CHICAGO – In his 3½ years in Chicago, Jon Lester consistently has warned that it takes him about 100 innings in any season to see where he is as a pitcher.
Lester isn’t quite at 100 yet. He’s at 77 innings, but it’s fair to say he’s looking pretty good.
The 34-year-old Cubs ace looked vintage Saturday, as he pitched seven innings of one-hit ball in a 2-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field.
The Cubs have won four in a row, and they’re a season-high 13 games over .500 at 37-24. Lester is 7-2 with a sparkling 2.22 ERA.
The victory also was Lester’s 50th as a Cub since 2015. He is 50-27 with a 3.21 ERA as a Cub.
“I think the biggest thing is I just feel good,” the lefty said. “Compared to last year with where I was at body-wise, mechanically, kind of everything never really synced up. I don’t know what that was, maybe just the long, long two years here with the playoffs and the World Series, stuff like that. Maybe I didn’t get a chance to recover. I don’t know.
“This year, I feel better. My body feels better. I’m recovering. I’m taking my bullpens into starts. It’s good right now. It’s not like we’ve reinvented any wheel or tried anything new. I feel like I’m, for the most part, executing pitches, and when they hit the ball hard, it’s right at somebody. Little bit of luck right now.”
As a team, the Cubs are not hitting on all cylinders, even though they have won 10 of their past 12 games. The hitting has been inconsistent, and the starting pitchers haven’t been going deep with regularity.
But the Cubs played good defense again Saturday, and that had Lester invoking a special year.
“I think we’re back to ’16,” he said, referring to the world championship year. “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, 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 us awhile for that.
“I think this year everybody kind of came in, kind of a different mentality. Everybody always says, ‘This is the hardest I’ve worked this offseason, this is the best shape I’ve ever been in my life’ or whatever nonsense they want to say. I feel like guys made an effort to work on their weaknesses.”
Lester speaks with authority. His signing in December 2014 was a pivotal point in Cubs history, and he may be the top leader on this team.
Against the Pirates, he walked two in the second inning before finishing the inning with two strikeouts. He gave up a two-out triple to Austin Meadows in the third but retired the next 13 in a row.
At 104 pitches, he still felt he had a little bit left.
“I just told somebody that one of these days I’m going to leave it on [manager Joe Maddon], and I’m just going to run out to the mound for that extra inning and let him decide who’s going to pitch if there’s another pitcher standing out there,” he joked. “I felt like today I could have gone another [inning]. Just try to save the bullpen. That’s our job.”
The Cubs got both runs in the first inning. Kris Bryant, leading off for the second straight day, was hit by a pitch. Jason Heyward reached second on a double as Pirates center fielder Starling Marte slipped and fell trying to catch his flyball. Bryant went to third, and he came home on Ben Zobrist’s groundout. Anthony Rizzo’s sacrifice fly scored Heyward.
Justin Wilson pitched the eighth, and Maddon went to Steve Cishek for the ninth as he wanted to give closer Brandon Morrow two days off.
The game ended when Javy Baez, who came into the game in the ninth at second base, ran to the wall on the first-base side to snag Marte’s foul pop-up.
“I’m really good [at] seeing where I’m at on the field,” he said. “I took a few peeks at the wall. The ball was running that way, but I still had a little room, and I just didn’t want to go into the stands again.”
The Cubs remain one-half game behind the Brewers in the National League Central.
“I don’t know,” Heyward said. “Every year is definitely different. There’s new challenges. Teams are different. You’ve got to approach other teams differently. There are a lot of good teams to play against this year in every division. I feel like the biggest thing about this year is we’re doing a good job of turning the page, not getting too high or too low.”