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Cubs’ Jon Lester embraces critics — then answers them in 8-5 win over Cards

Lester (2-0) didn't allow an earned run in six innings Thursday.

If you’re concerned about the way the Cubs have played so far in this on-again, off-again season, don’t let any smart-guy “insiders” tell you you’re having a kneejerk reaction to small, early sample sizes.

In fact, Jon Lester has your back on that one.

“Everybody has the right to react,” the Cubs’ lefty ace said after pitching six impressive innings to beat the Cardinals 8-5 on Thursday at Wrigley Field. “We haven’t pitched very well. I’m not going to speak for the hitters; I don’t like to cross that line. But we’ve had some really good offensive games, and our pitching staff as a whole hasn’t stepped up.”

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Until Lester’s two-hit, seven-strikeout performance, in which he didn’t allow an earned run, the starting rotation’s collective ERA three turns into the season was 5.31.

Until the Cubs strung together nine hits — seven of them singles — for six runs in the first two innings Thursday, the hitting had been feast (big hits) or famine (strikeouts) for much of the early going, including three shutout losses and a 17-inning game that produced one Cubs run.

Seven of those nine hits in the first two innings were driven up the middle or shot to the opposite field, with four more of those among the five other hits the Cubs had the rest of the game.

“Keep your launch angles. Keep your exit velocities,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Give me a good at-bat. Those were good at-bats.”

Of course, that approach has been the age-old wisdom that hitters have used for decades with the wind blowing in at Wrigley Field — even if the approach looked conspicuously new to this group.

As the Cubs head to usually hitter-friendly Coors Field for the next three games, it’s a coin toss whether any of that hitting style will persist into the road trip.

But for one day at least, the sun finally, literally shined on the Cubs at Wrigley, and they took advantage. Even slow-starting Anthony Rizzo, who spent almost two weeks sidelined by a sore back, delivered three hits (and a walk), nearly doubling the .097 season average he took into the game.

“He’s getting close to hitting his weight now,” Maddon cracked.

Said Rizzo: “At least I’m hitting over my fiancée’s weight. It’s like a baby when their neck gets strong enough [that] they can start to roll over. I’m not even talking about crawling . . . I’ll be rolling over soon.”

Speaking of rolling, look for hot-hitting Javy Baez to return to the No.  2 spot, where Maddon put him “to add energy to the top of the order.” Baez committed two errors on a throw and a muffed pop-up and threw away another ball that wasn’t officially an error. But he also tripled the other way in the first, singled the other way in the second and finished off a 10-for-29 (.345) homestand that included five homers among eight extra-base hits.

“I tried not to get excited because I was hitting two, but that’s one of my goals, to end up there [near] the top of the lineup,” he said. “I’ve been hitting good. I actually haven’t been playing good defense. I’m just going back to work on my defense, and keep doing the same thing at the plate.”

Meanwhile, you can get concerned and scrutinize the early part of the season, said Lester, who expects things to improve with a more regular schedule once the weather stabilizes.

“As media, as a fan base that expects a lot out of guys, no, I don’t think that’s a kneejerk reaction,” he said. “Can we play better baseball? Yes. Can we pitch better? Yes. Can we play defense better? Yes.

“But that’s just a lack of playing, a lack of routine, a lot of consistency in this early go. That’s not an excuse. But I think once guys get back to their routines, everything will iron itself out.”