Lester helps Chicago Cubs salvage a split doubleheader

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester throws during the first inning of the second baseball game of a doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015.

    Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester throws during the first inning of the second baseball game of a doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. Associated Press

  • Chicago Cubs second baseman Starlin Castro reaches for a wide throw from catcher Miguel Montero as Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen (22) steals second during the third inning of the first baseball game of a doubleheader in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015.

    Chicago Cubs second baseman Starlin Castro reaches for a wide throw from catcher Miguel Montero as Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen (22) steals second during the third inning of the first baseball game of a doubleheader in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 9/16/2015 8:35 AM

PITTSBURGH -- The solution to a better bullpen is sometimes pretty simple: Get better starting pitching.

The Cubs' bullpen has been pretty well beat up lately, both literally and figuratively. Some of it's deserved. But some of the recent poor performances might have something to do with the relievers getting little relief because the starters aren't going deep enough.

 

It was all on display Tuesday on a beautiful afternoon and night at PNC Park, where the Cubs and Pirates split a doubleheader. The Cubs came from 4-1 down in the first game, only to see Justin Grimm cough up what proved to be the game-winning run in the eighth inning as the Pirates prevailed 5-4.

In the night game, Jon Lester tossed his first complete game of the year, and the Cubs salvaged a split by winning 2-1.

"That's the goal every time you go out there: Finish the game," said Lester, who is 10-10 with a 3.38 ERA. "Obviously, nowadays we don't get to do that. When you do it, I guess it's a little more special than finishing 7 or having a cleaner game than that. No, it was good."

The Cubs envisioned this from Lester last winter when they signed him to a six-year, $155 million deal.

"This is what he does," said Cubs manager Joe Maddon, whose team is 83-61 and 4 games behind the Pirates for the top wild-card spot in the National League. "He likes pitching in big games in the latter part of the season. It's not a surprise."

Game 1 starting pitcher Jason Hammel didn't fare nearly as well, as he lasted only 3⅔ innings, giving up 5 hits and 4 runs.

As it's turning out, the Cubs don't have much rotation punch left after the 1-2 of Jake Arrieta and Lester. The Cubs are looking like the modern version of the 1948 Boston Braves, when the refrain went something like, "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain," referring to dominant starters Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain.

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Hammel, who has a 5.43 ERA and only 2 quality starts since the all-star break, was hard on himself, calling his performance "just unacceptable" and his 3-run first inning "pretty embarrassing."

"For whatever reason, he could not find the plate early in that game," Maddon said. "That 3-run first inning is pretty much the decisive component of that game."

Grimm gave up a leadoff walk in the eighth inning. A throwing error by catcher Miguel Montero on a stolen base set up a sacrifice fly by Starling Marte that proved enough.

"It's the walk, the leadoff walk," Grimm said. "It doesn't help the situation at all. I'm beating myself. The other teams aren't beating me. I'm beating myself.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"As of lately, I've just been too fine. It's leading to walks in crucial moments. Not just walks. You're going to walk people here or there, but these are crucial walks."

Maddon had his bullpen warming up in each of the first four innings of Game 1. Contrast that to Game 2, when Lester put runners on first and third with nobody out in the seventh, and nary a soul stirred in the visitors bullpen.

• Follow Bruce's baseball reports on Twitter @BruceMiles2112.

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