HOUSTON – Anybody who wants to see how the Cubs plan to script Game 1 of the playoffs should rewind Friday’s opener of a three-game series against the contending Astros and review the Cubs’ 2-0 victory at Minute Maid Park.
In particular, watch Jon Lester, the stoic left-hander with the 94-mph stamina, the breaking ball for strikes and the postseason pedigree that is the reason the Cubs committed a nine-figure contract to put him on this roster.
“I’ve seen him like this in Boston several years ago, but right now as a Cub this is the best I’ve seen his stuff consistently,” manager Joe Maddon said after Lester pitched a dominant seven innings without a walk, before handing off to Hector Rondon and Aroldis Chapman for a 100-mph-average finish.
“Just consistently making pitches, not losing anything. His command was outstanding,” said Maddon, who won’t talk about Game 1 plans until the playoff berth is at least secured.
What’s hard to deny is that Lester (16-4, 2.51 ERA) looks like the clear frontrunner for a Game 1 start exactly four weeks from Friday at Wrigley Field, after his eighth consecutive start with two or fewer runs allowed – fifth straight with one or fewer.
“He hardly makes a mistake on the mound,” said Kris Bryant, whose 37th homer of the season – a two-run shot in the fifth – produced the game’s only runs. “If he gets himself in a jam, he gets out of it. That’s just what he does for us. We have total confidence in him in any game.”
What’s undeniable is that this is why he’s in a Cubs uniform at all: That $155 million, eight-year contract meant to buy moments like Friday’s seven-strikeout performance – with visions of nights like this in October at Wrigley.
“Yeah, and he doesn’t cower from it, either,” Maddon said. “He absolutely loves it. That’s why you sign a guy like this, for these particular moments. When you watch him play in this moment, you can see he absolutely relishes it. He wants to be out there.”
Lester, who along the way might be putting himself at the front of the National League Cy Young race, downplayed his run into the final stretch.
He’s 6-0 with a 1.17 ERA over his last eight starts, with 53 strikeouts over 53 2/3 innings.
On Friday, he faced only two over the minimum through six innings, thanks to a double play in the fifth and a pair of throws from catcher David Ross, on a stolen base attempt in the third and an attempt by Alex Bregman to take third on a pitch that squirted away from Ross in the fourth.
Lester’s only real jam came in the seventh when, as he crossed the weighty 100-pitch mark, had runners at second and third, with two out and a full count on Colby Rasmus. He got a called strike three on pitch No. 103.
Lester pumped after striking out Rasmus.
He was going strong enough at that point, Maddon said, that even had he walked Rasmus, Lester would have been left in to face another batter.
“I just try to pitch and pitch well,” he said. “The staff has done some unbelievable things this year. I try not to be the weak link.”
The Cubs’ magic number for clinching the division over the Cardinals dropped for the third consecutive day, to eight, with 22 games to play – putting in play a potential clinching party for the Cubs in St. Louis in their upcoming series.
And if games like this are just previews, and tuneups, for October?
“Really, the last month has kind of been that way,” Lester said. “We know teams that aren’t really in it are still coming after us. We have a target on our back.
Note: The Cubs have announced that ESPN has picked up the final Sunday home game of the regular season, against the Cardinals, with a new game time of 7:08 p.m. The game could have implications for the Cards’ wild-card chances.