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After rocky stretch, Jon Lester punches back as Cubs KO Pirates 1-0

Jon Lester will hold the Cubs' season in his hands in the NL Wild Card game.

PITTSBURGH – After more than a month of getting knocked around, Cubs left-hander Jon Lester said Wednesday he felt “backed into a corner … like I’m a boxer.”

Then Thursday at PNC Park, he punched his way off the ropes in a 1-0 victory against the Pirates.

The fight, however, is not over.

‘‘The judges probably viewed it as I won the first round,’’ Lester (13-5) said. ‘‘And we’ll move on to Round 2 when the bell rings.’’

If Lester’s six-inning, eight-strikeout performance was the result of some soul-searching between his previous start and this one, then could this just be the start of something? Could he be back to the first-half form that earned him a fifth All-Star selection?

If so, what might it mean for the Cubs’ tomato-can rotation if newcomer Cole Hamels backs it up with another strong performance Friday and they’re able to keep up any semblance of that one-two punch of lefties?

‘‘Don’t forget what Kyle [Hendricks] did, either,’’ manager Joe Maddon said of Hendricks’ victory Wednesday against the Brewers. ‘‘So you’ve got those three guys back-to-back-to-back. And beyond that, the other guys are highly capable, too.


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‘‘When you get three throwing at the top of their game, that can make a very large difference.’’

Especially for a team in a tight division race with a rotation that had produced a 5.41 ERA since the All-Star break entering play Thursday.

‘‘We’ve struggled at times, but we’re still in first place with the best record in the National League, so I think we’re doing all right,’’ Lester said. ‘‘Do the numbers all add up to what we are normally expected to do? No. But we must be doing something right. All we can worry about is the night we take the ball.

‘‘We’re not worried about a streak or a roll or anything like that. Tonight was good. This has been a tough opponent for us this year. And hopefully Cole can come out [Friday] and throw the ball the way he’s been throwing the ball, and then we can move on to the next guy.’’

If the Cubs win behind Hamels (2-0 with two runs allowed in three starts with the team), it’ll give them their first three-game winning streak in a month.

For now, Lester’s first scoreless outing since he had three in June was a significant one-night success story for a pitcher who had an 8.65 ERA in his previous seven starts.

‘‘He had this way about him today,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘He was not going to be denied. He was locked in. He’d had enough, and he went back to pitching the way Jon’s capable of pitching.

<em>It was Eye of the Tiger for Lester Thursday</em>
It was Eye of the Tiger for Lester Thursday

‘‘I thought he was highly focused. You’re seeing a world-class athlete, highly focused, not happy with what he’d been doing, and you saw the residue of that.’’

Perhaps it was also the residue of a first-time chat with his manager about pitching after his last start. In their fourth season together, Lester sought out Maddon for his thoughts about the cause of his struggles

despite feeling good physically and thinking his stuff was good enough.

‘‘I’ve been able to talk to a manager about pitching,’’ said Lester, who called the clubhouse climate unique for that comfort. ‘‘We have a very solid group of guys that care a lot about pitching [on the staff]. I think it’s good sometimes to hear a different view. He kind of had the same mindset I did, so we did some brainstorming there.’’

Maddon said he didn’t want to call their ideas getting back to ‘‘primal pitching,’’ but getting Lester back to being Lester and getting away from the pure scouting approach to the game.

Whatever it was, it worked. At least for Round 1. At least enough to get Lester off the ropes and give the rotation another strong left-handed punch.

‘‘Definitely a step in the right direction,’’ Lester said.