This is why the Cubs gave Jon Lester a six-year, $155 million contract.
Thanks in part to shadows brought on by a 3:05 p.m. start, the Cubs’ sputtering offense was quiet again. The back end of the bullpen is filled with question marks, forcing manager Joe Maddon to improvise at the end of games. And amid all of that, the Cubs are slogging through a long stretch without a break, while the Brewers look energized and capable of stealing the National League Central title.
Then Lester did what the Cubs needed — and more — Saturday. Making his first start since leaving after 5 2/3 innings with tightness in his lower back Monday, Lester allowed two hits and struck out nine in seven scoreless innings in the Cubs’ 1-0 victory against the Reds.
Days such as Saturday are why Lester, whose back showed no sign of bothering him, was signed after the 2014 season. He showed again why he’s worthy of the money and responsibility the Cubs gave him to signal it was time to start winning.
‘‘Just the competitor in him, the experience,’’ shortstop Addison Russell said. ‘‘He knows his body, and he knows what he can give for the team. He never wants to get out of a game. He doesn’t want to get pulled in the middle of an inning. That’s kind of the sense I’ve gotten in four years of playing with him. Just a bulldog. He goes out there and fights and competes.’’
Lester has a 1.73 ERA in his last six starts and has been part of a rotation that has recovered from a rough beginning of the season to emerge as a strength down the stretch.
Cubs starters have a 2.58 ERA since Aug. 16, picking up the slack as other elements of the team have leveled off. Newly acquired Cole Hamels has been a key, as has Jose Quintana, who is 3-0 with a 1.84 ERA in his last five starts going into his outing Sunday.
‘‘The starters right now are really important to us,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘At the beginning of the year, the bullpen picked them up. Right now, it’s their turn to pick up the bullpen. The more innings they can pile up, that makes it somewhat easier to piece the latter part of the game together.’’
With Lester, Hamels and the others pitching the way they are, Maddon finally is getting what he wants from the rotation after spending much of the season handling different types of drama from Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood. Hamels threw 109 pitches Friday and Lester 108 on Saturday.
That’s a far cry from watching Chatwood’s walks and waiting for medical updates on Darvish.
‘‘Jonny typically gets better when he smells it,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘He made some really big pitches when he had to. Last night was 109 [pitches] out of Cole. Jon wanted to match him right there, and he did. Tremendous effort on his part.’’
Lester said his back was doing fine, thanks to ‘‘good drugs and good docs,’’ and kept the rotation on its upward trajectory.
‘‘It’s the time of the year to get that going,’’ Lester said. ‘‘Just don’t want to talk about it too much. Just keep doing what we’re doing.’’