Every start from here on out is an opportunity for left-hander Jon Lester.
Unlike the Cubs’ postseason runs from 2015 to 2018 when Lester was the workhorse of the rotation, those duties now fall on the shoulders of Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks.
With the news of left-hander Jose Quintana rejoining the rotation Tuesday and right-hander Alec Mills having a strong September, Lester will have to earn his way into the team’s postseason rotation.
Lester didn’t waste his opportunity Monday as he quieted the Pirates in the Cubs’ 5-0 victory in Pittsburgh.
“Going into October, I want to be a reliable guy to where they don’t have to be on red alert down there [in the bullpen] just because of the way I’m throwing,” Lester said.
Lester’s at his best when he can throw his cutter for strikes, change eye levels and get opposing hitters to hit the ball on the ground. And against a woeful Pirates lineup, he was able to do just that.
He had command of all his pitches and relied on his cutter and sinker as nine of the 18 outs he got came on the ground.
Lester worked quickly and efficiently, averaging 15 pitches per inning in his 90-pitch outing.
He struck out one and walked one.
“The last three have been better,” Lester said. “The contact was better tonight as compared to the last start, so I like that. A lot of ground balls. Hopefully, I just continue to build off that. I think one more [start] and then hopefully right into the postseason being on a high note and feeling good and go from there.”
“Jon knew we needed a ‘W’ today,” manager David Ross said. “It felt that way to me. He was out there really competing, working his tail off, making pitches when he had to. That’s what he does. I know when he feels 100%. It looks really sharp. Tonight was a nice sign for him to go six.”
The Cubs got the lead early as Kyle Schwarber led off the second inning with a double, but after two quick outs, it looked as if the team’s offensive struggles would continue.
But Javy Baez had another idea in mind. He didn’t take a big swing to try to put the Cubs on the board. Instead, Baez dropped a perfect bunt single down the third-base line to score Schwarber from third, giving the Cubs a 1-0 lead.
Two-out RBI doubles by Victor Caratini and Schwarber (2-for-4, two doubles) in the fifth and eighth increased the Cubs’ lead and gave Lester some breathing room.
“Today was a new day,” said Schwarber, who was benched Sunday after a defensive misplay.
Lester has been critical of himself recently for his inability to get out of jams. And while there was little traffic against him, he was able to get Erik Gonzalez to bounce into an easy 6-4-3 double play, ending his start on a high note.
Lester allowed only four hits en route to his third victory of the season. It was only the second time he pitched six innings in September and his first since tossing six scoreless innings against the Brewers on Sept. 11.