You don’t need Jon Lester to tell you how much is still at stake this month for the Cubs.
You just had to watch him pitch Tuesday night against the last-place Reds five nights after the Cubs clinched the division.
If nothing else, you just had to watch him shake off that line shot from Joey Votto that got him flush on his right wrist, to then retire six of the final seven he faced in Tuesday’s 6-1 victory over the Reds.
“It’s my right hand. I don’t need it,” the Cubs’ big-money left-hander deadpanned after earning his ninth consecutive victory. “All it’s there for is to hold the glove. It’ll be fine. It’s a long way from my heart.”
Lester (18-4) took over the National League lead in victories, lowered his second-in-MLB ERA to 2.36 and might have settled into the driver’s seat of the league’s Cy Young race on a night he pitched seven impressive innings without a walk despite admittedly not having his best command.
“This is the guy you were going to get when you signed him to the deal he signed,” catcher David Ross said of the six-year, $155-million contract Lester signed before last season. “This is the guy I know and expect to pitch like this.”
But more than that, one night after Joe Maddon talked about “micro-focusing” now that the clinch parties are over, the Cubs scored six two-out runs against the Reds.
More than a Cy Young pursuit, Lester served notice that he’s not slowing down on the way to a presumptive Game 1 playoff start Oct. 7.
And this: With their victory and the Nationals’ 1-0 loss to the Marlins on Tuesday, the Cubs’ magic number for clinching home-field advantage until the World Series was reduced to three with 11 games to play – same number of victories it would take for the Cubs to reach 100 wins for the first time in 81 years.
“We’re starting to get back locked in,” said Ross, who scored the first run of the game on an age-defying romp from first when Lester doubled in the second.
“You could really see the at-bats turn on the second half yesterday and then tonight was really nice to see,” he said. “There’s a big picture here and we’re trying to take all the right steps to get there.”
If anybody has looked mentally locked in since July it’s Lester.
Tuesday’s start was his seventh consecutive in which he allowed one or zero runs. When he gave up a two-out run on a single and triple in the fifth Tuesday, it snapped a 21-inning scoreless streak dating to Sept. 2.
Maybe that’s why the sound of 40,000 gasps in harmony could be heard as soon as Votto drilled Lester on the inside of his wrist, just above the protection of his glove.
After a visit from the trainer and manager, he shook it off, stayed in the game, and struck out the next batter, Adam Duvall. “He wanted none of it,” manager Joe Maddon said of the visit to check on him. “He was not even fazed.”
Lester ended his start retiring the final five batters he faced to improve to 9-0 with a 1.46 ERA since the All-Star break.
Since July 29, he’s 8-0 with a 1.05 ERA that leads the majors in that span.
And if that all leads to his first career Cy Young, or a Game 1 start?
“It’ll definitely be a huge honor,” he said, dismissing both as secondary issues.
He even went as far as to say he’d cast his Cy Young vote if he had one for teammate Kyle Hendricks, the MLB ERA leader.
“Just because I see how he prepares and how he executes. That’s who I would vote for right now, tomorrow, the next day.
“But at the end of the day if you ask anybody in that clubhouse, the MVPs, the Cy Youngs, the Rookies of the Year, the manager of the year – they’re all great and fine and dandy. But at the end of the day we want to win a World Series, and I think guys are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel right now. “