By HAL McCOY
It was a mismatch from the moment Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price made out his lineup card and wrote, “Josh Smith” as his pitcher and Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon wrote “Jon Lester” on his card as his pitcher.
Smith, an emergency volunteer starter because the Reds are short of starting pitchers, was 0-and-4 for his career as a starter with three wins in relief.
Lester owned 144 major league victories and was 17-and-5 this season.
AND A MISMATCH IT CERTAINLY was, a 6-1 Cubs victory on Tuesday night in Wrigley Field.
Lester, a cerebral left hander who seldom throws a pitch above the kneecaps, held the Reds to one run and six hits over seven innings and is now 18-5. He has won nine straight and has not given up more than one run in any of those nine starts. He hasn’t lost since July 3 and is 3-and-0 in eight career starts against the Reds.
The Reds had Lester cornered several times, but it was the old Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope. Lester escaped damage nearly every time.
BUT NOBODY CAN FAULT JOSH Smith. He pitched three innings and gave up only one run and three hits. But, as a relief pitcher not stretched out, 66 pitches were his limit and he had to leave.
He had no problem with the potent first seven in the Cubs batting order. But with two outs and nobody on in the second he gave up a single to No. 8 hitter David Ross and a run-scoring double to pitcher Lester, the No. 9 hitter, for a run.
It was bullpen time and meltdown time.
Wandy Peralta had two outs and a runner on first and pitcher Lester at the plate. Lester had no intention of swinging against the Reds left hander. As Peralta delivered each pitch, Lester backed away from the plate.
And, amazingly, Peralta walked him. Dexter Fowler singled to center for a run, Kris Bryant blooped one down the first base line that first baseman Joey Votto couldn’t catch and it fell for a run-scoring double and Anthony Rizzo punched a two-run single to left and it was 5-0.
THE REDS FRITTERED AWAY a couple of early chances. They had two on with one out in the third before Jose Peraa popped to short and Tony Renda grounded into an inning-ending force. They had two on with one out in the fourth before Scott Schebler hit into an inning-ending double play.
The Reds finally scored in the fifth with two outs and nobody on when Adam Duvall singled and Jose Peraza tripled to right center. That run ended a 21-inning scoreless streak by Lester.
They had another chance in the sixth inning. Joey Votto lined a single off Lester’s pitching arm. That arm, though, is bionic. No problem.
He struck out Adam Duvall and Brandon Phillips doubled down the right field line. For the third time the Reds had two runners on with one out and didn’t score. Scott Schebler struck out and Tyler Holt grounded out.
WHILE THE REDS COULDN’T cash in their opportunities, the Cubs kept doing it like millions in the bank, just as they’ve done during their entire magical season.
With rookie Abel De Los Santos on the mound for the Reds in the sixth, Dexter Fowler walked, stole second and scored on Anthony Rizzo’s single to make it 6-1.
On a positive note, no Reds pitcher gave up a home run, so the all-time record of home runs given up by a team in one season stands at 242.
The loss was Cincinnati’s 88th and pushed 33 games behind the National League Central champion Cubs.
And the Reds are creeping ever close to clinching last place. They are five games behind the fourth place Milwaukee Brewers with only 10 to play, three at Milwaukee.