Lester dominant in pitcher's duel at Wrigley


Early in the season, the bullpen and the offense picked up a starting rotation that sputtered at the start, but here in August and September, those roles have flipped. On Saturday, Jon Lester threw seven scoreless innings, and a hodgepodge of bullpen arms picked up the last six outs to give the Cubs a 1-0 win over the Reds.

A night after Cole Hamels threw 109 pitches in a quality start, Lester threw 108 and continued a strong stretch of starting pitching for Chicago. Reds starter Cody Reed struck out ten Cubs batters in five innings and kept them off of the board, and the competition served to bolster Lester's performance, according to manager Joe Maddon.

"Jonny typically gets better when he smells it. He made some really big pitches when he had to," Maddon said.

Lester had nine strikeouts of his own and kept the Reds to just four baserunners. In the top of the 6th inning, center fielder Billy Hamilton walked and then stole second, presenting a real scoring threat with just one out at the time. Willson Contreras' throw on the steal nearly wound up in center field, but shortstop Addison Russell snagged the ball behind second base in a play that probably changed the course of the game.

"That was the game changer, right there. That was huge. I think that’s a play that gets overlooked. If that ball goes to center field, he’s on third base with one out," Lester said. "That play that Addy made, it changes the game. It changes the whole aspect of that inning. You got one out, a guy on third base that can run, you’re going to probably concede that run more so than in any other instance just because of his speed."

Hamilton's speed is notoriously difficult to deal with, so if he had reached third on the throw, the Cubs would likely have gone in to the bottom of the 6th down 1-0. Instead, Contreras nabbed Hamilton trying to steal third in the next at bat and the inning ended harmlessly. And then in the bottom of the frame, Javy Baez scored from second on a hit and run with Contreras, who dumped an opposite field single into right.

Russell said that the play backing up second was just a part of the defensive philosophy of the team.

"If a play is going on and someone is standing still, they’re doing the wrong thing. There’s a job to be done every single play," Russell said. "Me being a middle infielder, I have a lot of jobs, a lot of responsibilities, and backing up is one of them."

Lester was done for the afternoon an inning later, and up just a run, Maddon again had to choose his closer du jour to finish the game. After Justin Wilson pitched a clean 8th inning, Maddon went with the matchups for the 9th.

Jesse Chavez got Scooter Gennett to fly out for the first out and then gave up a single to Jose Peraza. For the second out, Randy Rosario got Joey Votto to fly out deep to center, and then Steve Cishek needed just one pitch to get Eugenio Suarez out on a broken-bat grounder to third.

"That 9th inning, they were set up in a manner that we could do what we did," Maddon said.  

Near the end of their 30-game stretch without a day off, the Cubs are finding ways to scratch out wins, and much of that has been because they're getting quality starting pitching. Maddon eased his starters in during the first half of the season, and as he has done in the past, he's been leaning on them more heavily down the stretch.

"You don’t feel so badly right now giving them the opportunity to go a little bit deeper. The starters right now are really important to us," Maddon said. "In the beginning of the year the bullpen really picked them up. Right now it’s their turn to pick up the bullpen. The more innings they can pile up, it makes it somewhat easier to put the last innings of the games together."

Lester is having one of the better seasons of his career, now at 16-6 with a 3.43 ERA. At 34, he said that games like Saturday's are a product of his growth as a pitcher. His younger self might have relied too heavily on stuff and velocity. Since coming to the Cubs in 2015, he's honed his gameplanning, he said.

"We do a good job of zoning in on guys’ weaknesses. I’ll take the me over the younger me any day. Back then I didn’t have a rhyme or reason why things worked," Lester said. "Now I have a rhyme and reason, and we spend some time talking about it and try to go out and execute it."

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