For much of Saturday night’s loss to the Cubs, the question was whether the Braves would score a run against a Cubs pitcher, Jon Lester, who hadn’t won in his previous 10 starts.
Then after about four or five innings, the other question became, would they even get an undisputed hit against the left-hander?
And finally, during the sixth inning when the official scorer changed Nick Markakis’ first-inning single to an error by third baseman Kris Bryant, the question became whether Lester would throw a most unusual no-hitter.
A.J. Pierzynski’s broken-bat single to start the eighth inning broke up the no-hit bid, but the Cubs won 4-0 to snap their eight-game skid at Turner Field and end Lester’s career-worst winless streak. The Braves have lost six of seven games since going 6-1 to start the month.
“I don’t know how many years of baseball I’ve been playing, but I’ve never seen that before,” Markakis said of scorer Jack Wilkinson changing his hit to an error and suddenly putting a no-hitter into play. “I’m sure he has good reasoning, and I’d like to hear it maybe. It’s an unfortunate situation, unfortunate it got changed five innings later when he’s got a no-hitter going. But you’ve got to put those things behind you and move on.”
Juan Uribe followed Pierzynski’s hit with a long fly that center fielder Dexter Fowler ran down near the warning track in left-center. Andrelton Simmons then singled up the middle to chase Lester from the game and put Braves on first and second with one out in a 2-0 game.
Hard-throwing reliever Hector Rondon thwarted the Braves’ rally hopes, coaxing a fly out to left field by pinch-hitter Kelly Johnson and striking out Jace Peterson looking to end the inning.
“I didn’t even know, to tell you the truth, that they had changed (Markakis’ hit to an error),” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “I thought it was a hit all the way. And then you start hearing the buzz in the dugout. But I don’t pay too much attention to it. I thought it was a hit right off the get-go. You know what it does, I think it puts pressure on the opposing pitcher and manager because all of a sudden it goes from a one-hitter to a no-hitter and you may run him out there a little longer. And all of a sudden you may be able to get him.”
The Braves did, but too little and too late. Lester (5-8) allowed two hits and one walk with seven strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings, and threw 63 strikes in 110 pitches. The Braves didn’t advance a runner to second base until the eighth inning.
“We didn’t know he had a no-hitter; we could also care less,” Braves first baseman Chris Johnson said. “We’re just worried about getting runs, we’re not worried about how many hits we had. But yeah, it was strange. We didn’t know, I don’t think I realized it until the bottom of the seventh, when we were hitting, I think. Whatever. What sucks is I thought the play’s a hit, it sucks for Nick. (The scorer) probably wanted to see a no-hitter.”
The Cubs added two runs in the ninth, the first when Uribe’s one-bounce throw that was near the runner and got past Johnson, the second time that happened Saturday. Uribe was charged with an error on the ninth-inning play, which occurred when he was trying to complete a double play after fielding a grounder and stepping on third.
“Tough in-between picks,” Johnson said. “Balls that hit the grass and kind of go into the runner a little bit. Tried to just really knock down that first one, and the second one he just kicked down the line, just a bad break.”
Anthony Rizzo added a two-out RBI single before the inning was over.
Braves rookie Manny Banuelos (1-1) was tagged with his first loss in his third — and briefest – major league start, allowing six hits and two runs (one earned) in 4 2/3 innings. He had three walks and four strikeouts and threw 52 strikes in 88 pitches, after lasting 5 2/3 innings (75 pitches) and 5 1/3 innings (92 pitches) in his other two starts.
The Cubs took a 1-0 lead in the third inning after Banuelos made a costly mistake on his pickoff throw to first with two out, which allowed Bryant to advance two bases. Two pitches later, Rizzo singled to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead. The hits by Bryant and Rizzo both came in 2-2 counts, Bryant driving a curveball and Rizzo hitting a changeup.
After Chris Denorfia’s double in the fourth, Starlin Castro followed with a single that pushed the lead to 2-0.
“Manny was OK,” Gonzalez said. “He wasn’t as bad as the numbers. The first run, he threw the pick-off away and they (only needed) a base hit instead of two base hits to score that guy. Manny was OK. They had a lot of deep counts and his pitch count was way up there. But I thought our bullpen did a nice job keeping us right there within two runs.
“We got to Lester (to get runners at) first and second. I thought (Andrelton) Simmons had a nice at-bat there to get to first and second. And we didn’t capitalize on it, and they added on some runs in the ninth inning.”
It was the Braves’ third loss in 15 games against the Cubs going back to July 5, 2012, and their first in nine games at Turner Field in that span.
After Markakis reached on a two-out bouncer past the rookie Bryant’s glove in the first inning, the only Braves to reach base until the eighth were Pierzynski, who was hit by a pitch with one out in the second inning, and Uribe on a two-out walk in the fifth.
“He’s tough,”said Markakis, whose 73 at-bats against Lester before Saturday were almost as many as the rest of the Braves combined had against the lefty. “I’ve had the opportunity to face him a lot and it’s a challenge, it’s a battle every time…. That’s why he’s good, he gets guys on and he pitches even more.”
Lester had been 0-6 in his past 10 starts despite a 3.50 ERA in that span, with 62 strikeouts and 17 walks in 61 2/3 innings. The Cubs failed to score while he was in five of those 10 games, and scored one run while he was in three others.
Lester retired the next seven batters after the Uribe walk, and a sizeable contingent of Cubs fans in a crowd of 45,758 — most now aware of the scoring change — watched nervously, hoping to witness the second no-hitter of Lester’s career. With the Boston Red Sox in May 2008, he tossed a 130-pitch no-hitter against the Royals.
For Banuelos, it was his first start for since July 7, after the Braves swapped Alex Wood into his last scheduled turn at Colorado on July 12 following Wood’s two-pitch, rain-delay shortened start July 9. Banuelos’ one hitless inning as a reliever July 10 was his only game between July 7 and Saturday.
Banuelos was replaced after walking Denorfia to load the bases with two out in the fifth. Reliever Jason Frasor entered, struck out Castro to get out of the inning, and became the franchise-record 51st player used by the Braves this season, topping their previous high of 50 in 2007. Frasor retired all four batters he faced, two by strikeouts.
It was the second night in a row that a Braves starter failed to make it out of the fifth inning, after Julio Teheran gave up two runs in 4 2/3 innings of Friday’s 4-2 Braves win.