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Lester, power-hitting come up big in time of need for Cubs

Jon Lester looked powerful early for the Cubs against the Padres Monday night.

SAN DIEGO – This is how good the Cubs have had it over these past two seasons when it comes to their pitching:

When John Lackey went on the disabled list Friday, it marked the first time since 2014 that a member of the Cubs’ opening rotation has been on the DL.

Given the inherent volatility in major-league pitchers’ health, that’s almost unheard of. It’s also the biggest reason for the team’s 176-110 record (.615) over that span.

Which brings us to now. As in now what?

Jon Lester may have shown at least a glimpse of the answer Monday night, when he pitched into the seventh inning in the series opener at San Diego, striking out eight in six-plus innings to beat the Padres 5-1.

As the Cubs face their highest degree of pitching adversity of the season – with top setup relievers Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop also on the DL – the recipe for bridging the gap looked simple enough Monday night.

Three home runs, by Addison Russell, Jason Heyward and Kris Bryant. And more of the same from the top starting rotation in the majors.

“The attempt now is to win games while balancing out the bullpen and even beyond that, primarily not to abuse your starters,” manager Joe Maddon said.

“Those guys are the thoroughbreds, man,” he added. “You don’t have those fellows, you ain’t doing nothing. That will put too much stress on a bullpen. So you watch your pitching very closely”

Lester (14-4) allowed just two singles and two walks in six scoreless innings until giving up a pair of singles to the final two batters he faced, leading off the seventh.

Justin Grimm, who hasn’t been charged with a run in 17 consecutive appearances, got a broken-bat grounder for one out in relief of Lester, then struck out three straight batters – a run scoring when a nasty curve ball skipped past catcher David Ross for a wild pitch.

As the Cubs continue their grueling three-city, nine-game test out west with stops this week in San Diego and Los Angeles, they have the luxury of a 12½ -game division lead over the Cardinals after Monday’s victory.

But that doesn’t eliminate the challenge Maddon faces keeping his compromised pitching staff from overwork before reinforcements arrive with the expanded roster in September and returns from the DL.

“Just like that early [10-day] East Coast trip we had, this three-city tour going west is always a tough trip,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said, “especially when you don’t have your horses on your pitching staff. So everybody’s got to do their part, because they’re going to get their opportunities.”

Lackey’s absence from the rotation might impact the bullpen more than the potential loss of any of the other starters, because he led the staff in innings pitched, ranked fourth in the National League, when he got hurt.

The depleted bullpen already blew a 5-1 lead in the late innings of the opener in Colorado Friday, a loss that contributed to a series loss to start the trip.

Rookies Felix Pena and Rob Zastryzny actually looked good in their big-league debuts, covering for the lost veteran innings.

“We’ll find out what we have with the younger guys,” Bosio said. “They’re going to pitch. Because they have to, until we’re able to get our guys healthy again.”

Heavily used left-hander Travis Wood took the brunt of the damage Friday in his 61st appearance of the season – one off the league lead.

Wood came back to pitch a scoreless eighth Monday – with the help of a spectacular diving play by Russell at short for the second out, with a man on second.

“The only guy that I think that I push a little too hard is Travis,” Maddon said. “The other guys are in really good shape, with number of pitches, number of innings.”

As Maddon’s quick to point out, the rotation’s been so strong that the bullpen has thrown the fewest innings of any NL bullpen this year – with the second-lowest opponents batting average (.219).

But going forward? Tough to resist leaning extra hard on those arms for a manager with a penchant for going all-in to win every game?

“Not really,” Maddon said. “It’s all about planning before the game. You don’t want to change your mind during the course of the game. You know who’s available tonight. You set it up before the game begins and that’s what you go with.”

He’s still getting to know Chapman, and how the veteran lefty prefers to be used and performs best. And keeping Wood fresh for late September and into October figures to be critical to their playoff depth.

“He is such a good athlete and he’s always there,” Maddon said. “He would be the one guy you could abuse easily if you’re not careful.”

Wood, naturally, said he’s fine: “I’m ready for anything.”