The Cubs challenged themselves to open up the second half strong. Two games in, they look up to the task.

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Through the first five innings of Saturday’s game, Jon Lester was beating the Pirates entirely by himself. 

The lefty had arguably the best game of his career at the plate, going 2-3 with a home run and an RBI double. His 3 RBIs on the day ties his career, set against the Twins in July of last year. The offensive performance actually overshadowed a stellar day on the mound - somewhat understandable given the fact that a guy who had zero major league hits through the first decade of his career is hitting .227 this season. 

“Jonny Lester can swing the bat,” Joe Maddon said after the game. “It’s not a surprise. He hit his home run, but we worked better at-bats, for the most part, all day. We accepted our walks, moved it along to the next guy.”

“Like I’ve said before, I take a little bit more pride in that since I’ve been over here,” Lester said. “Just trying to get quality at-bats, and I was able to square up two of them today.”

Aside from that, the Cubs got plenty of contributions from up and down their lineup in their 10-4 win. They put seven on the board in the first inning, courtesy of a 3-run homer from Willson Contreras, run-scoring doubles from Lester and Javy Baez, and an RBI single from Anthony Rizzo; Pirates starter Jordan Lyles didn’t even make it out of the inning. Addison Russell would go on to make it an even 10 with a 2 RBI single in the 5th. 

“It’s great to be able to do that for your pitcher so they can go out there and not overthink stuff,” said Jason Heyward, who now has a 111 wRC+ after going 3-5 with two doubles and a couple runs scored. “He can feel like he has some room for error and really stay focused on his game plan. It’s nice to have a day like that.”

On the mound, Lester again put together six strong innings of work. He went 6.2, giving up two earned runs via a pair of solo homers from Jung Ho Kang in the 5th inning and Starling Marte in the sixth. He struck out six and didn’t issue a walk - only the third time this season he didn’t walk anyone. 

“That lineup, like we saw, can do some things,” he said. “You start walking guys, and get guys on base, with the wind blowing out - that’s your three-run homer or grand slam. On days like this you just have to continue to pitch like it’s a 0-0, 2-0 game. That’s kinda the mindset you just have to continue. The 7 runs relaxes you a little bit, but with conditions like today you still have to focus on executing pitches.” 

“I thought Jonny had some really good stuff,” Maddon added. “From the side, I saw some 92’s, which is always advantageous when he’s doing that. And then the cutter was there - not many curveballs, but I thought that fastball velocity was where it needed to be, the cutter was pertinent to both sides of the plate.”

48 hours after Kris Bryant declared these weekend’s games the tone-setter for the rest of the second half, the Cubs went out and took the series from Pittsburgh with two stylistically different yet equally impressive victories - their first series win since June 7-9. They’ll send Jose Quintana to the mound on Sunday with a chance to sweep, and claim a multi-game lead in the NL Central. 

“We’re all rested, and we’re all ready to go,” Kyle Schwarber said. “We’re ready to take off on this second half and we can really separate ourselves in this division. I think we all know the challenges ahead of us - especially rolling into the second half with how close everything is right now. We’re all ready to go and really focused.” 

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