PHILADELPHIA — It might have looked like a playoff preview, maybe even a Game 1 rehearsal.
But an 8-1 victory Sunday against the Phillies likely had more to say about Cy Young chases and MVP races with four weeks left in the regular season and the Cubs entering a three-game showdown against the Brewers..
After fading from the National League Cy Young picture in July, Cubs ace Jon Lester pitched six scoreless innings against an upstart team trying to catch the Braves in the NL East, beating Phillies ace Aaron Nola and forcing his way back into the conversation.
‘‘That was a big one today against a really good pitcher,’’ said Lester, who doesn’t consider himself in the Cy Young race. ‘‘There’s too many good other guys. Everybody’s paid attention to what [the Mets’ Jacob] deGrom and this kid over here [Nola] have been doing. [The Nationals’ Max] Scherzer’s having a great year. I’m still trying to figure out how to get to the seventh inning.’’
Lester (15-5), who has five starts left, lowered his ERA to 3.53 with his fourth consecutive strong start after his monthlong slump.
Despite striking out 10 in the first five innings, Nola (15-4) failed to get out of the sixth, as a two-run Cubs lead quickly mushroomed to four. That’s where the game’s Cy Young look took an MVP turn, as Baez homered during the inning to reach 30 home runs and 100 RBI on the same swing.
‘‘I don’t know that we predicted that before the year began,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘We predicted a good year, but this is above and beyond: being an All-Star, being in the MVP discussion.
‘‘But beyond that, people don’t talk enough about his leadership qualities on the field. You watch him, he’s directing traffic all the time. He’s creating havoc on the bases.’’
He was even a .300 hitter after leading off the eighth with a triple before striking out in the ninth to settle at .299.
‘‘He’s good, but he’s going to get better,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘As he continues to learn the strike zone, there’s no telling offensively what he’s capable of doing. But he’s playing at the highest level of the game.’’
Baez’s MVP candidacy began with an All-Star first half that kept the Cubs’ lineup at sea level while Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo
alternately spent lengthy stretches hurt or slumping.
His ability to play shortstop at an elite level when Addison Russell went on the disabled list only strengthens his case, leaving the final four weeks to determine where he fits in a field that includes the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, the Braves’ Freddie Freeman, the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado and the Diamondbacks’ Paul Goldschmidt.
By the time he batted in the ninth, what few Cubs fans remained at Citizens Bank Park started an ‘‘MVP’’ chant.
‘‘I’m thankful for everything I’ve done this year; I’m just happy for all the RBIs,’’ said Baez, who took postgame MVP talk in stride.
‘‘This is when I’ve got to slow everything down and let the ball get deep in the zone, let the game come to me. Obviously, I’ve done a lot this season, so I don’t have any pressure to [try to do more]. Just keep doing what I’m doing and keep making my adjustments.’’
The Cubs also continued their most impressive trend of the season by improving to 9-0 against the top six NL starting pitchers they’ve faced this season.
That includes five games against the top three Cy Young contenders — deGrom (twice), Scherzer and Nola (twice) — and four against three more potential Game 1 playoff starters (the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, the Rockies’ Kyle Freeland and the Braves’ Mike Foltynewicz twice).
That group has produced a combined 2.70 ERA against the Cubs with six no-decisions.
‘‘I feel our guys have always done well against the league’s best,’’ Lester said. ‘‘Especially a guy like Javy. You put the league’s best up against him, and he seems to go into another gear.’’