Cubs win fifth straight as John Lackey is victorious in return from DL
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ATLANTA — Cubs left-hander Jon Lester showed up to the ballpark Tuesday with some serious bling he brought from his home near Atlanta.
He wore all three of his World Series rings — two from the Red Sox and one from the Cubs — and put them in the faces of as many teammates as he happened to pass on the way to the clubhouse.
When it was suggested he could use two more to fill all the digits on the hand, he said, ‘‘I need a lot more.’’
If anyone should have felt good about himself, it was Lester. He pitched seven strong innings Monday to help the Cubs beat the Braves.
And by the time his pal John Lackey was done pitching in his first day back from the disabled list in a 5-1 victory Tuesday against the Braves, Lester might have had one more reason to like his chances to add to his shiny collection.
After sitting out a 2-hour, 30-minute rain delay at SunTrust Park, Lackey kept the Cubs’ starting-pitching train rumbling toward the first-place Brewers in the National League Central.
Lackey, who went on the DL just before the All-Star break because of plantar fasciitis in his right foot, would have gone deeper into the game if his spot in the order didn’t come up with the bases loaded and nobody out in the sixth.
But his 86-pitch, five-inning performance in his return was good enough to suggest the break — and the addition of left-hander Jose Quintana — has helped firm up the backbone of the Cubs’ 2016 title run.
The Cubs’ rotation led the major leagues with a 2.96 ERA last season but stumbled to a 4.66 ERA before the break this season. In the last four games, though, Jake Arrieta, Quintana, Lester and Lackey have gone 4-0 with a combined 1.05 ERA in 25‰ innings.
And all of a sudden, the Cubs have won all five of their games out of the break and cut the Brewers’ division lead to 2½ games.
And right-hander Kyle Hendricks, who led the majors in ERA last season, is close to returning from a finger injury after pitching five perfect innings in his last minor-league rehab start Monday.
‘‘Our rotation’s fine,’’ Lester said. ‘‘It’s just a matter of going out and executing pitches. That’s what it comes down to. That’s what it came down to last year. Hopefully we use that break to kind of come back and rest up and be ready to go for the second half and this push.’’
A strong finish by Lackey would go a long way toward that end.
Lackey struggled to a 5-9 record and a 5.20 ERA while pitching through nagging aches and pains through the first half.
Asked whether the Cubs would consider moving Lackey to the bullpen, manager Joe Maddon said last weekend the Cubs are ‘‘not there yet’’ and added he envisioned a ‘‘better version [of Lackey] than you saw in the first half.’’
Lackey pitched out of a jam in the first and gave up his NL-leading 25th home run in the second. But he also retired 12 of the last 15 batters he faced in his first start since July 5.
A better version in the second half?
‘‘I’m not into predicting the future,’’ Lackey said before the game. ‘‘I’m going to try hard.’’
The Cubs gave him the lead quickly in a four-run third started by a homer by Javy Baez and highlighted by a three-run shot by Willson Contreras.
‘‘The break was nice, for sure,’’ Lackey said. ‘‘A lot of guys needed that to get away and reset. We’ll see what happens.’’
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