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Cubs' Lester falters, surrenders big homers

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NLCS Cubs Mets Baseball

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester kicks the mound after giving up a home run to New York Mets infielder Daniel Murphy during the first inning of Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Saturday in New York.

NEW YORK — The Chicago Cubs envisioned Jon Lester on the mound starting big October games.

They did not imagine him giving up big October home runs.

Instead of lifting the Cubs within three wins of their first World Series appearance since 1945, Lester allowed them to slip within three losses of elimination with a 4-2 loss to the New York Mets in the NL Championship Series opener.

He gave up a first-inning home run to Daniel Murphy on a cutter and a sixth-inning drive to Travis d'Arnaud on a sinker. After the Cubs came back against Matt Harvey to tie the game at 1 in the fifth inning on Starlin Castro's RBI double, Lester allowed three hits in the bottom half, including Curtis Granderson's go-ahead single.

"That to me was the turning point," Lester said in the quiet Cubs clubhouse. "I let these guys down on that one. That's my fault. We had the momentum. We squared some balls up. We're going in the right direction, and I go right out and give it right back up. That's unacceptable."

Lester allowed four runs and eight hits in 6 2-3 innings. Chicago's result was not much different than his 4-0 defeat to the St. Louis Cardinals in the Division Series opener.

Yes, that's right, the $155 million man is 0-2 in the playoffs.

"Other than the two homers, there weren't a lot of hard-hit balls but they found holes," Lester said. "Both just caught too much of the plate. They had good action, just too much of the plate."

When Lester signed a six-year deal last December, the Cubs feted him with a news conference at Spiaggia, the Michigan Avenue restaurant that is one of President Barack Obama's favorites. Still seeking its first title since 1908, perhaps Chicago should hold off on the truffled meals and wait until after a championship.

Lester's big numbers on Saturday night were 386 and 431 — the length of the two home runs. He is 1-4 with a 4.15 ERA in seven League Championship Series appearances.

"Cutter wasn't as sharp as normally is," Cubs catcher David Ross said.

When manager Joe Maddon — wearing gloves and a ski cap on the chilly night — strolled to the mound after Granderson's seventh-inning sacrifice fly, Lester slowly walked back to the third-base dugout, head bowed, glove dangling from his left hand.

"If Harvey wasn't pitching, it would have looked a lot better," Maddon said.

Lester was 11-12 during the regular season, more a supporting player on a pitching staff starring Jake Arrieta, who faces Noah Syndergaard in Game 2. Lester's aversion to holding on baserunners was well documented — after not making a single pickoff throw in 2014, he made just four all season — two on April 13 and one apiece on Aug. 13 and Sept. 20, according to STATS. He allowed 44 stolen bases, seven more than any other major league pitcher.

Juan Lagares swiped third base to set up Granderson's sacrifice fly. Lester's night was soon over.

Chicago overcame Lester in the Division Series, winning three in a row over the Cardinals to advance. Now the Cubs have to rebound from a Lester loss once again.

"I hate to lose, but at the same time, you can't sit here and dwell on it, beat yourself up about it," Lester said. "We've got plenty of other chances right now to come back."

Rookie Kyle Schwarber, who homered in the eighth, had the same attitude.

"We've got time," he said. "We don't have to panic."

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