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Cubs’ Jon Lester — on the ropes — determined to unload on foes down the stretch

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 05: Starting pitcher Jon Lester #34 of the Chicago Cubs delivers the ball against the San Diego Padres at Wrigley Field on August 5, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Look, Jon Lester isn’t trying to get all dramatic about it.

It’s just that the Cubs left-hander pictures himself right now as a heavyweight boxer who has gotten himself into a real predicament, backed into a corner and suddenly in a fight for his reputation and livelihood.

OK, so that’s a tad dramatic. But bear with the man, will you?

Analogous to fighting with only his dominant hand, Lester has been pitching with only his go-to pitches — a fastball and a cutter — during times of stress. Opponents have figured this out and tagged Lester with a shiny, swollen 8.65 ERA in his last seven starts. Four of his five starts since the All-Star break have been substandard, and in two of them, he allowed eight earned runs without getting out of the fourth inning.

“I’m not using my repertoire the way I should be,” he said. “I’m not using what I have effectively.”

And the Cubs, injured in key spots and in a one-step-forward, one-step-back rut since the break, aren’t making any headway at the top of the National League Central.

With 17 of their next 24 games on the road — beginning Thursday in Pittsburgh, with Lester (12-5) on the mound — the Cubs will be hard-pressed to fight off the Brewers and the surging Cardinals in the division. That means the time has come for Lester, who has been more than just the nominal ace of the staff this season, to push his 34-year-old body off the ropes and attack with his full arsenal of pitches.

For the first time since last August, the Cubs have lost three consecutive games started by Lester. That has to change, right? Cole Hamels can’t do it by himself, right? It’s one thing for Jose Quintana to struggle and for Yu Darvish to linger in the land of the unknown, but Lester is the veteran all this is built around — right?

“I think it’s going to be all right,” he said. “I think I know how to fix what’s going on.”

It’s back to the whole boxing thing.

“When you struggle with life or you struggle with anything, you immediately run to something that’s comfortable, whatever that may be,” he said. “Well, for me, that’s my fastball and my cutter. I’ve been running to that when I’ve gotten into trouble over a period of starts.

“So I’m backed into a corner now. It’s like I’m a boxer, and the other guy has made adjustments and eliminated my left hand. So now I’m going to adjust back. I’ll pitch to more of the contact, the soft contact, and use my changeup, use my curveball more effectively. And that’s how I’ll fight my way out of this.”

Even in his last start, a nine-run (eight earned) debacle against the Nationals, Lester felt strong physically. This wasn’t an aging pitcher nearing the end of the line. It was, more than anything else, a tactical failing by a five-time All-Star who should’ve known better.

“I had a lot of swings and misses on my curveball, for example, but when [expletive] hit the fan, I didn’t throw any curveballs anymore,” he said. “I kept trying to pound the fastball in there and get the swing-and-misses on the cutter. That was just asking for trouble. I see that now.”

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A lot of people have made the argument that Lester has been on the decline throughout the season — that even when he was winning 12 games before the All-Star break, the most by a lefty in franchise history, he was pitching to dangerously hard contact.

Cue the eye roll. Lester was 5-0 with a 1.13 ERA in June. He must’ve been doing something right. The question is: Does he have another ace-like run in him?

As abysmal as the Cubs’ starting pitching has been at times, it would be an improvement even to have only two members of the rotation fully locked in. It calls to mind the Boston Braves of yore and the time-honored “Spahn, Sain, then pray for rain” trope.

Cole, Q, then pray for flu?

Cole, Les, then pray for pes . . . tilence?

OK, that’s horrible. But Hamels and Lester going strong does seem like the best of all possible places to start. They’re the same age. They throw from the same side. They might as well be mirror images of each other right down to their stat lines.

Hamels and Lester, Lester and Hamels — either way, it could be a heck of a 1-2 punch.

One, two, then pray for Yu?

Now that has a ring to it.