There were three ways this could have gone.
— Jon Lester could have walked off the mound Saturday carrying his detached left arm, a casualty of shoulder fatigue or a lat-muscle rebellion.
— He could have had early trouble and given up lots of earned runs, sending up a distress flare for those who have seen this from him a few times this season.
— Or he could have thrown enough pitches to make those who care about the Cubs’ postseason hopes breathe a sigh of relief for his apparent good health.
Not much riding on it, except the future of the planet. OK, things tend to get of whack when the subject is the Cubs, who do everything big and are scrutinized in similar scale. But there certainly was a lot of interest in what Lester would do Saturday in his first start since going on the disabled list Aug. 18 with the aforementioned lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue.
He threw 92 pitches, giving up four earned runs in five innings against the Braves. That’s a victory, whether he got the win or not (he did, in a 14-12 Cubs’ slog).
The Cubs might not need his services to get to the postseason, but they’ll need him if and when they get there. They signed him in 2014 for Octobers, not Septembers.
He got through Saturday without injury at Wrigley Field, and that’s about all you can say. He needed 32 pitches to escape the first inning. He gave up back-to-back home runs in a three-run third inning, taking some of the buzz out of Rene Rivera’s second-inning grand slam for the Cubs. He gave up another homer in the fourth.
Not pretty. Not even good. But good enough, in that he finished upright instead of prone.
“Everything felt good,’’ he said. “It was just good to get back out there.’’
Now what? Manager Joe Maddon has a six-man rotation, which includes Mike Montgomery. It’s not a problem because Montgomery almost surely is headed to the bullpen, though he’ll start Sunday against the Braves. But it doesn’t matter all that much who the starters are if and when the Cubs get to the postseason. Maddon’s leash is so short in October it doubles as a shoelace. Jake Arrieta would be allowed to pitch into the sixth inning of a playoff game, and Lester would, too, provided he were healthy and effective. But after that, does it really matter who gets to be called a starter and who doesn’t?
Remember, Maddon pulled Kyle Hendricks after 4 2/3 innings of Game 7 of the World Series. Hendricks had given up four hits and one earned run to that point. He was pulled in Game 3 after giving up no runs in 4 1/3 innings. In seven postseason starts, he has been allowed to pitch past the fifth inning just twice. It’s not the smartest approach, but it’s what Maddon does.
So let’s not spend too much time worrying about Montgomery, who has told his manager he’d prefer to start but will go where he’s needed most.
“The conversations with him are real easy,’’ Maddon said. “It’s a very mature conversation.’’
In conversations that aren’t so easy or mature, John Lackey has made it clear he won’t pitch out of the bullpen (“that ain’t gonna happen”). For the record, Miguel Montero was jettisoned for a similar brand of candor.
But that’s ancient history, and the Cubs are all about the present when they’re not talking about wanting a piece of the Dodgers in the postseason. They’re marching through another soft part of the schedule. They argue, rightly, that any victory is a good victory. They also say that if they put enough victories together, it will give them more confidence in the postseason. I’m not so sure about that. This whole season has felt like an exercise in the Cubs trying to convince themselves that they’re a dangerous team.
At this point, the only thing that will prove them right is postseason success. They’re in a division race, but it would be surprising if they didn’t win it, no matter how inconsistent they’ve been this season. They’re still the defending World Series champions, and they still have the most talent in the National League Central.
Saturday’s 14-run effort was the sixth time the Cubs have scored double-digit runs in the last 19 games. So who needs pitching? The Cubs do, in September and beyond.
“I love where our pitching staff’s at, from top to bottom,’’ Lester said.
I loved where the pitching staff was at last season. The Cubs’ fortunes this season ride on whether Lester et al can do a decent imitation of 2016 going forward. Saturday was a step in the right direction. And there was no limping involved.