It may be a new season, and they may have a new ace, renewed hopes and an overwhelming new video screen in leftfield, but the Cubs fell victim to the same old result on Sunday night at Wrigley Field in the first game of the 2015 baseball season, losing to the rival Cardinals 3-0.
That new ace, Jon Lester, who hadn’t faced major league hitters since March 16 (he made his final two spring starts in minor league contests due to a self-described dead arm), wasn’t sharp, lacking his good cutter and often missing up-and-in to his arm side. What’s more, aware of the fact that Lester didn’t attempt a single pickoff all last year, the Cardinals paid him little mind on the bases, taking big leads, putting runners in motion and stealing three bases against him, including a double steal in the fifth. Lester failed to finish that inning, getting hooked with one out and runners on second and third.
By that point, the Cardinals had already build their 3-0 lead, and it would have been more if not for a generous strike zone from home plate umpire Mike Winters and strong work behind the plate from Lester’s personal catcher and former Red Sox teammate David Ross. With the Cardinals already up 2-0 with runners on the corners and one out in the second, Ross stole a called third strike with opposing pitcher Adam Wainwright at the plate, then threw out Matt Carpenter attempting to steal second base to end the inning and strand both runners. Ross then framed another called third strike with a man on third and one out in the third, a scoreless frame for Lester. In the fourth Ross bounced his throw in trying to get Kolten Wong out at second, sending Wong to third with one out, but then stole yet another called strike three, this time on number 8 hitter Jon Jay. That brought Wainwright back to the plate with two outs and again resulted in a scoreless half inning.
Meanwhile, Lester’s opposite number, Wainwright, gave up four leadoff hits in the first five innings, but stranded all four runners plus a two-out single in the sixth. Finding his curveball in the third, Wainwright cruised through six scoreless frames, striking out six, walking no one and never allowing multiple baserunners in an inning. The St. Louis bullpen took it from there, not allowing a hit over the final three innings. Carlos Martinez, getting in some early work before the Cardinals need him in the rotation, new addition Jordan Walden and closer Trevor Rosenthal slammed the door, with Rosenthal striking out the side in the ninth.
On the other side of the ball, Jason Heyward had an impressive debut for St. Louis, going 3 for 5 with a pair of doubles (one a well-placed pop-up), a run scored and a stolen base on the front end of the double steal. Matt Carpenter (2 for 5 with an RBI and a run scored) and Matt Holliday (2 for 4 with a walk, an RBI and a steal on the back end of the double steal) rounded out a strong showing for the top three spots in the Cardinal order.
If there was a bright spot for the Cubs, it was the performance of their bullpen, as well as new manager Joe Maddon’s timely deployment of it. After the Cardinals opened up the fifth with three consecutive singles against Lester, plating a run and using that double steal to put runners on second and third with no outs, Maddon let Lester face righty Jhonny Peralta, whom the Cubs’ lefty had struck out twice already. Lester got Peralta to pop out to second with his 89th pitch. Recognizing this as a situation in which the Cardinals could blow the game open, Maddon then brought in the only lefthander in his bullpen, Phil Coke, to face lefty Matt Adams with one out and two men in scoring position. Coke struck out Adams on three pitches, after which Maddon had Coke intentionally walk righty Yadier Molina to bring up the lefthanded-hitting Wong with another lefty in Jay on deck. This time it took Coke four pitches to register the strikeout and strand both runners. From there, Jason Motte, Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop and closer Hector Rondon followed with a scoreless inning each, keeping the Cubs within striking distance and getting some work in with these being the only two teams not playing on Monday.
Maddon also called attention to himself by hitting his pitcher Lester, who is 0 for 36 with 22 strikeouts in his major league career (plus 0 for 5 in the postseason), eighth, and calling for a rare overshift on a righthanded batter when Matt Reynolds pinch-hit in the eighth. The latter move proved irrelevant as Reynolds, unsurprisingly, struck out. However, the lineup gambit backfired in the second inning when the Cubs got Chris Coghlan to third following a leadoff double but had Lester due to hit, rather than on deck, with two outs. Lester struck out looking. Number 9 hitter Tommy La Stella led off the next inning with a single.
It will be interesting to see how often, and for how long, Maddon experiments with hitting his pitcher in the eight spot. It will also be interesting to see how long it takes $155 million man Lester to round into shape, and to what degree teams follow the Cardinals’ lead in being aggressive on the bases against a pitcher who seems clearly uncomfortable throwing to a base. (Lester fielded a comebacker in the third and had Heyward dead to rights going second to third but chose to underhand the ball to first for the easy out rather than try to gun down the lead runner.) For the Cardinals, however, Opening Night went exactly as planned, giving them an early lead in the National League Central they don’t plan to relinquish.