Cubs’ Lester falls short of 20th win, sets sights on third ring

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John Lester (19-5) in Saturday’s 7-4 loss to the Reds.

CINCINNATI – Jon Lester paused just long enough to consider the Cubs’ 102-win success and choose his words carefully.

“I don’t want to sound like an asshole or anything,” the Cubs left-hander said, “but we haven’t really done anything yet.”

Actually, he sounded more like teammate and close pal John Lackey, who has disregarded haircuts all season and kept his eye on the “big boy” games now less than a week away as the season has slipped into October.

Make no mistake: Lester had a 20-win season on his mind when he took the mound against the Reds on Saturday. “We’re all human,” he said.

But when his final start of the year ended in a 7-4 loss, bumped his second-in-the-majors ERA up to 2.44 and ended a 10-week streak of dominance, his mind was on what’s next. On Friday’s Game 1 start. On the prizes to be won in the month ahead instead of the six months before.

“It’ll probably go down as one of the better, if not the best, year of my career,” said Lester (19-5), a four-time All-Star. “Hopefully, there’s a couple more to come. There’s a lot of personal satisfaction there. But at the same time now we’ve got the real business to get down to.”

Lester, who allowed more runs Saturday (five) than he had in his previous eight starts combined (four), said he was “fighting myself” during the five-inning start, but the 20-win shot had nothing to do with it, he said.

Whatever the issue, Lester has been the most dominant starter on the top-ranked pitching staff in the majors for all but three or four starts this season, including that 10-1, 0.96 streak heading into Saturday.

Whether the Cubs get win No. 103 on Sunday, they’ve already won more games in a season than they have since 1907 – just their second 100-win season since then.

Lester and Sunday’s starter, Kyle Hendricks, are in the thick of the Cy Young conversation, with top rival Max Scherzer of the Nationals also pitching on Sunday. The Cubs have MVP candidates in Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Bryant has a shot at 40 homers with one more Sunday; Hendricks an ERA crown and a chance to finish under 2.00.

And it’s not that he doesn’t care about the possibility of a first career Cy Young Award.

“That gets kind of misconstrued,” he said. “I don’t pitch to try to win an award. I pitch to give our team the best chance to win and try to win a World Series, and if along the way I’m able to get votes and possibly win that I’d be very humbled and speechless, and it would be an awesome experience.

“You don’t ever want to make it sound like you don’t appreciate those things.”

But Lester has 14 postseason starts and two rings. Lackey has 20 postseason starts and two World Series clinchers on his ledger.

It’s why they were brought in for a combined $187 million free agent dollars the last two winters, and why Lester sounds so sure about where his focus needs to be – even if he thinks he sounds like something else.

“Now it’s go time. This is what we’re playing for. This is the real season now,” Lester said. “It’ll be completely different when you step on that field come Friday with that crowd and whoever we’re playing. I’m sure it’ll be electric.

“The 100 and whatever wins is great. All the personal stuff is great,” he said. “But this is go time now.

“Now we’ve got to really live up to the expectations and hype.”

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