rows up in center field, so he obviously didn’t miss that. Just not a smart pitch, and one of the ones I wish I could get back.”
An inning later, Stripling was penalized for a much-better changeup. He threw the 0-and-2 pitch near the shins of shortstop Javier Baez. Baez still connected for a leadoff double. He scored on a single by Bryant. Stripling managed to escape a jam with two runners in scoring position and only one out, but the Dodgers still trailed by three runs.
Lester operated under little duress. He allowed a Dodger to reach base in each of his first six innings. He handled the threats. A fourth-inning single by Logan Forsythe led nowhere. A leadoff single by Yasiel Puig in the fifth had the same effect.
In the sixth, the Dodgers managed to bring the tying run to the plate. Turner led off with a walk. Max Muncy took one of his own with two outs. Up came Yasmani Grandal. Lester challenged Grandal with two cutters in the strike zone. Grandal hit a harmless fly on the second.
The contact against Lester in the seventh was more concussive. It did not matter. Yasiel Puig lined out to center field and Cody Bellinger lined out to left in Lester’s only 1-2-3 inning.