SEATTLE — The difference between the Cubs on May 1 and April 1 was summed up in what happened after an eerily similar start.
On the first defensive play of the game in both cases, the Cubs made an error. But this time, Jon Lester retired the next three batters and left the runner at second.
The Cubs responded with a six-run second that Javy Baez opened with a homer against the Mariners’ best pitcher on the way to an 11-0 victory and two-game sweep.
And just like that, a six-error loss a month ago in Atlanta and the six-game losing streak it helped sustain is a long-faded memory as the Cubs ride a 13-4 surge into Friday’s early-season showdown against the first-place Cardinals.
“We just kind of got past that,” said Lester (2-1), who pitched seven scoreless innings against his hometown Mariners in his second start back from a hamstring injury.
“The big thing that people don’t realize is that we got home; since we got home we’ve been playing good baseball,” said Lester, whose only hit allowed Wednesday was a bloop single in the second inning. “Nobody’s making excuses about it, but you start out the season on a [three-city] road trip like we did and it an be tough.”
Since losing those three road series at the start of the season at Texas, Atlanta and Milwaukee, the Cubs haven’t lost a series. They’ve won four consecutive games and five straight series as they take Thursday off ahead of a 10-game homestand.
“It just kind of got our confidence back and got us going,” Lester said of their long delayed start to the home season. “We’ve been playing good baseball since, and hopefully we’ll be able to do that going forward.”
The way they’re handling the road these days — winning seven of eight away from Wrigley Field — it might not matter.
While the Cubs’ lineup has been productive from the start, the pitching has been the key during the turnaround.
Even with Lester on the shelf for much of the roll the Cubs are on, the pitching staff has a collective 2.35 ERA and has won 14 of 19 games since he took the mound for the April 8 home opener.
The Cubs have the best team ERA in the majors in that span by nearly a full point.
“The pitching’s really the biggest difference,” manager Joe Maddon said. And it’s sustainable. It’s absolutely sustainable.”
Lester’s ERA dropped to 1.73 with the eight-strikeout performance in which he retired the final 12 batters he faced after his only walk.
“That’s his career. That’s him,” teammate Jason Heyward said of the $155 million left-hander who shows no signs of slowing down into the fifth year of his six-year Cubs contract.
“One day he will,” said Heyward, who had a run-scoring single in the Cubs’ big second inning. “He’s doing everyone here a great service, man, just how he goes about it. How he plays the game, competes. … Just knowing you got that mindset on the mound — regular season obviously is great, but when you see him in the postseason, he’s the same guy and turns it up a notch.”
Lester, who grew up in nearby Puyallup, Washington, hasn’t allowed a run to the Mariners in his last 20 innings, dating to 2014 when he pitched for the Athletics.
“The one thing about Jon that’s really standing out to me is absolute composure and competitive nature,” Maddon said. “That’s the two things that I’m seeing. Like when we made the error, what does he do? He gets the guys out of the jam. He’s really slowing the game down, and he competes on another level.
“I think his self-confidence is at an all-time high right now.”