Jon Lester, Cubs starting to feel vibes of 2016 after victory over Pirates
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The Prince song ‘‘1999’’ blasted through the speakers in the Cubs’ locker room after another narrow victory Saturday.
But left-hander Jon Lester’s mind focused on a different year, one that led to an even bigger party on the North Side.
‘‘I think we’re back to ’16, you know?’’ Lester said after allowing one hit in seven scoreless innings in a 2-0 victory against the Pirates. ‘‘I think it took everybody a little bit last year to recover and get back to normal.
‘‘When you come off that high of Game 7 [of the World Series], you’re looking for that high, you’re trying to get up for every game, and it’s just not there. I think it took awhile for that. This year, I feel like everybody just came in with a different mentality.’’
Recent results have supported Lester’s claim. At 37-24, the Cubs are a season-high 13 games above .500. They secured their fifth consecutive series victory and will go for a three-game sweep in the series finale Sunday. The Cubs have won eight of their last nine and 11 of their last 13.
‘‘We’ve been making great plays these past few days,’’ second baseman Javy Baez said. ‘‘We’ve been playing good baseball. Hopefully, we just keep it going. As long as we play good defense for our pitchers, like we’ve been doing, I think that’s what wins games. Hits are going to come.’’
Baez did his part on defense, sprinting past the right-field line and into foul territory to make a dazzling catch to end the game. The play capped a stellar day of defense that featured full-sprint catches by outfielders Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Jason Heyward, as well as snares in the infield by Kris Bryant and Addison Russell.
The Cubs posted their ninth shutout of the season, more than they had all of last season (eight).
‘‘Our defense today was spectacular,’’ manager Joe Maddon said. ‘‘It’s been spectacular more recently. The outfield play, probably if you compare it to the last couple of years, is really jacked up in a good way.’’
So is Lester. He endured an up-and-down 2017 season in which he finished 13-8 with a 4.33 ERA, nearly two runs higher than his 2.44 ERA in 2016. Some critics wondered whether innings and age had started to catch up to him.
Now, however, the 34-year-old looks like an ace again. His one-hit outing against the Pirates extended his streak of scoreless innings to 16, and he improved to 7-2 with a 2.22 ERA on the season. He is 5-1 with a 1.63 ERA in his last eight starts.
‘‘I think the biggest thing is I just feel good,’’ Lester said. ‘‘Compared to last year with where I was at, body-wise, mechanically, everything never really synced up.
‘‘I don’t know what that was. Maybe just the long two years or whatever here with the playoffs and World Series and stuff like that. Maybe I didn’t get a chance to recover, I don’t know. But this year I feel better. My body feels better. I’m recovering. I’m taking my bullpens into starts. It’s good right now.’’
Lester thought he could have pitched another inning, but Maddon turned to left-hander Justin Wilson for the eighth and right-hander Steve Cishek (second save) for the ninth. Closer Brandon Morrow is healthy, but he is getting an extra couple of days off.
Maddon said he might rest other bullpen arms in the future, a plan helped by Lester’s consistency.
‘‘It’s been very impressive, and it’s been very necessary,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘A starter going six-plus or seven permits less usage at the end, which permits a team to stay hot.’’